Politics and the local-national disconnect
It is an immutable truth that out of its approximately 640 prospective parliamentary candidates, each of the three main parties will select a few wildcards.
There’s the case of former Tory PPC for Watford, Ian Oakley, who went on to plead guilty to five charges of criminal damage and two of harrassment. Or the former Labour PPC for Eastleigh, Dan Clarke, who resigned as PPC and endorsed his Lib-Dem opponent, MP Chris Huhne. Then there’s John Kiely, a Lib-Dem PPC who was previously a city councillor; he lost his seat, took up as PPC, got elected elsewhere in the council and jacked in his parliamentary campaign, or the Lib Dem who resigned after spending money using his dead father’s credit card.
Taking that into account, it seems a little bit unfair of Michael Crick at the BBC to deride the Lib-Dems for their loss of 23 prospective candidates to resignations. Attending the Lib-Dem conference this week, Crick concluded that, contra the views of Lib-Dems that people resign for personal reasons, the 23 losses are indicative of ‘a stretched party’. This may or may not be true, but Crick clearly has it in for the hubris of Nick Clegg and it seems more likely that these resignations simply fit his preferred narrative.
We all know that Nick Clegg’s grandstanding about forming the next government is a bit ridiculous; the Lib-Dems are simply not going to the next government, they are not going to be the government after that or the one after that. Such bullish talk, like that provided by Clegg and Tavish Scott about ‘the death of Labour’ or Vince Cable’s rhetoric about giving people tax cuts, is expected. It is clearly playing to the media – but Crick’s article inadvertantly brings to the fore some people and arguments that represent a deeper problem for the Libs than loose tongues and which, I suspect may have a knock-on effect on the confidence of prospective parliamentary candidates.
Lib-Dem activists aren’t convinced when Lib-Dem HQ sends out the same sort of gushy content-lite nonsense that Labour excels at – and, I suspect, many of them probably cringe when they hear Clegg or one of the others wax lyrical – and men like Evan Harris have been quick to oppose nonsensical opportunism on the part of Lib-Dem leadership. It goes deeper still when a PPC can resign, claiming in the Liberator magazine that she didn’t get enough support from head office. There is a disconnect between the local and national party, it would seem.
With regard to Labour, this is something I have written about at length. Now there is evidence to suggest something similar with regard to the Lib-Dems. The preference of many Tories for UKIP’s Nigel Farage over ‘soft’ Tory MP John Bercow or the acquisition of ‘hardline’ ConHome by a moderate indicate the potential for future trouble between the leadership and grassroots of the Tory Party. It seems the parliamentary parties have more in common with each other, sometimes, than they have in common with their party membership.
This really shouldn’t be a shock. If one looks around the blogosphere, there are Labour, Tory and Lib-Dem blogs which want to engage with arguments made by their own side and by the opposition. Yet the best party leaderships can do is knee-jerk and gesture politics. To give two examples, there’s the case of Clegg reacting to Ed Ball’s announcement about cuts in education, or there’s Vince Cable’s announcement about the mansion tax. Labour, with their decision to get rid of one Trident-carrying sub are really no better. Party members deserve more.
I am sure that all of this has a direct effect on the collapsing numbers of the three major parties. Everyone has heard about the Labour and Conservative membership declining, but the Lib-Dems – some members of which take such delight in pointing to the powers of their conference and claiming that they’re the real grassroots party – have also been failing to hold people. My suspicion, to give it an airing, is that Party leaders and dignitaries are spending too little time talking to their parties and too much time talking to the media.
The hope is, of course, that the media will reach many millions of people – whereas talking to one’s party, one the latest estimate, reaches at most about two hundred thousand people. When I say ‘talking’, I do not, of course, mean the sort of stage managed event as has been the norm at Labour Party conference for years. Nor the sort of thing as was witnessed at Lib Dem conference this year, where Clegg and Cable effectively told their national conference and their Federal Policy Committee that a Lib Dem government could simply ignore what they voted for. No wonder then that PPCs might feel a bit unloved.
Indeed, from the point of view of Labour, I know that the Party runs a lot of ridiculous seminars on things like “public speaking”, which cost a great deal of money from candidates. I’m sure people so motivated as to run for parliament have better things to do than be cashcows to some bored policy wonk.
Particularly from the point of view of a party which once aspired to represent the working class, and which now for the first time in decades faces a four-point poll deficit in the north of England, one would think that the fresh energy provided by concepts like accountability, party democracy and so on would be useful ways of encouraging people to join the party – where they feel they can make a difference and will be confident candidates for office who go the distance. Instead the opposite has been the case (can’t be having with these constituency people, dangerous extremists!) and so Labour has squandered whatever goodwill it once had in core working class areas.
Apathy is rarely something I come across when I talk politics, or when knocking on doors or in virtually any other situation where the people I’m talking to have or want a job, are paying a mortgage or rent or tax, or have ever had a run in with their council. This decline in political participation is not apathy – it is the result of a doomed attempt of bureaucratic hackery to shy away from (and the ruling class attempt to hide, in the aftermath of post-Soviet triumphalism) the dialectic reality of modern capitalism: the primary motor of politics is the contradiction between labour and capital. It can’t be talked out of existence with identity politics, it can’t be voted out of existence by always playing to ‘the centre’ and it can’t be cowed out of existence by threats of ‘middle England’.
We need a party that is democratic, that hasn’t been swallowed up by PR spiv-speak. If that means a party other than Labour, so be it.