The strange death of political loyalties

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The Independent Online
The end of the party is in sight. Whatever the outcome of this election it will be the last time that political machines with labels will be pre-eminent in our democracy. In a generation, loyalty to political parties as we know them will be dead. And ironically, among the principal assassins will be the creators of the most fearsome electoral machines of modern times - Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.

It is no surprise that Baroness Thatcher looks so fondly on the Labour leader; he is, after all, merely completing a process she started - the remorseless subjugation of party interests to the will of a leadership that carries on a dialogue with the electorate, unmediated by the self- interested murmuring of party barons.

This is not just another way of saying that there is now no difference between the main political parties. Life under a Blair administration would not be the same as life under a Major government. Labour looks as though it may be even tougher on public spending than the Tories. Blair's constitutional ambitions are radically different to Major's. And their styles of government will be marked by a huge generational difference, reflecting an average age difference between the Labour and Tory top teams of several years. There is clear water available here for anyone who looks.

However, voting is not only about a rational political choice, or about economic self-interest. It is also a cultural act. For most of this century, people have tended to think of themselves as belonging either to a Tory or a Labour tradition. You were either working class or middle class. Voting for the other lot seemed eccentric, even indecent; the sort of act reserved for snooty little madams who had got above themselves, or for eternally idealistic Fabian types.

Even non-traditional groupings have their prejudices. Indian voters have what used to be thought of as a super-conservative profile - more affluent, better-educated, entrepreneurial. Their homes, cars and private schooling shout "Tory voter". Yet they resolutely continue to choose Labour in huge numbers. Why? Because, in spite of Mr Major's own clean bill of health on the issue, they still regard the Conservatives as terminally infected by racial bias.

New loyalties can be created, but there is something more fundamental going on. Although the growth in support for single-issue pressure groups is often overstated, it is none the less significant. The pollsters tell us that three out of five young people won't show up at the voting booth unless someone promises free Oasis albums on production of a completed voting slip. The cultural ties are not being rebuilt or transferred; they are simply wearing thin, to the point of invisibility.

The personal triumph of both Blair and Thatcher lies precisely in hastening this cultural fragmentation. She persuaded the lower middle classes, increasingly out of sorts with a workerist Labour party, that they could happily vote Tory. Similarly, Blair seems to have convinced the new middle classes that they can retain their identity, but still share his aims. Indeed, the notorious focus groups no doubt show that much of Blair's appeal lies in the fact that he is not rooted in any of the great Labour traditions - he is not Fabian intellectual, nor union apparatchik, nor even regional baron. Whatever he is, it is new. But it is him, and what he is, not his party, that counts to Labour's new converts.

One consequence is that political parties are in danger of becoming virtually useless as a ready-made means of defining our stance on some big issues. How does the Labour-Tory divide help us to define where we stand on Europe? It does not. On crime or education? On the advances in technology that have produced cloning and new methods of reproduction? MPs will search in vain for a coherent philosophical position from their party HQs.

Political parties represent historical identities. Those historical identities become more evidently anachronistic every week, and the single large party that claims coherently to express a united view on every large question looks more ridiculous every day. As the work of the think-tank Demos and others has shown, we are now a people of multiple identities. We are workers, but we are also shareholders; we are Scots or Londoners, but we are also Britons and Europeans. A political process that tries to force us to suppress all but one of those identities is bound to end up by alienating us.

But it doesn't have to be this way. We may even be facing a golden opportunity to revive politics. The most moribund aspect of our political system is local government, all too often populated by anoraks, hacks and careerists. Our towns and cities deserve better than to be run by people whose main qualification is the ability or desire to give up time to sit on committees. This week, the Fabian Society published a pamphlet, co-authored by the MP Margaret Hodge, supporting the concept of mayors directly elected by the voters. In London, this approach is supported by three quarters of the electorate. More importantly, Tony Blair likes it. It is, however, hated by the party machines. After all, genuinely popular candidates might be chosen; and then who knows what they might do by appealing over the head of the party to the people?

The danger of giving the people unfettered choice is illustrated by the fact that two of the bookies' top three candidates for the Mayor of London are clearly unsuitable: Richard Branson and myself. But while our own capital languishes for want of leadership, its competitor New York's revival has been engineered by a multi-party administration. The mayor is Republican, but his chosen deputy is a Democrat.

Every day brings a new proposal that will loosen the grip of party discipline on the throat of politics. Increasingly, that grip feels more like the last convulsive clutch of a dying man. Proportional representation, devolution, the willingness of MPs to abandon the whip are more than straws in the wind. They are the harbingers of a new and more interesting way of running our lives.