Dave Richards, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Manchester and Patrick Diamond University Lecturer in Public Policy at Queen Mary, University of London examine the Conservative and Labour Parties manifestos, both past and present, as a framework to further understanding the new politics.
- Calls for a new politics are often in response to a rising climate of ‘anti-politics’ and generally emphasise a more participatory, pluralistic, deliberative or bottom-up approach.
- The current Conservative manifesto contains striking parallels with its 1979 platform, offering a strident defence of parliamentary sovereignty.
- The slogan ‘Strong and Stable Leadership ‘encapsulates the zeitgeist of the Westminster model – a top-down, elite-based approach prioritising democratic accountability.
- The Labour Party’s manifesto is laced with the rhetoric of a new politics. It has a whole section on ‘Extending Democracy’ wherein a critique of the Westminster model looms large.
- It might appear that we are about to enter a period of far-reaching change in British politics, but is the reality a case of the more it changes, the more it stays the same?
Over the last 30 years, the British political class has regularly advocated the need for what is, rather vaguely, termed ‘a new politics’. Calls for a new politics generally emphasise a more participatory, pluralistic, deliberative or bottom-up approach to politics. As we have argued previously, this has been in response to a rising climate of ‘anti-politics’. It has been framed as a reaction to the Westminster model’s emphasis on parliamentary sovereignty expressed through a representative, top-down and elitist/executive approach to governing. To date, reform has been limited and where it has occurred, often it has been despite and not because of the incumbent party of government.
In the wake of the Brexit referendum and the current 2017 General Election campaign, we test the temperature on this debate, by considering in what direction [if any], the new politics might be heading. Both the Labour and Conservative Parties, given their proximity to power, can be seen as agents of change, but also key veto players. We therefore explore these Parties’ manifestos both past and present, as part of a wider research project, to reveal their thinking on this crucial topic.
How did we get here? Reform and reaction since 1979
In the modern era, the 1979-97 Thatcher and Major Governments are often identified as having transformed the British political landscape. Thatcherism’s legacy of course, remains contested. Yet when it came to the constitution and the rules underpinning the conduct of politics, continuity rather than change was its hallmark. It drew criticism from certain elements of the New Right who argued Thatcherism had failed to pursue a truly radical agenda. The Administration regarded constitutional reform as a distraction. Its view was that in response to issues of ‘ungovernability’, the focus should be on restoring, not reforming parliamentary democracy. As the 1979 manifesto noted:
We are the inheritors of a long tradition of parliamentary democracy …The most disturbing threat to our freedom and security is the growing disrespect for the rule of law…We will restore it, re-establishing the supremacy of Parliament and giving the right priority to the fight against crime.
In contrast, the 1997 and 2010 manifestos from Labour and the Conservatives (prior to both returning to power after a period of opposition) reveal a rhetorical series of new politics appeals, alongside various commitments to reform. So, illustratively, the 1997 Labour manifesto averred:
“The Conservatives seem opposed to the very idea of democracy. They support hereditary peers, unaccountable quangos and secretive government. They have debased democracy…The party…says our constitution is so perfect that it cannot be improved…Our aim is no less than to set British political life on a new course for the future…Over-centralisation of government and lack of accountability was a problem in governments of both left and right. Labour is committed to the democratic renewal of our country through decentralisation and the elimination of excessive government secrecy. ”
Thirteen years later, strikingly similar rhetoric appeared in the 2010 Conservative Manifesto:
“Our fundamental tenet is that power should be devolved from politicians to people, from the central to the local…We will not succeed in building the Big Society…unless we stop government trying to direct everything from the centre. We will get nowhere with yet more top-down state control. So, after thirteen years of Labour, we need radical political reform. We need to change the whole way this country is run. As Conservatives, we trust people.”
Despite such claims about the need for a new politics, studies suggest the Westminster model stayed largely intact. So, despite moves towards devolution, key aspects of the British political system remained highly centralised. The 2017 General Election with Brexit as the backdrop is presented as one of the most crucial elections in a generation. It brings into sharp focus the debate over what the future shape of British politics should be. If we use the party manifestos as a guide, what is revealed are contrasting positions between the Conservatives and Labour when it comes to new politics themes.
