Since I first started taking an interest in British politics in 1977 (the Fire Brigades strike) I cannot recall an election campaign from which I was so disengaged. The problem, perhaps, is what the late Leon Trotsky described as ‘a crisis of leadership.’ Consider the nature of the problems which the next Prime Minister will have to tackle. Widespread alienation from politics and ‘the system,’ a hesitant recovery from the global economic crash of 2008, population shifts through migration and war on a huge scale, climate change, (or if you prefer a rapid succession of freak weather events at an unprecedented level) international terrorism linked to an Islamist ideology which has traction amongst sections of the Western Muslim population and, in the West, a rapidly aging population committing auto-genocide through its failure to reproduce at maintenance levels. And these are just the global problems not taking into account domestic matters like British exit from the European Union (Brexit.)
Faced with all this we would hope for political leaders with the vision to see the extent and seriousness of these challenges, the imagination to find solutions to them and the honesty to treat their electorate like adults who can handle inconvenient truths. Yet to few of those in the top echelons of British politics can the adjectives visionary, imaginative or frank be applied. And most of those few qualify for the additional sobriquet maverick. Our leadership cadres appear for the most part to be one trick ponies who have a more or less fixed line of thinking on politics as such and devote most of their mental energies to process rather than outcome.
The leadership crisis is exacerbated because both of the leaders of Britain’s main parties, Theresa May of the Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn of Labour, are semi-detached from their parliamentary followership. Mrs May has a philosophical perspective which seems to favour the needs of communities and of small scale voluntary organisations over the demands of the free market and she sees the State as a vehicle for protecting and nurturing the former from the vicissitudes of the latter. This is fundamentally at odds with the Thatcherite neo-liberal instincts of most of her colleagues on both the pro and anti Brexit wings of her party.
Jeremy Corbyn seems to have adopted a particular version of quasi-Marxist 1970’s socialism (perhaps he was inspired by the Fire Brigades strike) and has never felt the need to reexamine his first assumptions. Whatever the merits of his perspective his parliamentary party demonstrated in a vote of no confidence that 80% of them rejected it. Even if he is augmented by a new intake of MP’s he will still find that the majority of his colleagues prefer some variation of centrist social democracy with or without a technocratic twist to it.
So if either of these two win then the electorate is, in a very English phrase, buying a pig in a poke. That is, we have no real idea how they will attempt to govern because despite the mandate an election might give them the UK system is insufficiently presidential to permit Prime Ministers to disregard the opinions of parliament. In a situation where most MP’s have more in common with their opposite numbers across the chamber than with their actual leader then government is likely to be episodic and timid not programmatic and daring though it is the latter that the situation really demands.
It does mean though that the opinions of backbenchers will matter perhaps more than at any other time in recent history. In an election where I cannot in all honesty support either party; not the Tories because although Mrs May’s ideas are appealing I simply don’t believe the Conservative will want to deliver on them; not Labour because those who would govern are not competent and those who are competent would not govern, I can only suggest looking closely at the individual candidate standing in the particular constituency. The political instincts and opinions of a constituency MP will be important in the coming parliament so it is more important to choose a wise candidate than a person with the right coloured rosette.
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The picture of an empty lectern outside 10 Downing St is from the Daily Express