It’s not us, it’s you – one of the things the Scottish independence referendum conclusively proved is that, when offered a real choice, people will engage with politics. For years politicians bemoaned voter apathy in a way that clearly implied it was the voter at fault – in recent years they are beginning to understand that they’ve become detached from the electorate, not the other way round.
For my own part, as a former Liberal Democrat staffer, member, and voter, I can’t see a way forward for party politics. Society has changed so much around the whole system that, rather like public phone boxes in the age of the mobile phone, party politics is becoming obsolete.
The information revolution has made us more opportunistic, less tribal, more informed but increasingly transitory in our interests, and dare I say it we are ever more intrinsically self-centered than we ever were.
The likes of Peter Mandelson used to highly controversially commoditise parties and talk about “products” with features and benefits. It isn’t controversial any more – voters are more and more treating politics like, yes, mobile phones. If a party doesn’t have the features I want, if it won’t benefit me immediately and clearly, I’m not getting it.
I don’t believe our national body politic will be truly healed now until party politics has been dismantled. I would love to see fixed term parliaments of two to three years predominantly formed of Independents who group around issues, mixed with a healthy diet of referenda.
We are reaching a point over the next two decades where we fundamentally don’t need or want political parties any more. The way political parties communicate with voters is a disaster. Too many politicians, particularly on a national level, have been conditioned to behave in extremely bizarre ways. If someone spoke to you in the street the way politicians speak to interviewers in the media you’d back away from them muttering that you don’t have any change on you, sorry. Political parties are well on the way to being an obsolete technology.
A Parliament of Independents will likely never happen in my lifetime, despite the excellent efforts of the likes of the Independent Network. We still like to move in herds, comforted that our behaviour is not too distant from that our of peers. We still like to affiliate to a brand – so the herd of voters will continue to split.
One, ever decreasing, group in the herd will continue to align to parties on polling day depending on who they feel closest to at the time. This will make the results of elections increasingly difficult to predict, and may see a gradual fragmentation of parliament into smaller groups of many parties making coalition a permanent state of affairs.
The other group in the herd will comfortably stay away from the polls, confident that their peers are doing the same, giving them validation for their actions.
How many of those voters are truly apathetic is difficult to know. How many care deeply about our nation, but simply don’t see an option on the ballot paper relevant to them? How many in England and Wales wish for the sort of moment Scotland has just experienced where they can actually go out and demonstrate that they will engage when given a real choice?
I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows. Perhaps this should be liberating, but right now I’m unsettled by the fact that I have absolutely no idea who I will vote for in May 2015.
We are living in a political vacuum – and history shows us how dangerous that can be. Our celebrity obsessed culture loves a big personality. The broken party political model can be – temporarily – propped up by celebrity leaders. Boris Johnson as PM at some point seems an inevitability. But who comes after him? How do we restore a system where good people, civic minded, lead our country? And how do we give those who currently don’t speak about these worries a voice?
I have far more questions than answers – the only thing I know for sure is that the option I’m looking for almost certainly doesn’t come in yellow, blue, red, green, or purple.