Conservatives: The Westminster revival tent
In terms of the Conservatives, there are striking parallels between their 1979 and 2017 manifestos, with both offering a strident defence of parliamentary sovereignty. The 2017’s headline grabbing mantra is of course, the need for ‘strong and stable leadership’ in turbulent political times. If one were to commission a political marketing company to come up with a phrase that encapsulates the zeitgeist of the Westminster model – a top-down, elite-based approach prioritising democratic accountability – then surely this would be it.
Yet, beyond the campaign slogan, what is revealing is the vision for the future shape of British politics presented within. It provides a robust defence both of the Union and the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, in the face of the dislocation posed by Brexit:
“We believe in the good that government can do…We will need a state that is strong and strategic, nimble and responsive to the needs of people. While it is never true that government has all the answers, government can and should be a force for good.”
When it comes to the English question, the manifesto attests: “…we would consolidate our approach.” More notable is the pronouncement over the issue of a second Scottish referendum:
“The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union but some would disrupt our attempts to get the best deal for Scotland and the United Kingdom with calls for a divisive referendum that the people of Scotland do not want. We have been very clear that now is not the time for another referendum on independence.”
In further echoes of the 1979 manifesto, there is a whole section in 2017 entitled ‘The Home of Democracy and the Rule of Law’. What follows is a revivalist’s creed for the Westminster model:
“This election will decide the composition of our parliament, the oldest of all large democracies…This unequalled democracy and legal system is our greatest national inheritance. However, collective faith in our democratic institutions and our justice system has declined in the past two decades. It is the purpose of this Conservative Party to re-establish faith in our democracy, and in our democratic and legal institutions.”
To achieve this objective, a series of measures reaffirm the commitment to the core traditions of the Westminster model:
” …retaining the first past the post system of voting for parliamentary elections and extend this system to police and crime commissioner and mayoral elections. We will retain the current franchise to vote in parliamentary elections at eighteen. We will repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act…We will legislate to ensure that a form of identification must be presented before voting…We will retain the traditional method of voting by pencil and paper. We will ensure that the House of Lords continues to fulfil its constitutional role as a revising and scrutinising chamber which respects the primacy of the House of Commons.”
Labour: Reform at the edges, but the strong centre holds
For Labour, in the midst of what has been a particularly turbulent period in its history, the present leadership team under Jeremy Corbyn has signed-off on a manifesto, laced with the rhetoric of a new politics. It has a whole section on ‘Extending Democracy’ wherein a critique of the Westminster model looms large:
“Just as many felt that power was too centralised and unaccountable in Brussels, so many feel that about Westminster. A Labour government will establish a Constitutional Convention to examine and advise on reforming of the way Britain works at a fundamental level. We will consult on its form and terms of reference and invite recommendations on extending democracy. This is about where power and sovereignty lies…We will look at extending democracy locally, regionally and nationally, considering the option of a more federalised country.”
Specific commitments are though less clear. As in 2010, the Party has opted for a Constitutional Convention to flesh out the issues.
The manifesto commits to reform including:
- a democratically elected House of Lords
- extending the Freedom of Information Act to private companies that run public services
- reducing the voting age to 16
- repealing the Lobbying Act
- creating a Minister for England
Yet at, the same time, it opposes a second Scottish referendum. Elsewhere, it calls for a major expansion to the powers and fiscal capacities of the central British state. As with previous Labour governments, the Party still views the centre as the critical agent of reform.
The road ahead
Where then are we heading? If the polls are to be trusted, a Conservative victory invites parallels between Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Theresa May in 2017: both claim to have a radical project, yet each for different reasons, preserve the existing constitutional and political settlement. A May Government will seek to deliver the goal of the UK departing the EU by clinging to the illusion of absolute sovereignty and executive political control bequeathed by the Westminster model. It might appear that we are about to enter a period of far-reaching change in British politics, but it is equally possible that when it comes to many of the traditional institutions and governing assumptions underpinning the British polity, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
This blog is drawn from an ESRC funded project Westminster’s Dilemma in a Post-Brexit World: Reconciling a ‘New Politics’ with the Westminster Model [R120741].