Is politics starting to diverge markedly from politicians? There are so many signs that this might be true that it is starting to bring into question the democratic system we have and raises questions about the democratic system we need.
The prime exhibit for this must surely be Keir Starmer. The entire Labour Party conference seems to be two events in one, being run by different people for different purposes. The membership of the party seem to be there to discuss the big challenges facing society and to express their views and opinions on how to take on those challenges.
But the leadership of the party and its professional apparatus appears to be there primarily to pick brutal fights, humiliate large chunks of the membership and rig internal party democracy to prevent the membership from influencing the direction of the party any more. It is doing this as a show for the media, a demonstration that the ‘professional political class’ is wholly back in charge.
The extent to which Keir Starmer is showing contempt for the people who voted for him is it’s own kind of remarkable. There is absolutely no read-across between what he promised to get elected and what he’s now doing. Blair may have achieved similar things with the party (greatly reducing democracy, turning it into a executive office of the leader) but, give or take, he generated consent for the changes.
Starmer (or more accurately the right wing of the Labour Party which is using Starmer for its own purposes before replacing him) isn’t building consent; he’s making a big song and dance out of how little he cares about consent.
And yet still, on and on the membership go, voting against him anyway, like the two events are happening in different places at different times.
This mimics (though in quite a different way) what is going on inside the SNP. The word is that the November conference (the party’s main annual conference) is likely to be held online again, all the better for controlling it. That would make it the only major party in Britain not to hold a real, in-person conference.
That goes along with an incessant chain of party reforms, each of which alone would have represented a noteworthy diminution of democracy and accountability in the party but which, taken together, are breathtaking in their brazen attempt to put almost total control of every part of the party in the hands of the leader’s office.
The technocratic ruling classes had minimal real democratic legitimacy – a five year endorsement for some politicians, the rest of them there by patronage or because of money
It is impossible to miss the gap that is growing between party and leadership; for the SNP leadership effectively to lose (and massively lose) four big and embarrassing votes at its own conference would have been next to unthinkable a couple of years ago. Now? Dissent is absolutely everywhere.
But we can see this almost across the board. There are very serious concerns inside the Scottish Greens about the speed and scale of its first sell-out and it is not clear how that will play out at its conference.
And if we look at the rise of what is known as populism and protest across the world we again see divergence between what the ruling classes see as acceptable and what populations do.
This is very much the result of the fact that there really is a ruling class. It is a long legacy of the rise of New Public Management. The self-proclaimed ‘end of ideology’ meant that governing was no longer about shaping or changing but managing to maximum efficiency. Ignore the outcomes because those will take care of themselves if you get the process right.
And so we created the Public Management Class, an empire of well-paid professional managers and politicians who ‘keep the country running for us’ while we bugger off and spend money in the glorious free market. They (reluctantly) recognise we should get a say on this every four or five years, but only to endorse or switch.
We can either endorse the lot who are doing it just now or we can switch to the other lot who were doing it before, based on our perceptions of how efficiently they ran things. Even SNP loyalists aren’t saying the Scottish Government is doing well (which is impossible to stack up) and so are resting heavily on ‘we were overwhelmingly endorsed by the public in May’.
And that’s what matters, right? Dreadful performance and endless mistakes aren’t the point; being the ones chosen to deliver that dreadful performance and make those endless mistakes is the point.
But the ruling class is in a kind of quandry now. Traditionally the media picks one or other of the big professionalised political parties and says ‘it is/would be good because/if our lot are/were in charge’ and that’s the fundamental basis of how they report news and how their commentators describe the world to their readers.
What we have now is ‘we know the Tories are doing a dreadful job but look at Labour’ and ‘we know the SNP is doing a dreadful job but look at the other lot’. The technocratic ruling classes had minimal real democratic legitimacy (a five year endorsement for some politicians, the rest of them there by patronage or because of money). They survived by telling people they knew what they were doing.
If it turns out the ruling class really didn’t seem to know best, what comes next? A new equilibrium? Collapse? A revolution? Suddenly they fear anything is possible. They fear their public.
One of the main aims of what I’m writing just now is to try and explain that everything that was considered an immutable rule in global governance is now either already in the bin or is up for negotiation. From monetary policy to trade to the environment to public spending, the world is spinning through some really remarkable changes right now.
You may not be seeing them yet, but you will. The whole world which Thatcher’s concept of ‘There Is No Alternative’ created turns out to have alternatives round absolutely every corner. The ruling classes who insisted we all ‘follow the rules’ are rewriting the rules as they go along.
The implications are profound and the experiences of it endless. The entire system has just undergone two seismic shocks with the financial crisis and then ten years later a pandemic. Climate change would have had the same effect anyway. It was never as stable as it thought.
And in all this there is nothing that the ruling classes fear more than the masses. If you’ve been telling them for 40 years that you know best and not to make a fuss and then it turns out you really didn’t seem to know best, what comes next? A new equilibrium? Collapse? A revolution? Suddenly they fear anything is possible. They fear their public.
They have reason to. As we see with Labour, as we see with the SNP, as we see in a world of anger and protest at how so many people are now being forced to live, politics is being dragged to places politicians don’t want to go.
It raises fundamental questions about democracy and power and we as a society haven’t even started asking these questions. The ruling class gives every impression that it wants to close things down before society gets a chance to think it through.
That is the ‘meaning’ of Starmer. He bobs helplessly like a cork being forced into a cracked dam, incapable of stopping the flow convincingly but with his puppeteers hoping he can slow the flood enough to let them find a permanent solution.
Will they? Chances are they will in the short term, like the chances are that the SNP leadership will manage to string its membership and the movement along for another year or two, like the chances are that the tsunami of greenwashing going on globally will persuade you that something is being done about climate change for the next few years.
I am more sceptical that they can make this stick. Things are upside down all round the world and the impacts seem to me too significant to hide, too direct in their negative effects on too many people. But I never underestimate the ruling classes – they are ruthless and they have almost all the power.
Except democracy. That is all the power the rest of us have left. Let that go at your peril…