As British politics relocates from the Hutton inquiry to the party conference halls it is dominated by two “truths”: New Labour is in turmoil, and New Labour will win the next election. Blair has alienated the left over public service reform, the right over Europe and the so-called chattering classes over Iraq; he is even said to have lost the trust of the wider electorate. None of this, yet, seems to count for much outside the Westminster hothouse. Tory weakness is one reason. The new low-participation political culture, making opposition seem factional and shallow, may be another. And commentators forget that politicians have never been trusted-trust is, in any case, just one virtue among many. Nevertheless, as Matthew d’Ancona says, the political class is now thinking about life after Blair in a way that was not the case one year ago. Blair, too, has concluded that staying more than ten years is likely to attract Margaret Thatcher’s fate. But, as Steve Richards argues, the disillusioned left should not imagine that Prime Minister Brown will mark a big departure from today’s messy centrism. (He might, however, offer a clearer target for the Tory party to galvanise itself against.)
In the meantime, much ink continues to be spilled over the “hollowing out” of British politics. As Ben Rogers admits, no one really knows why there has been such a sharp fall in participation in party politics. Even with modern techniques of opinion sampling, a certain minimum voter turnout and party membership is needed to give politicians feedback and legitimacy. One obvious reason for the fall in party membership is that the big parties are no longer able to funnel broad coalitions of opinion in the way that they did in the 20th century. In our more individualistic, less class-bound times, too many people slip through the party net. Which party do you vote for, let alone join, if you are an anti-Iraq war, pro-hunting egalitarian? Conventional politics has two answers to the public’s lack of interest. The first is compulsory voting-why not? The second is proportional representation; this allows smaller parties-like pressure groups-to flourish, although at the price of horse-trading coalition politics. The experience of Scotland, which now has six proper parties, is worth watching on this.
Meanwhile, the politics of the world’s two big multilateral bodies are hotting up. At the WTO, poor countries have finally learned to unite. And in…