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A post-ideological politics?

12/05/2010
   Politics is about conflict,
   not compromise

So, the votes for change were heeded, we now have a ‘new politics’, and we’ve had a new language to match. Cameron said today that differences between the parties have been ‘confronted and resolved’, not hidden. Clegg added that they had a ‘common purpose’, they both agreed that the coalition would act in the ‘national interest’. There’s even talk of changing the adversarial nature of debates in the House of Commons. Everyone is ‘putting party politics aside’; consensus is the word of the day.

It does seems that the election has heralded a more moderate government than a Conservative majority would have done – the income tax threshold will be raised instead of cutting inheritance tax and the £6bn of cuts will go ahead, but some of the money will go into job creation. The modern conservatism that Cameron was trying to get may have been forced upon the party by this coalition – the big steps proposed on civil liberties today, if they come about, point to a less authoritarian government than New Labour. The Tories may finally adopt political liberalism to match the economic liberalism that has dominated their party for the last few decades. A move to the centre, no doubt, but does this mean the new government can really represent all the people – the national interest, the general will?

Go back a bit and in fact the old tribalism between Left and Right seemed to re-appear for a while in response to the debt crisis – with Labour opposing Conservative cuts and even for a while proposing greater investment in public services. Though electoral campaigns inevitably bring about conflict between parties, the rhetoric made way for manifesto pledges that actually varied by very little. They were all broadly agreed on many things, including the localism that was a feature of the campaign. This graph, from the IFS, shows that even on tax and spend, the three main parties’ plans were very close.

Indeed, over the past twenty years, the range of political debate in this country has narrowed a good deal, with conflicts more likely to be about who could be trusted with power or which individuals would be best at managing the economy. Even worse, it is sometimes reduced to personality and appearance. New Labour called themselves a party of the ‘radical centre’. They thought it was possible to put forward a positive agenda for change that included everyone. Sociologists such as Anthony Giddens have argued that politics is now about rational consensus, that we vote as individuals and that the age of ideology is over. But have voters really abandoned their political identities to simply vote in their rational self-interest, or are passion and conflict still part of politics? Many Lib Dem voters thought they were voting for a centre-left alternative to Labour, often to try to keep the Conservatives out of government. Can political disagreements between parties really be overcome by a good personal relationship, a few jokes and a promise to provide stable government?

It seems to me that there are two potential long-term outcomes of this Liberal Conservative government. Firstly, it could become a new ‘radical centre’ based on the ‘progressive partnership’ that Cameron spoke about today, protecting its own electoral destiny and denying the legitimacy of alternative positions. This could lead to the disappearance of the Labour party as a major electoral force. It would mean that those who feel excluded by this supposedly inclusive government, who don’t feel that politics can be reduced to management, may refuse to vote. Apathy will rise, participation will slump, and worse, many may turn to more extreme politics.

The second possibility is that this government simply becomes one of traditional conservativism – either the liberals becoming subsumed into the larger party or the coalition breaking up under pressure from party members, leaving a Conservative minority government, representing its core voters. Despite the optimism and harmony that many feel today, and the positive changes that this government is promising, it may be better in the long term if disagreements are revealed. Political participation and inclusion is best encouraged by appealing to the passions of the people and bringing their partisan positions into the official debates, to be battled out in the open. Politics must be about conflict, it will only turn people off if we try to reduce it to consensus.

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