2016 minus 29: how long are british political memories?

Posted: 3 December 2015 in 2016minus, politics
Tags: ,

When it comes to British politics, it’s said that activists have long memories and the public short ones.

I think there’s a lot of truth in it, much as football supporters have long memories of their teams’ wins and losses and the public couldn’t really give a damn who scored, if they scored and indeed what the result of the match was.

Margaret Thatcher left office twenty-five years ago and while the influence she had on British politics can’t be understated, those who care deeply about her time in office and her legacy care very, very deeply. But anyone under the age of 30 probably won’t remember her as Prime Minister, let alone the arguments, policies and debates of her time. My lad’s 20, and has had an interest in politics (encouraged by me) since he understood what politics was. But he was born a mere two years before Tony Blair’s Labour won their first general election and so he’s only really had  experience of three Prime Ministers: Blair (who left office when he was 12), Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

Me? I remember – just – Ted Heath as Prime Minister; he left office when I was 10, but my main memories are those of Mike Yarwood impersonating him to comedic effect. Wilson was my first Prime Minister, but only for a couple of years before Sunny Jim – James Callaghan – took over, and it’s his administration – 1976-1979 that I really remember as my ‘first’. It wasn’t a particularly great time, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t an exciting one for someone to be introduced to politics.

For a start, there was the assumption of power. Within a few years of me being interested in politics, the PRIME MINISTER RESIGNED and someone took over without having been elected through a general election. (Of course, my aforementioned son had a similar experience in 2007, seeing Gordon Brown take over as Prime Minister, similarly unelected by the public.) 

At the time of Callaghan’s winning the Labour leadership and thereby the premiership, the fact that he’d not won a general election under his own mandate didn’t bother me in the slightest. 

By the time Brown did it, I was well acquainted with the British constitution way of doing things and I’d seen it happen often enough (Wilson → Callaghan, Thatcher → Major, Blair → Brown) that it didn’t bother me constitutionally but it still gave me a twinge of ‘this shouldn’t be the way’.

We have a parliamentary system; we maintain the polite fiction that every MP has his or her own mandate; an elegant inevitability leads us to the leader of the party that can alone 0r with other parties maintain a parliamentary majority. And that person? That’s your prime minister right there.

But I couldn’t put force my immaterial uneasiness into something more tangible until Lynne Featherstone (one of my favourite MPs; disclosure, I knew her before she was an MP) said it. Of course Brown had the right to be Prime Minister under our system with a small caveat: if he persued policies in government that were not in the manifesto under which he party stood for power in 2005? Then he should “go to the country” as the old phrase has it, i.e. he should call a general election.

That was it. That was what was bugging me. And I felt at ease once again; the system should work; it didn’t, but it should.

And then of course, the coalition came and blew all of that out of the water. And us new kids on the block who’d never encountered a genuine coalition government in our lifetimes got slapped in the face by reality.

The one thing the coalition government proved beyond peradventure was that any government, any government, was not only not obliged to get their manifesto into legislation, but could junk huge swathes of it, and pursue policies for which they arguably-at-the-very-least had no mandate.

Both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems dumped parts of their manifesto during the coalition negotiations. (Anyone who suggests the Tories didn’t lose anything is either kidding themselves or kidding you.) Both agreed to policies they’d spent the previous few weeks atacking as hopelessly naive at best and catastrophic at worst.

What still boggles my brain though, what still mystifies me, is how they could put into the coalition agreement policies that were in neither manifesto. That just… no. No. No. Our system is manifestly broken when that can occur.

For a time when I genuinely thought that coalition governments were likely to be with us for some time. The 2015 general election result could have been a blip back towards majority government before a return to coalition, but Corbyn’s apotheosis made that impossible in my view. If he goes before the next general election and Labour see fit to elect someone the public could think of as a Prime Minister in waiting, it’s still possible. But I think it unlikely. I think we’re stuck with a Conservative government for at least another 10 years.

But at that if not ‘more hopeful’ then ‘less unhopeful’ time, I suggested that part of the problem was the manifesto itself, and offered a possible solution. As currenly formatted, the manifesto offers too much to the public and has become so devalued as a document that no one – politicians nor public – think the whole thing will be implemented. (Even with a majority government, the current Tory lot are having problems legislating their manifesto in full; it’s almost as if they expected to have to junk some of it in coalition negotiations.)

We’re only seven months through this five year parliament. During that time, 

– the government have already had to drop a major treasury issue ‘costing’ over £3bn;

– the Labour Party is beyond the opening skirmishes of a civil war between the activists and the parliamentray labour party, and between the PLP and the leader;

– accusations of bullying – in different circumstances – in both main parties;

– The previous third party of British politics could now hold parliamentary meetings in a decent sized minivan

– The current third party change their views on participation in parliamentary votes with the wind

– we have an EU referendum coming up the campaigning for which will be as vicious as the Syria vote  

I opened this piece by saying it’s often held that party activists have long political memories and the public short ones. I truly when, at the next election, the parties offer their manifestos, how much of the result will hang on the reverse; on how long the political memories will be of the public, and how short the memories will be of the activists.


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