4 May 2015

Britain’s old political parties are broken


The way Cameron, Clegg and Miliband are reacting to the Nicola Sturgeon phenomenon is reminiscent of the mouse in Robert Burns’ poem. “Wee, sleekit, cowrin’, tim’rous beastie,” he wrote.” What a panic’s in thy breastie?” The male leaders of the old, decaying political parties are right to be fearful for she is set to drive a major reshaping of our ailing democratic system. But instead of panicking they should try to learn from her. They should start by asking what it is she has that they patently lack.

That is what commercial companies would do when faced with a new competitor eating into their market share. The established brands wouldn’t hit back by simply offering money off for a bigger pack – the retail equivalent of what the Labour and Tory parties have been doing with promises of lower taxes and higher spending. Business leaders would study every aspect of a rival’s product – its marketing, its image, its packaging, its quality and its ability to chime with modern lifestyles. Having worked out the secret of the opposition’s appeal, a half decent entrepreneur would seek to learn lessons and start winning back customers.

In the political market place, the longstanding brands should be doing the same with Nicola. She knocks spots off them both in her presentation and the clarity of her message – her product. On the style front, one of her big selling points is that she’s normal. She’s not posh, she’s not been to public school or Oxbridge and she’s certainly not weird. With her elegant jackets, on-the-knee skirts and killer heels she doesn’t come over as scary or even as much of a radical. Whatever the reality, her persona is that of the nice woman from down the road who is smart, high-powered but very friendly and rather sensible.

Voters, particularly women, can identify with her even if they passionately disagree with her. I am against almost everything she stands for yet each time she sees off the men who represent the tired brands of the old parties, it is hard not to give a small cheer and think: Attagirl!

So what can they do to be more like Nicola? They can’t help their privileged backgrounds and nor can they help being men. One thing they could do is to give much more prominence to the able women in their parties. So far the only women to have starring roles in the election campaign have been the leaders’ wives. Why haven’t we seen more female cabinet and shadow cabinet ministers? Where are some of the younger, up and coming women candidates who might make the traditional parties look more like the future and less like the past? They can’t all be nursing marginal seats.

The men on the campaign trail also need to start talking human. To be fair, the penny seems to have dropped with Cameron who has been speaking with a new directness and conviction, most notably in his BBC Question Time appearance last week. Yet the change has only come in the last few days. Most of the time he and his sparring partners have been far too keen to bang on about the “current deficit” or “the deficit as a proportion of GDP” or even – God help us! – “fiscal consolidation”. Voters are a shrewd bunch. They instinctively distrust politicians who use jargon. When Nicola talks about a “a little” more spending – only half of one per cent – they feel she’s on their wavelength

It’s not just her language. One reason her message comes across is that unlike Cameron, Miliband and Clegg, she knows where she stands and she doesn’t equivocate. She wants an independent Scotland, an end to austerity and a clutch of hard Left policies that she calls “progressive”. No matter how much you deplore her big government, nationalist approach – as I do – it has the merit of being absolutely clear. She knows how to connect with ordinary people.

In contrast the three old parties are torn between Right and Left, their leaders stretching themselves to breaking point as they try to keep the different factions on board. The Miliband manifesto pitch is fiscal responsibility which pleases the Blairites but not his union backers. Cameron struggles to reconcile the demands of his Right wing for a dramatically smaller state and an early exit from the EU with the rather different aspirations of his one nation Tories. Clegg would clearly like to stay in government with the Conservatives but many Lib Dems would much prefer Labour.

None of them seems to be thinking about how they can shape a new kind of politics from the clapped out model that clearly fails to inspire the pubic. At the back of their minds they are hoping that the currents of distrust and resentment sweeping round them are an aberration and everything will be back to normal soon. It will not.

There is an urgent case for a realignment of the old parties. There is support among some sections of the public for a party of the Right that believes in Brexit, cracking down on immigration and shrinking the state. The Tory Right could well peel off and ally with UKIP under a leader of substance – not Nigel Farage. There is also an appetite out there for a Left wing, anti-austerity party – not just in the UK either but across Europe. Labour, though no longer Blairite, cannot take on the role while wedded to fiscal responsibility. By the same token, moderates from the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem parties could form themselves into a one nation, pro-European centre party.

The surge in support for the Greens, Plaid and the SNP itself owes much to the failure of the three mainstream groups. Nicola Sturgeon understands the public’s disillusion with the Westminster elite. She offers an alternative which is why the SNP is set to demolish the Labour party in what was once its Scottish stronghold.

The arrival in the Commons of a substantial block of Scottish Nationalist MPs will almost certainly be the catalyst that forces the traditional parties to reinvent themselves – to carry out what the business world would call a rationalisation. The most likely result of next week’s election will be a minority government building support on a vote by vote basis. Westminster is set to become a political trading floor with pork barrel deals and constantly changing alliances. We could see the Tories and a part of the Labour party going into the same lobby on an issue like Trident. The Labour Left could join with the SNP, Plaid and the Greens to oppose deficit reduction. And who will be voting with whom on the great question of a European referendum?

In the last parliament MPs were more willing than ever to rebel against their party whips. In the next there will be a host of new pressures set to fracture the old parties. If the latter go with the flow and find a way to realign, they could yet enjoy a political renaissance.

Sue Cameron is a political commentator and a columnist for the Telegraph.

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