Our political culture is mediocre, sectarian and deeply parochial

In Italy, the Radicals put up a porn star and began a debate about pornography. Here, it'd be Cllr Len Podd
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The Independent Culture
IN THE year 1381, Wat Tyler and an armed delegation of revolting peasants caught up with King Richard II just outside the London city walls. Here, Wat came forward and told the young king that, while he had nothing against him personally, he was fed up with the king's evil advisers who were running the realm very badly, and several of whose heads he had therefore left decorating the ends of London Bridge. What, he implied, did the king think? The king thought Tyler should take his hands off his royal bridle, at which point a knight rode up, smote Wat full sore and the Peasant's Revolt was over.

Two hundred and sixty years later, the king was Charles I, and the evil adviser was Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. Things between monarch and parliament were deteriorating, and it was in everybody's interests that things should be dampened down by a bit of give and take. Everybody's but one. Charles gave parliament the head of Strafford, and they took it. In the end, that wasn't enough, and eventually the king's head followed.

In each case, however, the same basic rubric applied. If you were up against someone who wielded semi-divine authority, and whose status in public eyes was beyond criticism, the technique was to shift the blame onto those around them.

And it still is. Ken Livingstone may be more Baldric than Cromwell, but he knows how to play the old game. Never will you find him assaulting Tony Blair by name. Gordon Brown is lone author of the country's economic ills (just around the corner), as well as being the chauvinist Scot who nicks London's money and gives it to his profligate countrymen; Peter Mandelson is mostly to blame for the party being wrenched away from the tireless, heroic altruists who used to run it, and handed over to robots; and - above all - it is the "Millbank Tendency", the "Dalek faction", the "control freaks" who are responsible for the current spate of assisted suicides among those Labour Welshpersons, Scots and Londoners, who merely wish to serve their party and their country by standing as mayor/first minister/MEP/MSP etc. So, implies Ken, we can rise up in revolt against these bad men, without in any way damaging the gold leaf on Tony's halo.

It is an example of Ken's masterful way with elision that he has made us believe that the king's evil advisers wish to prevent him from contesting the position of mayor of London. No-one could stop him, if he so wished, from being a candidate. The whole issue, of course, is whether he should be the Labour candidate; that is the right that he is fighting for. There is no real reason why we, who are not Labour party members, should care either way. We don't have a vote.

And that's the problem. The (often enjoyable) demonisation of Alastair Campbell, and the cellphoneopods in Millbank, is an important part of a deeper campaign on the part of activists and traditional political hacks to retain their power over position. Why else would we have all this fuss over the voting method for the European elections? The anger that the new system should be based on party lists is entirely synthetic. The only independent elected in the last three elections to Westminster was Martin Bell, and he would probably have failed had Labour and the Liberals not stood down. But the system does cut the link between local parties and the nomination process.

This link is not, for me, one of the great glories of our political system. I know enough of what goes on in local selection battles for all three big parties, to understand that - whatever else it is - it is not usually a talent contest. There is a tad of ideology (is the local party left- wing or right-wing, Europhile or Eurosceptic?), a smattering of local particularism (for or against the Snide Park traffic calming scheme?), a pinch of pork barrelling (can you deliver on the new chip factory?), a soupcon of minor corruption (what can you do for Cllr Podd?), and a morass of prejudice about marital status, orientation and gender. Historically this process has weened out the intellectuals, the women, the incorruptible, the over-honest and - above all - those who too resolutely put mission above party.

When I was younger, I used to envy the Italians one thing at least. Every election, the Italian Communist Party (as was) used to put a whole lot of interesting people on their list. You could have a professor of semiotics, Bernardo Bertolucci, a sea captain, the editor of a feminist magazine and a Sicilian soccer player all elected to parliament on the PCI ticket. The Radical Party put up a porn-star, La Cicciolina, and began a debate about pornography. In Britain you'd get Cllr Len Podd, who would promise to see the local party all right.

This has bred a mediocre, sectarian and parochial political culture in this country. To prove it you need look no further than last week's kerfuffle about intensified co-operation between the Liberal Democrats and New Labour. Paddy and Tony got together and decided to talk across a wider range of topics than just constitutional reform. And BANG! Within hours we have a Campaign for Liberal Democracy set up, threatening dire consequences to Mr Ashdown on account of his liquidationism. Now, the activists may understand why they oppose co-operation, but the voters certainly won't. They may be left wondering at the irony of the dissident Lib Dems, agreeing with left Labour on almost every criticism of the Government, and also joining with them in a passionate plea that they should each have nothing to do with the other.

This reminds us that the king's evil advisers are right when they say that democracy is too important to be left to activists. Activists, by their nature, transcend ordinary humanity, and cannot really be trusted to look after the rest of us. But, in that case, who will choose the party candidates for mayors and first ministers? The 69,000 London Labour party members should, according to Ken, all vote on who will represent Labour, without any Millbank pruning. But what about the rest of us? Might we not be better served by whoever Tony likes being the candidate?

I trust neither automatically. And that is my dilemma. I do not think that the system of local selection is great, and yet I worry about excessive centralism. We may end up Poddless, but with lots of Ecclestones, and precious few Bertoluccis.

Fortunately, a system is at hand that would allow the public to help the parties make their choices. In America, the big parties hold primaries of registered supporters (not members) to determine the candidates. President Clinton does not hold sway over the congressional or gubernatorial nomination - sympathetic voters do. We could assist in deciding between Rhodri and Alun, or Ken and Trevor. This would achieve Mr Blair's purpose of locating the decisions away from activists, while ensuring that it does not become just the prerogative of those terrible, wicked, evil advisers.

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