Our parties and politicians don’t understand how the world is changing

by Peter Watt

There doesn’t yet appear to be an existential crisis at the heart of our political establishment but there quite possibly should.  Right across Europe from Germany to Greece and Italy there has been a rise in new, fringe and occasionally comic parties.  They are all benefiting from a sense of disenchantment with the established parties.

In the UK it was traditionally the Liberal Democrats that farmed the protest ‘none of the above’ votes but the advent of the coalition appears to have put a stop to that.  The result is the rise of other smaller parties – Respect in Bradford, UKIP in Eastleigh or a whole series of independents.  In fact increasing numbers are choosing to either not vote or vote for whichever other party or candidate is best placed to deal the establishment parties a bloody nose.

The political assumption appears to be that this malcontent has at its heart the prolonged economic crisis.  Financial uncertainty combined with an already rapidly changing world has meant that people are looking for an answer to an increasingly complex set of questions.  Where we used to assume that we would be better off in the future we now expect to be worse off and we worry for the economic plight of our children.  Following this logic through and when the economy upturns, then political business as usual will resume.  Labour and the Tories will battle it out for supremacy with Lib Dems battling for scraps or possibly further coalition.

The result of this assumption is essentially conservative; it is the politics of no change in how we do our politics.  The countdown has begun to May 7 2015 and the only question is which of the big two will be the largest party the day after.   Whilst others may be suffering from the economic situation or the rapidly changing world, the world of politics appears unaffected.

Candidates are being selected from those who have most faithfully played the traditional political game within each of the parties.  And the political cycle of conferences, budgets, parliamentary rebellions, briefings and gossip has not been interrupted one dot.  The political elite may feel a little battered reputationally but they are certainly not unduly concerned; patience will be rewarded with the maintenance of the status quo.

But whilst the assumptions about the result in 2015 are almost certainly correct, the assumptions about the status quo are not.  The world has of course been changing faster and faster since well before the economic downturn.  People have been becoming increasingly less deferential and more cynical about authority be it political or commercial.  The internet and social media have increased the ability of each of us to access information and make choices.  We can filter information so that we only concentrate on that which we are interested in, however niche that is.

Just think about how we all live our lives now.  If we want to buy something or visit somewhere we can and do use a variety of sources to help us decide what to purchase or where to go.  We certainly don’t just use one source of information and certainly not the source managed by the supplier.  People under 25 live lives that don’t draw a distinction between the on and offline.  Trends emerge, grow and then disappear in weeks and some of the most successful brands didn’t exist even ten years ago.  Established brands need to adapt and respond faster and faster to developments.

The problem certainly isn’t that the parties and their leaders haven’t noticed these changes – of course they have.  For years there have been countless experts and gurus that have visited the political parties both privately and publically to help them make sense of this change.  Pamphlets, seminars and exchange visits have all been devoted to interpreting what is going on.  And the result of all of this has in fact been very little change at all.

The language may be of engagement but the behaviour has changed little.  Because, fundamentally the world of the main political parties is permeated with a sense of entitlement.  Despite Labour protestations this certainly is not an attitude exclusive to the ranks of the Bullingdon club and the Conservative party.  And this sense of entitlement makes the problem of how to respond to the changing world fundamentally problematic for the parties.

But more and more people care less and less about the world of politics.  If they notice what is going on at all they don’t very often see anything that has much relevance to them.   In a world that is increasingly interconnected the communications from the parties are still essentially in broadcast mode.

Social media is seen as something to be used to deliver messages not to engage.  When politicians do engage digitally it is with other politicians or activists.  And the starting point for any analysis of why memberships are falling starts by blaming the electorate and ends with clumsy attempts to make it easier for a few more voters to come into our space rather than looking for an invitation into theirs.

All of this may matter little at the moment and indeed impact little on the outcome of the next election.  But the world is changing and this change can and will have a profound impact on our political parties whether they are able to respond or not.   But time is running out.  And so is the entitlement.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party

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8 Responses to “Our parties and politicians don’t understand how the world is changing”

  1. Steven says:

    “new, fringe and occasionally comic parties.”

    Just think of them as being an alternative to the already existing, well-established comic parties.

  2. Ex-Labour says:

    The main problem is that parties of all colours do not take into account public opinion which leads to disenchantment with the mainstream parties and disengagement with politics as a whole. Once in parliament politicians are whipped into voting for particular policies even though they don’t like them, just to get one over the other party. Its pathetic tribal stuff.

    Once in Westminster they forget we put them there, not to govern us, but to respresent us.

    Politics today seems to be about maintaining the status quo, rather than taking a risk and trying to address and resolve issues. Just look a Labour’s pathetic response to the public fears on immigration. They define the problem in their own terms completely avoiding public concerns and the REAL problem, and then tinker round the edges with a solution that has no relevance or resonance for anyone.

    FFS !!

  3. paul barker says:

    Im not sure if you are implying that the sense of entitlement extends beyond Labour & the Tories. I am pretty sure it doesnt cover the Libdems, we mostly think of ourselves as clinging on by our fingertips. Certainly we dont have the comfort of reliable funds from Unions, Big Business or, anymore, from the Taxpayers. Come 2015 we will be spending a fraction of the money the 2 Big Parties will.
    In spite of that you may be wrong about 2015 being more of the same. The Tories seem to be in a complete panic but Labour are bathing in a warm pool of complacency. Plenty of articles on this site have pointed out just how insubstantial your poll leads are but theres no sign anyone is listening.
    Spring 2015 will come as a nasty surprise for many Labour activists & I wonder how they will react ?

  4. Syzygy says:

    Unfortunately, the ‘comic’ movements tend to have strong libertarian links and are open to manipulation from the extreme right. Beppe Grillo may be correct about debt-based finance but he is also anti-trade union, anti-semitic, homophobic, anti-immigration as well as anti-government and the EU. He is an anarcho-capitalist.

    There are shades of the 1930s and a new New World Order:


  5. Elliot Kane says:

    An excellent article, Peter. I hope those inside the Westminster Bubble will read it and take it to heart.

  6. Ralph Baldwin says:

    Well what sort of parties historically attempted to Censor the free Press, were they considered enlightened or representative, were they considered smart and ready to debate through to the solutions, or does it smack of pure entitlement and a real fear of having to associate with normal people as Labour have on Councils too by ending petitions at the same time.

    Your real question should be how did your Party go from fighting to defend people to actively hating them and preventing them finding out what you are really up to at any cost, even our fundamental freedoms and democracy itself?

  7. Rallan says:

    This article is absolutely spot on. The unspoken point (though clearly understood) is that the established parties will refuse to change under any circumstances because they are all now run by the elite for the benefit of the elite.

    This is not just political parties either. All established public institutions are locked into the same destructive behaviour by self interested internal elites. It’s not just wealth that’s concentrated in the top 1%, it’s also power.

    The situation is not sustainable. The establishment will not change so it’s eventually going to snap. It will take 10 to 15 years and then it’ll finally be time for that revolution you’ve all been dreaming of. Only it’s going to be more UKIP than Marx.

    And do you know what? It’s going to be good. Maybe even great. The British people are pretty decent at heart, regardless of political leanings.

  8. Cortney says:

    This statement: run by the elite for the benefit of the elite- expresses 100% correctly everything we are going through these days. Nothing is being done for us, for average people.It is all about them trying to get rich as fast as possible. Everything is about being very powerful. The post is amazing. It is honest and fair…not like our politicians….they are opposite. So I doubt that would have changed after reading this post. Some things never change especially when money is involved.
    Cortney from PaydayLoans@ Online Company

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