Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Pessimism can be overdone

I did not know Simon Titley, nor had I knowingly met him, but nobody who created the opening of Genesis as it might have been written by a corporate numpty could have been bad. Caron Lindsay quotes this in her obituary on LibDem Voice:

1. At the outset, God’s agenda was to basically focus on his core deliverables, namely two leading-edge products, (a) heaven and (b) earth.
2. However, the earth lacked an overall concept, and had a low profile in terms of its key audiences. Obviously the Spirit of God had to step back and benchmark the existing waters before his game plan could get the green light.
3. And God’s key message was that light was a strategic objective, and it was covered-off.
4. And God’s perception of the light was that it was fit for purpose. However, his desired goal was that light and darkness should be differentiated in the marketplace.
5. So God branded the light ‘Day’, and the darkness he branded ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Light’. And the evening session and morning session made up Day One.
6. Then God set out with the object of factoring-in a firmament to interface with the existing generic waters, to bring to the party two segmented brands.
7. So God tasked himself with the job of rolling-out a firmament, to supply a proactive vehicle for launching his two distinct waters products, and it was up and running.
8. And God branded the firmament ‘heaven’. And at close of play, the prioritised actions for Day Two were ticked off.

Coincidentally, I happened to be leafing through "Reinventing the State" (2007) just now and came across a chapter by Simon Titley. It did not meet everyone's approval (this is the most detailed criticism, by Joe Otten), but it contained one insight which surely chimes with most long-standing political activists' experience:

The greatest crisis for the Liberal Democrats - and all other political parties - brought about by the social revolution is the catastrophic fall in membership. Those who counsel recruitment drives as the solution are missing the point entirely.

To understand what has happened, I need to tell you about my first drink. It was the late 1960s, I would have been about eleven or twelve, and one evening my Granddad took me through the back streets of Lincoln to his local Labour Club, where I was allowed to drink half-pints of shandy while watching the snooker. I was experiencing a now lost world in which the Labour Party was not a discrete political organisation but was woven into the social fabric, with a network of social clubs and union branches providing solidarity, not as a left-wing slogan but as a practical reality. My Granddad was a Labour voter all his life, not from an abstract idealogical conviction but because it was the natural thing to do. 

Ten miles down the road, my Great Aunt, my Granddad's sister, was a lifelong Conservative member and voter. So far as I know, she never canvassed, delivered leaflets or staffed a committee room. It was simply that in rural Lincolnshire, joining the Conservatives was just something you did, because it was part and parcel of the social fabric of the village. It was as natural as arranging flowers in the local church or stopping for a chat in the local store.

It is hard to recall this world now. Political parties were once social movements, a genuine expression of people's identities, which were in turn were a product of traditional affiliations to social class and settled geographical communities. Parties nowadays have been reduced to a small knot of political hobbyists, declining in number and rising in age, and in the process they have lost much of their democratic legitimacy. 

The era of mass-membership political parties is over, because the traditional culture of social solidarity that underpinned it has gone. Most people have disengaged from politics and, to the extent that they engage with the political system at all, their interaction is more analogous to shopping at the supermarket than it is to attending the moot hall.

It seems to me that the word "catastrophic" in the first paragraph above is over the top, because the plunge in membership did not kill any political parties, except perhaps for extremist entities like the National Front. The crisis has passed, to the extent that membership is now flat-lining - indeed, national LibDem membership rose slightly in 2013/14.

There have even been leaps in some parties' membership, rather like the surge in the early days of the SDP. UKIP is a recent case in point. However, Titley's supermarket analogy is apt here, too: new recruits are attracted to the headline message, rather like Asda's latest special offer, but are unaware of what the party is really about and after a short while, move on. UKIP's recruits tend to be elderly, which does not help the party's age profile. In contrast, I am always struck on the occasions when I attend Liberal Democrat conference by the number of young faces.

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