Left and right, the policy problems don't change. Photo: Getty Images
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The left/right divide is outdated and unhelpful

Lines in the sand don't make for good policy-making, says Matilda Murday of the Democratic Society.

Your political ideology is probably nonsense. I don’t mean this as an insult, mine is too. It’s a convenient shorthand to describe the person we want people to believe we are: “Oh hi, I’m left wing too, let’s go live together and have cats.”

The problem is that there is largely a consensus amongst the political elite. Just listen to Labour talking about Tory welfare cuts. Only the most rabid right wing libertarians would be willing to do away with the NHS or welfare. The neoliberal agenda remains strong right across the political divide. Few would embark on a full course of re-nationalisation and state control of markets. In fact, veteran Thatcherite Nigel Lawson looked on the additional financial deregulation Gordon Brown introduced with horror.

The two main political parties are not as clearly defined down Left/Right lines as one might imagine. Whilst the Labour Party have abstained on the Conservative’s austerity welfare bill, the first Tory budget since 1996 reduced tax benefits for entrepreneurs and increased the minimum wage (inaccurately renamed the “living wage”); the CBI, IoD and aspirational self-employed are not the people you'd usually expect to be complaining about a Tory budget. Left and Right are an out-dated way of framing political parties, drawn from a largely obsolete political landscape.

Also, our class identity isn’t as clear-cut as it once was. You can blame this on neoliberalism. But it’s more than that, society functions in a markedly different way. Labour relations have changed. Global capitalism means you might think your boss is a monster, but it’s not his fault you have rubbish wages, a zero hours contract and a worthless pension. What screws you is an employment system that simply needs you less. The combination of technology, deregulation and globalisation has made us potentially obsolete but - paradoxically and relatively speaking - also very rich; even when many can’t afford to eat. It’s what Geoffrey Ritzer called the McDonaldisation of society, turning us into cogs in a machine that even the people running it don’t understand. Politics today is more about economics than people.

Jobs are changing and their value is changing. Productive work has been progressively devalued and life-long jobs are a meaningless dream for many. No matter how hard the RMT fights, the London Underground will eventually be automated. Traditional jobs will continue to disappear and the knowledge society has neither time nor place for the poor and poorly educated. And all the time, government fudge unemployment figures by making people carry out “self-employment” courses and unpaid work, masking the reality that the job market and the way we work is changing.

The precarious nature of many of our new economic realities have led to less clearly defined groups and identities, and the changing nature of political parties’ ‘core voters’ means it is difficult for parties to retain a consistent policy direction, or a distinct identity. This, in turn, can lead to disengagement and disenfranchisement, but it doesn’t have to.

What matters is that, in the midst of huge social and cultural change, we protect our democratic rights. I’m not talking about voting, but taking more responsibility in what we do in between elections. We need to find new ways to get people more involved in how policy (and therefore laws) are shaped, written and scrutinised. New digital tools create an opportunity for “open policy making”, but to take it, we need real and lasting reform in our democracy, and we need to make sure the new tools are available, accessible and usable. In that dread phrase: we need to talk.

Open policy making is about bringing in wisdom from outside government. This means involving the public sooner, more and more often.  At its is drawing on the wisdom of the many to create better policy, allowing people to have a greater say in how they are governed. This means radical changes to the democratic environment, not just more people involved in decision making but promoting more cooperation and collaboration between them and their government. In return we get better policies that have been shown to save money and, one hopes, bring greater public trust.

There are already experiments in open policy making taking place in local and national government. It relies on a number of things, but it has to be genuinely influential. Unless open policy making is used to create, modify or destroy policy, it is pointless and will do little other than alienate people taking part.

The present political system is also a problem for open policy. Spin-doctors are less effective these days but they have transformed how policy is made. Policies that the Government and party machines believe will be popular are fast-tracked, often before any consultation is underway, in order to grab the constantly moving media spotlight and appeal to voters. Too many think-tanks with dubious credentials and shadowy funders tout their wares.

The belief in a clear and distinct Left/Right divide is not just redundant; it’s counter-productive. Most people care about the issues that affect them not the perceived ideology. If we really want to reshape democracy for future generations, and ourselves, we’d do better to take advantage of open tools and digital technologies, such as local participatory budgeting projects, NHS Citizen, and community planning projects.  Our professed political identities might be meaningless but our views and experiences aren’t, we need to make them heard, so if we really want policies that benefit “hard working families” then we need those people involved in the policy process.

 

Matilda Murday works for the Democratic Society.

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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.