There is a body of opinion which suggests that people are increasingly disengaged by conventional politics, and that old style political parties are dying out. According to this school of thought, the future of politics is to be found in single issue movements which mobilise large networks of individuals to further a specific cause then disband once their objective is achieved.
The evidence which is usually cited to support this claim is the decline in the membership of traditional political parties, combined with a rise in support of smaller, single issue parties such as the Green Party or UKIP. This school of thought has led to the rise of networked campaign organisations like 38 Degrees, who organise campaigns which aim to influence specific policy issues. This is sometimes seen as the future of democratic engagement in Britain.
I want to make two observations about this type of political organisation. Firstly, they provide only a superficial level of engagement with the issues of the day, and secondly they have the effect of making real political power more remote from the people who are affected by it.
To see what I mean, take a closer look at that 38 Degrees website. The campaigns they run are things like “Get tough on banks”, or “Rethink the badger cull”. These examples illustrate the problems of this type of politics. What exactly does getting tough on banks mean? Implement Glass-Steagal legislation? I wonder how many of the campaigners know what that means (it’s the separation of retail and investment banking FYI. There are arguments both ways). Get tough on banks is a platitude, not a policy platform, because it can mean many different things. Rethinking the badger cull is a more clear-cut policy, but it is very small scale. It seems highly unlikely that there will be a public campaign to significantly alter the strategic direction of government agricultural policy, because this will involve lots of serious long term decisions (e.g. what type of farm or produce is favoured and why?) which don’t fit well into a slogan. Single issue campaigns tend to be expressions of received wisdom rather than well thought out policies.
The fact that these campaigns tend lack any real sense of strategic direction is not their biggest problem. Their real weakness is the assumption that the way for people to bring about change is to try and influence those who are in positions of power, as if we are to be reduced to petitioning a medieval king for his favour. When enough signatures are gathered, when enough rallies have been attended and when suitable celebrity endorsements have been secured, who do you think makes the decision about the policy change? An oracle? No, it’s a Government Minister. This Minister is put in place by virtue of being in the political party which managed to garner the most votes in the previous general election. The Minister exercises real power, both on minor issues and major strategic choices. Single issue campaigns totally ignore the fact that the best way to ensure that the government does what you want is to choose the government. By ignoring this, single issue campaigns confuse the servants with the masters, and that’s not healthy.
I’d like to end this post on an optimistic note, so consider this. If people are more and more disengaged with traditional politics, why has voter turnout at general elections been rising exponentially for ten years? Perhaps people have more faith in British democracy than is sometimes assumed, or at least a better understanding of where the real power is. This is a good thing, because I promise you, single issue campaigns are a distraction from democracy, not a substitute.