Danny Finkelstein makes a case in today’s Times for the end of political parties as we have known them. His argument is that political parties used to represent what he calls ‘tribal’ or what were otherwise known as ‘class’ interests. Now these ‘tribal’ interests have been abandoned in favour of a more detached, sceptical and managerial view of politics. As he says in the article:
In his book Tides of Consent, the American political scientist James Stimson argues that voters can be divided into three groups. The first group he calls “the Passionate”. These are people “who care a great deal about public affairs, have strong views, and form lasting commitments to one side or another”….A second group he labels “the Uninvolved”. These are “people who think politics isn’t important in their lives (and they are probably right), don’t pay attention and don’t want to be bothered”….Which leaves Stimson’s third group – “the Scorekeepers”. The Scorekeepers “are non-ideological pragmatists who trust or distrust each side equally. They tend to see politics not as a contest of world views, but merely as alternate teams of possible managers of government, each contending that they can do a better job. The Scorekeepers are not choosing directions in their votes, they are hiring managers.”
Finkelstein’s argument is that the decline in numbers of the ‘passionate’ and the increase in numbers of the ‘scorekeepers’ accounts for the volatility of electoral politics today. As a narrow structuralist description of politics today Finkelstein is obviously right. There are less ‘passionate’ people around. But the reason is that there is precious little to be ‘passionate’ about in terms of the mainstream political parties.
Finkelstein’s description of the ‘scorekeepers’ as looking for ‘alternate teams of possible managers of government’ chimes with the narrowness of politics today. The problem is that a narrow managerial approach to the economy, for example, is precisely what led the British government to allow the credit bubbles to develop which laid the basis for today’s recession. The government saw its role in the economy as merely ‘managing’ the artificially induced boom.
Politics is more than managerialism or it is nothing. Politics has to be where challenges are made to the status quo, because the status quo is not good enough. The political sphere is also the place where different interest groups fight out their differences in public in order to convince others that they are right. Not everybody in society has the same interests and the disappearance of class politics in its old form does not change that.
Today’s tube strike is a reminder of the fact that not everyone’s interests peacefully coexist with other peoples’. Sometimes confict is inevitable. Politics should be the battleground where these differences of interest and opinion are played out. For all his old style ‘class’ rhetoric Bob Crow understands this. That is why he is right and Finkelstein is wrong.