The limits of power are great

by Stephen Tall on March 3, 2006

Bagehot in this week’s Economist hits the nail on the head: yes, we should make our democratic institutions more, erm, democratic. That means fair votes, an elected second chamber, local government with real budgets, and caps on donations to political parties. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think this will lead to a surge in election turn-outs:

The real problem, which the commission recognises but shies away from, lies not with the political system at all, but with changes in society itself. As it observes, two contrasting groups have emerged to whom conventional politics has little appeal.

On one hand there are the relatively well-educated, relatively well-informed, relatively young who expect to make their own decisions, find self-expression in buying what they want when they want it, and see themselves as individuals free of geographic, institutional or social bonds.

On the other are the casualties of de-industrialisation who suffer from persistent poverty and social exclusion. The former are cynical about political leaders and irritated that voting is not more like shopping, while the latter feel bullied and let down by the institutions they rely on for their survival.

Constitutional reform of the kind advocated by the Power inquiry is well worth doing for its own sake. But whether it will make much difference to people who are already profoundly detached from the habits and modes of representative democracy is another matter.

Which may well be right, but is a rather gloomy way to end.

So I dug out the more upbeat conclusion to an earlier piece I wrote in another place arguing that fair votes is simply the start of the process of transforming politics – and not an end in itself:

I think it is naïve and disingenuous to believe that PR will arrest the decline in turn-out in and of itself. But what I do believe it can do is incentivise the political parties to develop a suite of policies which have wide, encompassing appeal: which speak to everyone. It is possible for the three mainstream parties each to achieve this.

But they will have to do so within an electoral system which enables fringe, extremist or single-issue parties to achieve representation; and within a pluralist political system which will reveal the polyglot nature of our political parties.

The challenge all of us who are involved in party politics face is alarming, but exciting: how to articulate a coherent, relevant Big Idea into which an ever more savvy and choosy electorate can buy.