In politics, it is usual to be a Paine or a Burke. At least, that is the case in modern majoritarian politics of the type to be found in the Anglo-Saxon world. These dispositions are not ideologies; they are broad philosophical instincts. Nor are they mutually exclusive - one can deploy each instinct in different settings and remain completely intellectually coherent. Ultimately, these two default settings have governed politics through seismic historical change throughout the whole of the RSA's history. And so it remains.
Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke were both phenomenal rhetoricians, writers and social commentators. A Burkean position emphasises tradition, evolution, incrementalism and the virtue of the extant. Paine was more impatient. Tradition was a drag rather than a virtue. Power was distributed unequally; the people were not free. Therefore, rapid and bold institutional change was necessary. This meant he took more risks in his advocacy. He famously misjudged the French Revolution but institutional evolution at the pace of Burke's preference would have lagged the rapid social changes that we have experienced- with potentially alarming consequences.
This 'great debate' as outlined by Yuval Levin continues today. Ideologies have come and gone; so have political parties and a range of other social institutions. Yet these dispositions remain. In general, there is a Burkean party of the right and a Paineite party of the left.
Sometimes things flip. Over time social democratic parties have become increasingly Burkean as institutions such as employment rights, collective healthcare and social security took hold. Parties of the right have felt the need for Paine-esque radicalism as a restorationist project (a paradox of Thatcherism). So none of this is neat but the basic institutional instincts remain even if they have become distorted and stretched.
It is in this context that the decline of the modern Labour Party sits. The RSA is, of course, an independent charity. It does not take a view on which political persuasion should gain power - nor should it. Fellows represent a wide range of political standpoints and this is one of the enduring strengths of the RSA. There are strong arguments of left, right and centre for devolution of power, a Basic Income, an educational curriculum that fosters creativity as well as knowledge acquisition, and the desirability of spreading wealth and ownership so all may share in society's wealth as well as contributing to it.
The RSA both seeks and has been extremely successful in fostering alliances across the political spectrum for its advocacy of an open society, a sustainable economy and relentless social and political renewal. Any such society should feel confident in expressing what constitutes a healthy politics as a whole. What type of politics creates an environment in which significant and persuasive new ideas can gain traction? The answer is not the politics we currently have.
A majoritarian political system that tends towards duopoly (though this varies in each of the UK nations and principalities) risks locking the new ideas we need out of the political process. When duopolies become monopolies, as the current political system risks, then any organisation that exists to support social change is likely to feel a sense of deep concern.
The decline of Labour is part of this out-of-kilter politics. It is a simple truism that a political party in which its elected representatives take a fundamentally different view to its members and active supporters is doomed. It appears that this is where Labour currently sits. Labour has tended over the course of its history to favour political Paineism and organisational Burkeism. With the exception of the 1997-2001 Government, Labour has largely rejected constitutional change – or at least approached it half-heartedly (one of the reasons behind its collapse in Scotland). This instinctive institutional conservatism is likely to manifest itself internally should the current leader win the current leadership election. Many if not most of those who have challenged him will resume in internal dissent without ever walking away. In practice, this means the emergence of a monopoly on national power for the Conservatives.
No believer in the free flow of ideas into an open arena of politics can think this desirable - whatever their political leanings. In fact, both the previous and the current Prime Minister themselves have bemoaned the lack of a decent opposition. It should not go unnoticed that many of the ideas in the last Labour manifesto are now being revisited by the Conservatives, for example, worker representation on Boards and the living wage.
The early hints from the new Prime Minister are that she has some genuinely reformist instincts. But this is no substitute for facing high quality opposition - one that is on the intellectual charge as well as holding the Government to account. We are nowhere near that. In fact, there is an early question mark over whether Brexit and a change of governmental focus will slow the reformism in areas as critical as prisons and continued devolution. A strong reformist opposition could push where Government takes its foot of the pedal.
In a more diverse political system, new voices and sources of energy find an easier way into the national debate than in the current system. The current situation marks a diminished pluralism when precisely the opposite is required. A more open political system (including a proportional electoral system) is the first priority. Failing this, a competitive system with major parties that are pluralistic, civically embedded, and open to the flow of new (good) ideas is the next best thing. We have neither.
The worst possible outcome is prolonged institutional cognitive dissonance within the official Opposition between parliamentary party and the party membership. Whatever the outcome of Labour's leadership this dissonance should be resolved - with leadership and willingness to take risks. That may mean that Labour has to divide in Parliament and more broadly perhaps also. That seems severe- but make no mistake, this is an institutional crisis that has become a democratic crisis. The issue is not primarily Labour at all; it is about our ability as a society to find the right path forward adapting democracy to widespread societal needs.
At the very least, politics needs a Paineite alternative. Progressives seek a reformist spirit in a variety of places, but in a duopolistic system a possible alternative is always needed as a check and balance. For reasons of history that is currently Labour. Unless it can emerge from its crisis and at pace that could well cease to be the case. The future is Burke's alone on the current trajectory. Ideas need a more effervescent interplay of Burke and Paine – within and between political parties. Labour’s decline makes this less likely.