Debate is raging - but the parties just seem to be drying up

People want ideas, they want to be heard, challenged and confirmed. But our political parties have little to offer them.

Last Sunday, I got up early and trooped off to do a panel on "free will" at the Battle of Ideas, the big annual shin dig of the Institute of Ideas (IoI). Yes, no one made me.  But instead of lying in like a normal person, I did it because I was interested in the issue and doing panels makes me think about what I’m going to say – even if that’s not always obvious when I say things. I was also nosey about the event, its scale and the people it attracted. And I wanted to know what had happened to the slightly strange bunch who had migrated  - or not - from the Trotskyite Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP ) of my student youth – to the IoI.

I laughed when I entered the cinema auditorium at the Barbican. The last time I'd been in the room with my wife to watch a film, she took her coat off to hang it on the seat in front, not realising a man was sitting there. He was like a budgie in a cage at bedtime. It suddenly went even darker. My wife didn’t realise her error and I giggled in nervous horror as the rather befuddled man just sat there for some time. Surely the room couldn’t be as much fun again. Sadly it wasn’t quite.

The panel had a philosopher, a psychologist/scientist, a sociologist and me. There was never going to be agreement on whether we had free will from such a wide-ranging panel. And there wasn’t. I never was much good at philosophy, too abstract and too clever for me, and how the brain works just feels too remote – it just works - and I should have been interested in the sociologist but she was from Canterbury University, the hot bed of the IoI/RCP, and so we got a freedom from regulation line they always trot (stop it) out.  It’s like the thinking person's Jeremy Clarkson. Get rid of all these silly, nannying regulations and let people be grown ups. Somehow that’s supposed to kick-off a revolution!

I decided to pick on the audience and tell them they were a bunch of turbo-consuming drones. That always goes down well with highly intellectual, confident and articulate groups who also bother to get up on a Sunday morning and certainly don’t want to pay to be offended.  It always amazes me that people who make meticulous selections about exactly what they wear – a very certain shirt and a very certain pair of glasses – then claim they are not shopping donkeys following a very particular organic carrot dangled before their nose – refuse to accept the consumerisation of society and their lives. Anyway, enough of my sub-Bauman, its all just like The Matrix, rants and back to the IoI/RCP and what it says about the political mood.

They claimed that as many as 2,000 people trooped through the Barbican over the weekend of the event. There were a huge array of panels, battles and sponsors. Surely they couldn’t all be part of the Trotskyite conspiracy (of which you can read more in the LRB)? They certainly could not. But the fact that a small and impressively well organised group could mount such a sustained intellectual endeavour – even for highly dubious and nefarious ends – holds an intriguing mirror up to the rest of us. And maybe one more useful than found in a budgie cage that only lets us talk to ourselves.

People want ideas, they want to be heard, challenged and confirmed.  They want to speak out. From ideas festivals and book festivals across the country – debate is raging. My next outing is to Frome for an Independence Day event about the threatened domination of a proud and diverse town centre by a supermarket behemoth (the rant will start again). So I go back, as I seem to again and again, to the disconnect between all this energy (even when it's obviously daft) and vitality and the political parties that just seem to be drying up (an honourable exception would seem to be Tim Montgomerie over at Conservative Home, who bursts with ideas, resources and right-wing optimism). I don’t know what the 200 or so in the room left thinking, but it certainly wasn’t that any mainstream, that is non-Trosykyite, party had any interest in debates about free will or much intellectual debate at all really.

The "cant live with them, cant live without them" ambivalence towards party politics will rumble awkwardly, infuriatingly and creatively on. How can parties lead and listen, link the desirable to the feasible, be in power and not just office? And how can groups outside become more political by joining the dots between our desire for equality and our need for democracy and sustainability?  Can anyone address the causes and not just symptoms of world in which the planet burns and the poor get poorer?  This is where we should be having the real battle of ideas.

PS I did another meeting in the week, this time in Liverpool for Compass, the organisation I chair. It was on co-operatives and what we hoped to be their second coming. It was fantastic.  The audience knew far more than me, John Goodman from Cooperatives UK was informative and humble and there was a brilliant bit when one participant admitted to being a member of both the Labour Party and the Green Party – grounds for expulsion from either, or both if they found out at the same time. But it was a logical step – they believed that both parties were necessary and alone both insufficient. It’s a pointer to the future that people create for themselves, rather than fit any last century mould.

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers.

Speakers at the Battle of Ideas festival.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass and author of the book All Consuming.

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.