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, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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