Politics in action - the decline of democracy

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The Independent Online
Over recent weeks, and for that matter years, the story of British politics has been essentially a simple one: there has been an unstoppable right-wing ratchet at work.

Thus, recently, John Major makes implausible-sounding pledges about tax; Tony Blair caps them by offering lower taxes at basic rates and hinting that there will be no higher taxes for the rich. On the unions, each leader struggles to come up with tougher anti-strike ideas than the other. On law and order, similarly, we hear the rasps and barks of a populist auction.

Now, is this evidence of a great and genuine democracy in action, a historic change in the mood of the British political nation ... or does it show the opposite, a once-vibrant democracy turned doddery and drooling? For millions of abstentionist Britons - on past trends we can assume that around 10 million won't vote in the next election - this "Torier than thou'' competition feels like the negation of democracy, even of politics. All sorts, radical rightists, younger voters, environmentalists, socialists, anti-Europeans, and some who are merely old and observant, are excluded from top-table politics.

The targeting of uncommitted swing voters in marginal constituencies has, election after election, slowly narrowed the agenda. An election is coming, so other kinds of choice, difficult policy choices, such as the limitations of tax cutting and public spending, are put into storage until the voters are well out of the way. The condition of European democracy; the future of welfare; radical agendas in education ... all should be near the heart of political argument. But as the electoral choice approaches, they slink, coughing, into the shadows.

There is, however, another argument in favour of our politics. It goes like this. We have a system that is not designed to reflect every interest group in the nation - thank God - but is meant to fix the national tiller clearly for five years or so. If the competition between the parties sounds very conservative, that is because the national mood is conservative.

Though this sounds robust, it is a mystical argument: it assumes that a "national sense of direction" can be accurately divined from Tory and Labour focus groups and the wavering opinions of a relatively small number of people in certain constituencies.

There are shards of common sense buried in this rubble of an argument. It is true that the big economic changes of the past quarter-century have limited the range of political options, thus driving the parties into a closer competition. But the logical problems are greater. First, is there any longer a "national'' will at all? It certainly doesn't include Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland. More concretely, there is the drawback that general elections don't produce governments which reflect the mood of most people on polling day. The Thatcher revolution of the early Eighties had little to do with what people actually voted for in 1979; nor did Black Wednesday and its aftermath reflect John Major's 1992 programme. We voted first and got the direction later. Similarly, there are good reasons to suppose that Tony Blair in power would be a much more assertive and - whisper who dares - radical figure than Tony Blair on the campaign trail. It's a question of character. I think Mr B is unlikely to get into Downing Street and then spend the next five years discussing Roman Catholicism with Paul Johnson or practising headers with Kevin Keegan.

And there is a third obstacle to seeing the current party-political competition as a rational or objective choice. Put simply: how do we know that this timid "me too''-ism is what the country wants? If the big parties, through their control of the money and the airtime, are able to control the agenda of British politics, how are we supposed to discover whether that agenda really reflects underlying beliefs or popular choices? No, the more you look at it, the more the argument that the British political system provides, by historical alchemy, a sufficient national choice seems a comfortable, lazy excuse for democratic failure.

We have had several days now of, in effect, an election campaign. And what have we learnt? Absolutely nothing. The Conservatives were burned after 1992 by their lurid tax-based campaigning. It was clear that never again could they run the same kind of ''Labour's tax bombshell'' stuff and get away with it. Or was it? Now they are doing it again - different image, identical message.

It has been profoundly dispiriting. Labour is, perhaps rather attractively, utterly hopeless at knee-in-the-groin politics of the Conservative variety. The difference between Labour machiavellis and Tory ones is that Labour sprites are very good at getting themselves written about, and Tory sprites are good at getting re-elected.

So what is new? Well, new Labour is new by self-definition. But it bears a family resemblance to Neil Kinnock's modernised Labour Party. Blair is far tougher on tax than John Smith was. But he faces the same kind of attacks as Kinnock and is responding in the same kind of way - closing down differences, sailing ever closer to the enemy.

It is what he believes he needs to do. But it is worth remembering that Blair's radical promise, from political reform to an economics at least aware of the condition of the poor, is increasingly what he doesn't talk about. So the ratchet clicks further to the right every day he campaigns. For Labour reformers, as for Liberal Democrats, the only escape is a different voting system. Blair remains unconvinced: but neither he nor his party can afford another election campaign conducted like this one.