Friday, 20 May 2011

Old Money, New Money, No Money

Well, Alternative Voting appears to have crashed and burned out of this months referendum, so lets have a look at the idea of political parties and see where the 70% "No" vote to electoral reform leaves us. First, we need to take a quick ramble through history.

Once upon a time, all wealth and power was derived from the ownership of land, and we had a simple "one man, one vote" political system.

That man was the king, he owned all the land, and he had the vote.

When King John had his run in at Runnymede in 1215, I believe that the feudal baron's who forced him to sign Magna Carta, a charter limiting his powers and protecting their own privileges, where the first political party in our history to represent the interests of the people. Well... the interests of people with wealth, power and noble lineage anyway, and we remained as a one party state for the better part of half a millennium.

Over the following centuries, people developed new ways of generating wealth that didn't stem from the ownership of land, sheep and peasants. Advanced manufacturing techniques created new goods to be traded, shipbuilding and navigation technology gradually opened the whole world up as a market in which goods could be bought and sold, and a new class of people came into being. They had wealth, and they had some power, they may not have been the scions of aristocratic bloodlines but quite frankly, they didn't care. This created a division in the political classes of Britain that ultimately led to "the divine right of kings" taking a bit of a tumble, along with Charles the First's head, in March 1649 during the English Civil War. In the aftermath of revolution and restoration, Britain emerged as a two party state.

On the one hand you had the Tories, the successors of the Cavaliers who sided with the king during the war and, arguably, the descendants of the feudal baron's who imposed Magna Carta. They represented the upper class.

On the other hand you had the Whigs, the political offspring of the Roundheads; the merchants, dissidents and non-conformists who had sided with parliament against the king. They represented the middle class.

At that point, the first past the post electoral system pretty much made sense, and British politics remained a two horse race over another two hundred and fifty years of more or less radical social change.

There followed an Enlightenment, a scientific revolution, an agricultural revolution and then an industrial revolution. Also an American one and a French one too.

By the 19th century, England was the heart of a military-industrial super-power, capitalism had replaced feudalism but little else had really changed, other than in name, the Whigs having mutated into the Liberal Party at some point along the way. Some of the the middle classes had grown as rich and powerful as the nobility on manufacturing and export, on international finance and on the slave trade, whilst the peasants, who had moved to the towns and cities when the agricultural revolution threw them off the land, had transformed into the industrial working class.

They still went off to die in the nation's wars of conquest and empire. They still lived in abject poverty and squalor, working 18 hours a day, six and a half days a week, from the age of 5 upwards in dangerous and back-breaking conditions. If they lost their job and became destitute there was the work-house, if they became too elderly or infirm to work, there was death in the gutter. The difference was that whilst it had been extremely difficult to organise large numbers of illiterate peasants who were scattered across the length and breadth of the English countryside, the industrial working classes were all crammed together in the towns and had much stronger social networks, some of them could even read and write! They could be organised by the factory gate, in the pubs and in the streets, messages could be spread between them very effectively and they could be quickly gathered together in huge numbers.

They protested, they rioted, they went on strike and, in due course, the got the vote.

If the Tories were the party of "Old Money", and the Liberals were the party of "New Money", then the Labour Party, founded to represent the newly emancipated working class, were the party of "No Money".

Dragging ourselves back to the 21st century, kicking and screaming into the post New Labour years, we should be starting to realise that our current electoral system does not take account of the plurality of interest groups within our society. It encourages a bi-polar split between parties that represent old money, and new money, Tony Blair and co having started the cannibalisation of the Liberal Democrat vote that David Cameron's Conservatives, still very much the decedents of those civil war Cavaliers, are now completing with great gusto. We are becoming once again a two party state, with the Liberal Democrats having been virtually subsumed by their Conservative coalition partners and the Labour Party rushing into the vacuum created in the centre.

There is now much talk of creating something called Blue Labour, of the labour party adopting more conservative policies and moving to the right on social issues, in an attempt to win the votes of the "squeezed middle classes" and win back the votes of working class votes alienated by issues such as immigration and crime. Support for this idea of a cross-class consensus, comes from the way the super-rich of the upper class keep getting richer and more economically distanced from middle class workers, even when you include doctors, solicitors, teachers, civil servants and directors of small to medium enterprises.

With the rejection of electoral reform, even if AV was a pathetic little compromise, I suspect that a collapse back to a two party system is now inevitable and the Liberal Democrats will no longer exist by the time of the next General Election, with one party, the Conservatives, to represent the interests of the wealthiest elite, and another, Blue Labour, to represent those of the ordinarily well off. In effect we will be transforming our political landscape into something similar to that in place in the United States, with the Republicans on the right, the Democrats in the middle, and no one at all on the left.

One of my biggest fears about this is the prioritisation by Tories, Lib Dem's and Blue Labour alike of social mobility over social equality. By putting the emphasis on a system that values the ability to move up the social scale over the eradication of differences between different points on the social scale, we set in stone the idea that there will always be the working poor.

The people who do all the dirty, menial, laborious, boring, unglamourous jobs, with the longest and most antisocial hours, that pay minimum wage with minimum paid holidays, no sick pay, pension or benefits, where you end up with no savings, pension or property, broken down and old way before you reach a retirement age that keeps being moved upwards. The people who are more likely to get heart disease and more likely to get cancer, who get the worst health care and die the youngest, who are more likely to be the victims of crime and are more likely to go to prison. They are the most likely to be hit with long term unemployment and they live in neighbourhoods where their kids have a choice between a school that is failing and a school that has failed, and the one that is failing is already full up. They are not "doleys" or "scroungers", they are the people who work hard but ultimately do not get a better quality of life than they would have if they had been on state benefits all their lives. And without free education, the chances of their children ever having anything more than them are rapidly diminishing.

So personally I am opposed to two party-ism, and opposed to Blue Labour. I favour a Proportional Representation electoral system, and a society with a multitude of political parties that are free to represent the interests of everyone in society, not just of the people with the money, whether it be old or new.

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