The Secret Club at the Heart of Politics?

Nick Clegg arrives in Downing Street
In an article over the summer Julian Astle, former director of liberal think tank Centre Forum, suggested that the UK had been governed for much of the last two decades by a ‘secret club’:

Numbering no more than 15 frontline politicians and a similar number of key advisers, it includes the last remaining Blairites and the “Cameroon” Conservatives and “Orange Book” Lib Dems at the top of the coalition government. Its members, divided by tribe, are bound by a truth they dare not admit – that they have far more in common with each other than with their own parties.

As an empirical claim this is fairly indisputable. Followers of any of these positions might claim significant differences (e.g. New Labour embraced finance capital in order to achieve social democratic aims in a globalised world that was inimical to them) but, at best, these are artefacts of history. The fact these political parties arrived at this point via different trajectories pails into insignificance compared to the sheer fact of their convergence.

While Julian Astle seems to merely see this as an interesting state of affairs to be analysed, others would see it as an egregious and worrying failure of democracy. The economic sociologist Colin Crouch argues that western liberal democracies are moving into a stage of post-democracy where the formal institutions of democracy continue to exist but the pervasive culture of participation and engagement which sustained an active democracy is increasingly exhausted. The decline of manufacturing and the traditional working class, as well as the advance of economic globalization, has hollowed out processes of democratic engagement to produce an isolated, disconnected and self-referential political class cut off from the public they claim to represent.

We are left with a politics dominated by elites where influential business interests are the only group within society able to make their voice heard. Their pervasive, though often unseen, lobbying activity shapes the priorities of government while engagement with the wider public is increasingly shaped by ‘spin doctors’ and other advertising professionals. While policy is incubated in secretive ‘liberal’ and ‘centre-right’ think tanks, the public is seen as an electoral obstacle to be negotiated, possessed of no agency beyond the ridiculous reifications manifested in focus groups and polling data.

This state of affairs isn’t undemocratic but it certainly is post-democratic. The UK is governed by a small clique of free-market politicians, entirely at odds with their own parties, implementing radical right-wing policies which largely failed to feature in either parties manifesto. That’s why Ed Milliband’s recent conference speech, as light on policy detail and as clumsy as the delivery was – rhetorically challenged as he is – ought to win him applause. It was the first time in a long time that any UK politician had departed from the neoliberal consensus that has underpinned the slide into post-democracy.

For so long we have been told that there is no alternative. It’s pretty inevitable the speech would win him enemies on the right, with the inevitable lazy accusations that he is ‘anti-business’ but it’s depressing that it seems to have won him criticism on the left. He’s the first mainstream politician to have suggested TINA be damned, there might be an alternative. Don’t shoot the messenger just because he’s an uncharismatic policy wonk struggling to cope with the destructive legacy of New Labour within his party.

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