Beyond the fringe


I'm on my way to the RSA fringe event at the LibDem Conference in Birmingham. As I wrote earlier this year, the challenge with fringe meetings - which have to be organised five or six months in advance - is to identify an issue which will feel both topical and distinctive when conference comes around. 

In view of recent events I think we did OK in plumping for 'The rise of the disaffected citizen: what happens when mainstream politicians fail to deliver prosperity or security?'.  So here I am sitting on a packed train trying to work out what to say in my allotted seven minutes. These, I think, will be my key themes:

There is little point arguing about whether politics today is better or worse than in the past (politicians as a tribe have never been popular); the problem with politics is that it may not be fit for purpose to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. 

This analysis can take place at different levels. At the highest level, humanity is in a period of transition from the way we lived for nearly all our existence as a species. We are on a journey from homogeneous localism, from economic subsistence and from traditional authority. Progressives aspire to global citizenship, participatory governance and lives of genuine fulfilment. But right now people are worried and angry about the impact of globalisation, trapped by the false promise of possessive individualism and - it often seems - unwilling to be governed and unable to govern themselves. 

More prosaically, we are living in a country where public expectations increasingly outstrip what the state and the market can provide. And it seems we lack the will and ingenuity to tackle long standing and deep seated problems ranging from economic inequality and unemployment, to providing for the needs of an ageing population to the disastrous mess of housing policy. 

In the face of these challenges, the RSA talks about 'closing the social aspiration gap' and David Cameron advocates a Big Society, but while the core analysis - that we, the citizens, need to change how we think and act - is surely right, we seem a very long way from a credible plan of engagement and action.

More than anything else - and certainly more than endless second rate policy tinkering - we need our politicians to provide leadership, to convince us that we must change, that we can and that - in the end - life can feel better if we do. But many of the structural characteristics of modern politics make such transformative leadership unlikely. There is the unrepresentative, hollowed out, inward-looking and factional nature of our political parties. There is the determination of the mass media to foster a mood of public cynicism and rage. There is the adversarialism which threatens to turn candour into a gift for opponents.

So perhaps nothing can be done. Politicians will continue to fiddle while social disenchantment and resentment smoulder. We may eventually succumb to a different form of political leadership, perhaps populist, mystical or authoritarian. But those who go to party political conferences - most of whom got involved in politics for genuine reasons of public service - must reflect on this problem and some at least must start to imagine a different way. 

This challenge takes different forms for each major party. For Labour it is the contrast between a movement which advocates democratic progressivism and a party which is outdated, rancorous and profoundly inauthentic. For the Conservatives - given its policies and the ever more rightwardly inclined mood of its activists - it is the problem of espousing moderation and social concern with all the credibility of a man pledging fidelity from the bed of his mistress. 

For the Liberals it is, perhaps, the abandonment of what seemed at times to be its unique belief that there were some things in politics more important than being in power. This may have seemed at times to be futile. In reality the LibDems were no less prone to opportunism (especially in local politics) than the other parties, but still the idea of principle above power added something to our politics which has now been lost. Perhaps the LibDems are no longer interested in being the alternative Party (maybe in time passing that mantle to the Greens) but it is at least worth questioning the strategy of abandoning this space just when an alternative way of doing politics seems so badly needed.

There, that should be enough to be going on with.

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