On the face of it, perhaps it would be easier to list what David Milliband and David Cameron don’t have in common. Both are of a similar age, both Oxford-educated and they both followed the now well-worn path of the political professional after leaving university. So is it any wonder that the two Davids have similar ideas about the path to power?
During the battle for the Labour leadership, it has become clear that D. Milliband favours the New Labour approach: appealing to all sectors of society while his brother Ed wants a return to core Labour supporter of old. I remember when Tony Blair came to power. It was while I was a mature student at the University of Wales Aberystwyth. I used to have socialist friends (I still have a few but nowadays it is hard to find a real socialist) and I actually felt sorry for them. Even before 1997, socialists have been effectively disenfranchised in this country. In the 1970s, the voter had a real choice between the right and the left of politics. Nowadays that is no longer the case and I think that is to the detriment of this country.
It was actually for my degree essay on evolutionary theory that I found myself reading one of Professor Ian Stewart’s popular books on mathematics. I can’t remember which one but it contains the scenario of the two ice-cream sellers on a crowded beach. The sellers sets up at opposite ends but this means that the people occupying the middle can go to either of them, while the individual trader has no chance of attracting customers from the other end of the strand. In order to maximise their share of the market, both sellers start moving towards the middle with the eventual result that they are side-by-side.
So it is now with politics. New Labour was effectively a post-modern response to politics, agreeing with the likes of Francis Fukuyama who had proclaimed the End of History, the victory of capitalism and the never-ending reign of globalisation. Blair and Brown modelled themselves rulers of this Brave New World, post-modernisers to the core. History was reduced to a series of rival dialogues, each of equal or no value and therefore tradition meant nothing. The unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom, built up for 300 years after the Glorious Revolution, based upon earlier civil wars and the Magna Carta, were worthless in the 21st. Century. Civil rights were meaningless and the power of the Courts eroded. Hence New Labour’s love of identity cards and the super-databases behind them; they agreed with Sir Humphrey that in order to decide what the government needed to know, they needed to know everything. The process of government suffered likewise, with Cabinet meetings reduced to listening to the Word of the Dear Leader and real policy being decided on the sofa with an inner cabal. Senior civil servants were replaced with political appointments, advisors ensuring that the civil service remained “on message”. While Paris glittered after its spring clean, London got the Millennium Dome. Gold, that old-fashioned economic mainstay was sold off at under $400 an ounce. Social mobility actually decreased during the thirteen years of Labour. But worst of all was the Labour leadership’s willingness to follow the USA into bloody and illegal wars. Labour became like Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, who after drinking the troll’s brew grew to be like an onion: all layers and no heart; a being so empty of morality that not even the Devil wanted his worthless soul.
That’s my verdict on New Labour and anybody who still wishes to continue that project but how does David Cameron fit into this? Well, it seems to me that he has attempted a similar trick with the Conservative party and has marched his ice-cream stall to the centre of the beach. After the defeat of the Major government in 1997, the Conservatives veered to the Right under the successive leaderships of Hague, Duncan-Smith and then Howard. With New Labour straddling the Centre-Centre Right, it may have been principled but it simply didn’t work in electoral terms. In order to gain power, the Tories had to march back to the Left, or at least the leadership had too. I’m not so sure that the bulk of the Conservatives have decamped from their grounds on the Right. If the Coalition has shown anything about stresses within the parties of the partnership, it is that the Conservatives that are more ill-at-ease than the Liberal Democrats. Cameron came very close to failure in the last election, an unforgivable sin considering the open goal that Labour had left them.
This situation of both the largest parties fighting over the same electorate means that the democratic process is Britain is in real danger. After all, if the arguments are reduced to a narrow part of the field, in reality what is point of the political process? No matter which party is in power, the country is left under a dictatorship of the Centre. Views outside a narrow strip of opinion have no chance of real political power.
So like any good Liberal Democrat, I come to electoral reform. It is necessary in order to avoid the dictatorship of the Centre. Both the left of the Labour party and those on the right of the Conservatives would benefit from a change because under coalitions, the views towards the ends of the political spectrum have some chance of representation. People usually use this as an argument against electoral reform but in reality it is far more democratic than the system we currently have. The Centre will be dominant as this is where the opinion of most people lie but at least those on the edges can have some say as coalitions wax and wane. Given my opinion of New Labour, I am not surprised that they have failed to even support the modest Alternative Vote system that they advocated during the general election. The Tories are being, well, typically conservative in their unthinking opposition. But it is vital that all those actually believe in representative democracy campaign our hearts out come the referendum next May. Britain needs this reform in order to have any chance of principled government in the future.
Otherwise, we will be left with the two largest parties in their role as amoral ice-cream sellers competing on a beach.