What did we do to deserve this ordeal? This is the question that I have been asking myself over and over again for the past couple of weeks.
The Labour and Conservative party conferences have been a depressing conveyor belt of scandal, intrigue and ill thought out policy. However, if these conferences are a litmus test of the state of British politics. We can conclude that the nature of our politics is changing.
The Labour party conference was remarkable for its abundance of activism. Whereas the Tories’ dismal affair was noteworthy because it lacked enthusiasm for anything. Cough sweets being the big exception here.
So what should we conclude in the aftermath of this fortnight of political mayhem? It is clear that we are entering an age where the election campaign never really stops. There is a shrinking window where politicians can ‘get on with their job’. Soon it may be the case that our politics becomes an endless drive for popular favour.
It is not difficult to work out why his transition is taking place. If we turn the clock back a couple of decades, we can see a clear metropolitan elite that has a stranglehold on our democratic institutions. When election time rolls around they can wheel out a list of policies that appeal to most normal people. They then accumulate a marginal amount of lukewarm support and waltz into power.
Returning to the present day we have social media, the twenty-four-hour news cycle, televised PMQs and large reserves of disgruntled young people. Our politicians have struggled to cope with these new pressures. The fight to appear competent and popular never really subsides. The lifespan of a politician involved in some sort of scandal used to be measured in months. Now it is measured in minutes.
To survive in this new environment politicians have had to adapt. Perpetual activism is one way of doing this. The Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn has in many ways been an immense success. Writing for this website a few years ago I warned the political mainstream that they should not underestimate this ageing Marxist allotment enthusiast. The fervent enthusiasm he commands from an initially small number of devotees trumped the bland congeniality of his opponents in the Labour leadership contests. This way of doing things has served him well. In an age where the camera is always on you and people have the capacity to express their thoughts and feelings instantly, Mr Corbyn has tapped into something powerful.
The chanting and flag-waving of the Labour conference could not have been more different from its Conservative counterpart. The Tories had fought the past few elections on the old ‘better of two evils’ model. While this may work in terms of votes, it has been a disaster for the party’s image. The Conservative front bench is dominated by unexciting technocrats who seem allergic to popular appeal. Perennial low morale in the party has wreaked havoc in its upper echelons. A political entity can only exist for so long without popular enthusiasm. Even when Theresa May wanted to showcase her party’s strength and unity last week, Machiavellian forces were never far from the surface.
Surely the fact that politicians are finally listening to people is a good thing?
That depends on where things go from here. I can think of three different scenarios. The first one involves different organisations within the major parties becoming much more powerful. So much so that it becomes necessary for there to be a pre-election election. For example, Progress versus Momentum will have to decide which wing of the Labour party will take go forward to fight the general election.
In the second (much uglier) scenario, politicians abandon the middle ground and coalesce around their core vote. Instead of trying to appeal to different groups, the current trend into identity politics becomes more developed. Utilitarianism is abandoned in favour of political ‘clans’ that drown out moderating voices.
Finally, there is the possibility that the current middle ground politics remains dominant; but only just. The task of political leaders becomes to cling on to power by managing the competing tribes within their respective parties.
Notice that in none of these scenarios does the actual will of the ordinary working people become more important to the Westminster bubble.