In the hours since I wrote about Russell Brand and his call for unspecified revolution, I’ve been having a few conversations with people who think that, confused and incoherent as it was, he was putting voice to a real problem: there is not enough variety in politics.
The three “mainstream” parties, goes the accepted wisdom, are all essentially the same. If you’re a Lefty, that means that you’re disappointed that Labour is, nowadays, broadly in favour of the free-market economy. If you’re a Right-winger, it means that you’re disappointed that the Tory high command is pretty socially liberal these days. (If you’re a Lib Dem you’re just disappointed, etc and so on.) If you’re an old-fashioned tax-and-spend socialist, or an old-school social conservative, you haven’t really got anywhere to go in the three main parties.
Let’s say that’s true. Let’s say that the differences between the major parties are smaller than they used to be. (They’re clearly not non-existent.) What I want to say is: so?
The mainstream parties have worked out that if you want to win a respectable number of votes, you have to be pro-market while at the same time not anti-gay. (Yes, I’m simplifying for comic effect.) What counts for “Left-wing populism” and “conservative red meat” these days is Labour timidly offering a freeze on energy prices, or the Tories nibbling at the edges of the welfare state. I don’t think either Michael Foot or Enoch Powell would be particularly whelmed. Since, as a rule, I’m in favour of the free market (it makes things better, on the whole) and of social liberalism (have sex with who you like, as long as they’re grown-up humans who want to have sex with you) I don’t see this as a huge problem.
I know, I know. There are downsides to this model. For a start, the more similar the mainstream parties are, the less energised people will be to vote for them. That’s a shame. But if it’s a straight choice between “sensible policies and voter apathy” or “extremist policies and massive turnout”, then I’d rather the former.
And it’s not a straight choice between the two. There are more radical parties available. And it’s not as if they get ignored, that they’re squeezed out of the electoral picture by the ruthless machine politics of the big parties: Ukip and, to a lesser extent, the Greens have demonstrated that it’s possible to get a significant following with radical policies. There are places to go, if you think the mainstream parties are too mainstream (well duh). Go and vote Socialist Workers Party. Go and vote BNP. Some people do. But – and this is the great thing – not very many.
We had our great back-and-forth between huge radical ideas. It’s still going on, but the outer boundaries have been, by and large, delineated. Marx would probably have called it thesis, antithesis, synthesis. You can’t strip people’s wealth away from them and redistribute it as you see fit; you can’t refuse to hire someone because they’re black or gay. I’m not trying to be complacent – I know there are problems. But the world, as I said earlier today, is generally getting better. And the mainstream parties are moderate because the British people are, by and large, moderate. Forgive me if I can’t see that as a terrible state of affairs.