THE BLOG

Take a Breath, Britain

12/05/2015 10:44 BST | Updated 11/05/2016 10:59 BST

I have been avoiding the commentary in the aftermath of last week's UK elections. The crowing triumphalism on one side, and the unfocussed rage on the other, have been too much for my hangover to bear. Take a breath, Britain, and let's think about this properly.

Now that things are calming down a bit though (or descending into depression in the case of my friends who either work in or rely upon public services) certain questions are popping into focus. Does anyone know how opinion polls work? How did Labour manage to get rid of Ed Balls and still feel miserable? Did Scotland just hate Alex Salmond? And why on earth was Ed Miliband carving abstract platitudes onto a massive rock?

We may never know the answers to these questions. Sometimes you've just got to let those hard to reach conclusions go. Yet I did read a couple of particularly interesting pieces this week that merit further debate. My friend Dougald's 18 points were far more eloquent and thought-provoking than I could have managed on five hours sleep, whilst the prescient piece he cites by Paul Mason left me pondering tribalism and how we decide who is 'in' and who is 'out' of our political group.

So as part of my rehabilitation back into society, I want to reflect a little on some of their points, and what I think last week might mean for our strange country, its strange politics, and the strange things we might have to do to thrive in them.

THE ENGLISH PROBLEM

Scotland is obviously the big story from last week. The warm south of Scandinavia may be heading out of the UK after all - and with a one-party state, apparently - even if last year's referendum had appeared to close the question. What interests me more, though, is where this leaves England. I have long thought that meaningful devolution of power to the nations must involve an English Assembly. Its absence leaves England the de facto ruler of the UK (since its assembly is the superior one), leaves Scottish MPs deciding on English affairs and makes the voting process an even messier mix of local, national and global concerns than it was already.

The problem though is that devolving English rule to London does nothing to address the growing divide between the people in the South East - the diaspora of the financial markets - and the rest of England. Small business owners aside, the politics of these groups is disparate at best, and the growing divide between haves and have nots will never be bridged by that tried and tested panacea of economic growth. Appealing to people who want business as usual and people who want to rip up the system and start again is becoming increasingly untenable, and it may only be a matter of time before Labour sees the rise of its own UKIP equivalent in the north or west of the country.

Tory support is always strong in England and that was enough to see David Cameron across the line, but Ed Miliband's set-in-stone promise of "a strong economic foundation" was hardly the concrete (forgive the pun) message needed to mobilise the Government's opponents. The Labour Party's messages have had the feel of being written by committee, of a ham-fisted attempt to appeal to both sides of the debate. On the other side, the Conservatives are soon to be sidetracked by Europe for two years, and UKIP remain a useful protest vote that more Euro-sceptical followers can use to force their hand. The Scottish question might be the least of our worries.

Are we in danger of falling into tribalism, or worse, withdrawing from discourse altogether because we fear what would happen if we told each other the truth? Is the UK part of Europe, or is it just London? Where is the common interest that can bring England together, let alone the UK?

THE LIB DEM CATCH-ALL

One of the most peculiar things about watching the results come in last week was how many different directions voters seemed to scatter from the Lib Dem sinking ship. We could expect the party of the centre to lose votes to both Labour and Tory, but many went to UKIP and some to the Greens too, suggesting the spread of views in their base was so wide as to be almost incoherent. As Dougald puts it, the party looks now to have been "a depository for vague dissatisfaction of a variety of flavours, whose raison d'etre disintegrated when they became an adjunct to the Tories."

They have passionate supporters of course, and they certainly try to stand for much more than that. Yet so many years as the third party may have left them mistaking protest votes and tactical switches for loyal support. Just as I suspect radical parties would struggle more than they expected in a system where all votes were counted, so the Lib Dems may have seemed a more appealing prospect outside government than they were in it. Once a moderating force on both Labour and Tory excesses, what can they stand for now that their left-wing credentials are soiled with crude austerity measures, and the moderate right are happy to vote for David Cameron? And do we even need a centre party when the other main parties now seem to agree on so much?

CLASS WAR ISN'T HELPING

The Labour Party stopped being the party of factory workers a long time ago, but they still struggle to represent owners and workers together in their business policies. In an age of self-employment, portfolio careers and decent employment legislation, class war politics feels antiquated, yet the two main parties are funded along these lines: Labour by the unions, and the Conservatives by wealthy business donors. This leaves them fighting a battle neither can win, or scrapping over abstract concepts like compassion, prudence and courage, with very little genuine evidence changing hands at all.

We might still see the emergence of a UKIP style opposition party on the left, opposing austerity and standing up for monetary reform, but there are two obstacles to this: firstly, the lack of funding for a party genuinely representing the poor and vulnerable, and secondly, the awful outdated language of the old left, obsessed as it tends to be with class and power. Saying "give us the money" is not a political position, particularly when it is accompanied by accusations of conspiracy and cruelty. Instead, the left needs to find a language for talking about Britain in business-like terms, that makes a case for investing in infrastructure and bringing the poorest and most excluded along on the journey.

For many, Labour is associated with people who receive money, and it doesn't make a strong enough case that employers and staff can only make money together. As our society blurs those boundaries, and globalisation leaves us all on the managerial side of a continental outsourcing project, both Labour and Tory need a new script. Their opponents need to find a new funding model, and a better way to talk to the electorate. It says a lot about the failure of our current political discourse that an obvious joke can end up being taken seriously by so many people.

SOCIAL MEDIA HAS A LONG WAY TO GO

The other point to be made is that old-fashioned technologies still dominate our politics. The nation state is under threat and UK politics is stranger than it has been in decades, but the driving forces are still tribalism and self-interest, whatever our good intentions. Social media has helped us engage more in the campaigns - don't forget just how difficult it was to hear public voices in TV-led election campaigns even ten years ago, compared to the Twitter-focussed media of today - but it hasn't helped us change the system yet.

Dougald is right that we need to do more to engage the grassroots in meaningful conversations, and that social media has become an exclusive club in the eyes of many. The question is whether there are better ways to do that now than there were a decade ago. We still have an electoral system founded on the principle that it takes a long time to ride to London on horseback. Perhaps we can do something altogether more interesting now. Or perhaps democracy needs to move as slowly as its slowest citizen or risk losing its purpose.

As we head towards five more years of Conservative rule - still with the slenderest of mandates for such a radical government - our nation feels more divided than ever. On one side, many people want a streamlined libertarian state delivering in more efficient ways and providing opportunity for those who are willing and able to take it; on the other, as many people want a Scandinavian-style social project to invest in our national infrastructure, ensure fair treatment for all and play an active role in our global neighbourhood; and many people want a complex combination of both.

Serving the needs of all these people, and keeping them all within the democratic congregation, is becoming an impossible task. We must try though, or else we will continue to alienate the poorer and less fortunate parts of society, divide our nation and be left facing problems which our current toolset can't really answer. How much hope I have of the current regime to do that though, I'm afraid I can't really say. With Michael Gove wielding the hangman's noose over the Human Rights Act, and further cuts in the pipeline, the future looks fractious, and politics angry for a few years to come. Let's just hope the resulting battles are physically peaceful and intellectually dangerous, rather than the other way around.