Sunday, 22 September 2013
Politics is broken...
Finer defined politics as the means whereby dispute is resolved. As such it encompasses all the decisions that happen outside circumstances of exchange (i.e. within the market). And there have, across time, been many means employed to undertake political decision-making - from 'my axe is sharper than yours do as I say or I'll split your head' through consensual (and sometimes less than consensual) family decisions to the ever more byzantine machinations of the democratic process.
On one level politics is about how much lies within the market and how much is retained (or captured) by those with the biggest club. Partly this debate is about whether the process of exchange is 'fair' - the concept of market failure - and partly the debate concerns who is in charge, who exercises the decision-making powers. Of course, the more we delegate executive power to individuals (presidents, prime ministers, mayors and so forth) the more important the question of 'who' becomes compared to the question of 'what'.
The truth of this is revealed in Damian McBride's memoir. This is not to indulge in a kind of tribal schadenfreude but to observe that, given the nature of power in the Labour party and the winner takes all system of representative democracy, who was the boss mattered more than what the boss did. We may also observe that this principle - the triumph of person over policy - is indulged every day by the media, by opinion polling and by the political parties.
The reason 'In the thick of it' hit the spot for so many wasn't simply that it was well-written and contained a lot of swearing but that it described the shallow pettiness of politics. We see a swarm of vicious courtiers buzzing round the grand figures of politics - party leaders, pundits and pretenders. These courtiers are served by purveyors of tittle-tattle - the newspaper diarists, bloggers and columnists who report on who said what to who, dishing up lurid tales of sex, drugs and character assassination while purporting to serve some high purpose of transparency or open government.
This is not a healthy political system but one crippled by the gout of self-importance and sycophancy. But each of these courtiers' acts - their tales, their spin, their manipulation - results in a flurry of measurement. Opinion polls arrive daily, not just with answers to the 'who would you vote for' question but with an ever more personalised analysis of the 'leaders' - are they too posh, in touch or out of touch, competent or incompetent. Each 'policy' announcement is aimed at these polls rather than at making the right choice - want to 'defend' the welfare state then you must toss red meat about immigration into the pot to appease those who see people on welfare as scroungers.
What makes this worse is that because politics has been torn to shreds by the soap opera of leadership, we have delegated decision-making to people who are not elected. In local government it is - in all but a few places - the powerful chief executive who decides. And nationally, we have set up a well-paid mandarinate to which we have handed all the decisions that really affect most people going about their regular daily lives. Politicians have given up control over so many decisions to a self-serving cabal of professionals and lawyers - unaccountable, unchallenged and convinced that removing politics from political decisions is the right thing.
Nothing will change. Or at least the change will not be a consequence of us voting, electing and cheering on our team in the political game. If there is change it will be because people choose exchange as the means rather than politics. Instead of waiting on some benign bureaucrat to hand a script to the latest political leader to read out, people will simply set up ways to share and exchange, to provide the things they need (and want) unencumbered by the need to engage in a political bidding war.
Bureaucrats - and the politicians and commentators they promote - will resist the development of exchange as a means of choice-making. It does not serve their interests - for some politicians the results will be false markets, the outsourcing of services, while for others it will be to say 'everything within the state and nothing without the state'. I hope that the power of choice will defeat these people and that the ghastly, selfish and bullying world of politics becomes an ever more irrelevant sideshow as people make their own decisions about their own lives and their own families.
I hope. Because politics is broken.