Monday, 22 October 2012

Recognising the cyclic

I've just started reading Stanley Greenberg's excellent book Dispatches from the War Room. A book which so far (about a fifth of the way in) I highly recommend. It charts the political fortunes of 5 world leaders that Greenberg worked with as a pollster. One of the themes which has caught me is that of cyclic history.

Greenberg talks extensively about the fact that political parties which score big are those which seek to reform themselves, not internally, but rather to realign themselves to the wishes of the people after a period in which they had become distant. It's a feature of modern politics that over time political parties drift from their connection to the electorate.

Despite the fact that this is a fairly obvious feature of the modern political process it seems no political party is immune to the temptation to treat ideology as more important than the electorate. Yet if it's so obvious, why is it not something which is corrected. Why would any organisation allow itself to drift so dramatically from the group which they depend on? In essence any political party which does this is denying itself the ability for independent action, in the short term the public will turn against them, making it harder to enact policy, and in the long term they will lose an election.

My contention is this, after a peak of connection to the electorate a party gains political supremacy, and in the initial stage will be able to carry itself forward by inertia, not needing to reference public opinion. At this stage policies will largely reflect public desire, since they will have entered power in alignment with the public.

Moving forward however, the model starts to drift, as the party makes small amendments that draw it away from the public, without causing undue fuss. Policies will still largely be enacted in a fashion which works for the majority of the electorate, however, the degradation has set in, and now there is a problem. The model has become perverted from it's initial comprehension, and attempts to correct it are based on flawed assumptions. Over time this will only grow more acute, with the party clinging to a model which is simply out of date, or is a misunderstanding of the current environment.

When the party falls out of favour with the electorate entirely there is an opportunity in the aftermath to renew and recapture something. It's possible the Labour party in the UK is undergoing this process at the moment, yet it's hard to be certain, due to the currently insular character of the organisation. It's my hope that it is, since a renewed Labour party might require the same from the Conservative party.

Usually in order to achieve this major change in trajectory requires a new leader as without this the model which led to disaster cannot easily be replaced. Even when a new leader takes control they have to overcome institutional inertia in order to replace flawed doctrine with something new. Taking an evidence based approach to policy development is even more challenging, since the party will most likely have clung to it's ideology as it's public support crumbled.

What is necessary is something new, a political party which is able to constantly renew itself, which clings to the public discourse and seeks to represent it, rather than seeking to shape the public discourse to where it wants the discourse to be. That's not to say that a political party should slavishly obey every whim of the public, but the public cannot be treated as a resource.

How does this programme of renewal take place? It's hard to say, but most likely it will depend on having an organisation which exists outside of the party and outside of Government, which seeks to chart and comprehend shifting public opinion, demographics and other factors and translate that information to the political party. It might sound like this is something which already happens, but polling is all too often used to cynically, to support an existing agenda. I think it should be the other way round, the polling and research should help people have a voice within policy and the political realm. 

It might sound idealistic, but it should be possible to create a political system, and a political party which is able to constantly reference the mood of the nation and represent people, not just the state of the nation when they were elected.
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