The knee-jerk opposition from libertarian leaning types such as Toby Young and others to the calls for firmer action by Twitter against abusive trolls reveals quite how confused some libertarians are about their own ideology.
Libertarianism, if it is anything, is the belief that society is better governed by a plethora of voluntary agreements given force by mutual benefit rather than law given force by the coercive power of the state.
If Twitter’s management decide that all its users should now abide by certain stricter standards through the use of a ‘report abuse’ button then that is a change to the voluntary agreement between Twitter and its users. If a Twitter user does not like that change then they can stop using Twitter.
One may regret that Twitter’s decision will make the site a less interesting place (although I think that view is probably wrong as well) but that decision cannot be compared, as Toby Young does, to state denial of free speech. The difference is absolutely fundamental: even if Twitter or any other website stops me saying what I want to say, I am still free to say it elsewhere or set up a new site that let’s me say it. The state on the other hand does its best to stop me saying what it doesn’t like everywhere and may ultimately prosecute or persecute me, my family and my friends to achieve that.
In fact, it may actually be more consistent for a libertarian to heartily welcome the Twitter move. It is a sign that mutual arrangements can work their way to strong standards of decent conduct without the need for state coercion. Young may fear that the ‘report abuse’ button will “domesticate the wild west” but this is precisely what libertarians claim can be achieved through the power of voluntary agreement.
Follow Adam Lent at @adamjlent
Two recent papers on entrepreneurship develop two different approaches to identifying and supporting high growth start-ups and micro-businesses. In their own way they also highlight an emerging and maybe not always helpful hierarchy in public policy attitudes to different types of entrepreneur.
The first report written by Nida Broughton and former Treasury minister Kitty Ussher for the Social Market Foundation (SMF) argues that the highest growth enterprises (meaning those most likely to take on employees) have two key characteristics. Firstly, they are led by entrepreneurs aiming exploit a market opportunity rather than out of necessity such as the need to generate an income following redundancy. Secondly they operate in a sector that has high levels of innovation and where the potential customer base is large.
Broughton and Ussher claim that if entrepreneurialism is to be as beneficial to economic growth as possible then it is vital that government policy and enterprise support gets more focused on identifying and backing businesses with these characteristics rather than wasting resources on low growth ventures.
The second report by Rebecca Harding for Co-operatives UK takes a different approach. Harding argues that it is the goals and values of the individual entrepreneur that indicates the likelihood of a high growth venture. In particular, Harding claims that those entrepreneurs that are “value driven” (meaning those who state that their primary aim for setting up a business is to “make a difference”) create more jobs than their “mainstream” counterparts and tend to be much more innovative. In an international survey of 2,500 entrepreneurs, Harding says about one fifth proved to be value driven.
The lesson Harding draws from this is that there needs to be a shift away from the money-focused, ultra-individualistic image of the entrepreneur that pervades TV programmes such as The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den (a not dissimilar call to one I made in a recent post). She also argues that government policy should focus more on encouraging and supporting collaboration between value driven entrepreneurs and others rather than focusing too heavily on financial needs and market imperatives.
Despite their differences my hunch is that the two approaches are not mutually exclusive. It could be, for example, that by combining the two we can identify the four characteristics of the highest growth enterprises:
- led by someone whose primary stated goal is to ‘make a difference’
- has a clear focus on the market opportunity it wants to exploit
- operates in a high innovation sector such as manufacturing or business services
- has a product attractive to a potentially large customer base.
However, before working up the full policy implications of such an approach it would be worth undertaking a critical exploration of an underlying assumption that informs both reports. This is that the primary or even sole goal of enterprise policy is to generate growth and employment.
For example, both reports acknowledge but then exclude from their considerations the fact that entrepreneurialism can be a very important source of income for the many individuals working in a sole trading structure even though many of these enterprises will never employ anyone or be classed as high growth. Many may indeed, at least initially, be the necessity driven enterprises that the SMF report dismisses.
Harding’s survey also finds that almost 70% of the entrepreneurs questioned gave greater autonomy over time as a trigger for starting their business; the second most popular reason after following a business idea or dream. Improved work-life balance is clearly an important goal in itself with the potential to generate all sorts of benefits such as greater individual well-being and stronger families. It may well be that this is in itself a good reason to encourage and support entrepreneurial activity even if it doesn’t aid the high growth ventures.
It also seems at least possible that the growth of entrepreneurial activity and micro-business over the last few decades could be having profounder benefits such as encouraging self-reliance and resilience.
Of course at a time of low growth and unemployment it makes sense to focus public resources on the fastest growing enterprises. But it is important not to lose sight of the fact that entrepreneurial activity has a wide variety of benefits beyond the purely macro-economic and these may also be legitimate outcomes of policy and support.
So much that passes for micro-business and start-up policy is horribly vanilla. For example, Lord Young’s interventions in which micro-business is declared a ‘jolly good thing’ and the Government is urged to chuck a few million quid their way or tweak the odd regulatory barrier.
Alternatively, micro-business and start-ups are projected as the main beneficiary of the hackneyed calls for the loosening of workplace and employment regulation. A demand that wilfully ignores the fact that the vast majority of micro-businesses and start-ups have no employees and are unlikely ever to have any.
It’s an approach that even shapes the outlook of the Federation of Small Businesses which has a series of campaign goals focused largely on access to finance and deregulation.
Where, one wonders, in all this is the anger. Micro-business seems unaware of the disjuncture between their growing importance to the economy and the fact that policy influence is wielded by a very different class of firm altogether.
There are now almost five million mini-firms in the UK accounting for over 30% of private sector employment and 20% of turnover. This means micro-business, on some measures, is now a more significant part of the UK economy than the conventional SME sector. In terms of total employees, the micro sector is not far behind the largest firms. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, this is a quiet revolution that has happened over the last four decades but maybe it was time it became a lot noisier.
Given this context, the tiddlers might want to start asking some awkward questions. Why, for example, is it the largest firms that get to sit around the table with ministers on a very regular basis actively shaping tax, trade and regulatory policy? Why, when news programmes want commentary on the state of business, do they almost invariably go to the multinationals’ trade union, the CBI or, worse, an economist working for a big bank.
Instead of feeding the sector policy scraps and laughably small funds, how about a wholesale review of business regulation and law to seek out which bits of our system benefit the big over the small? My hunch is that a forensic look at areas like patent law, planning regulation, transport frameworks, tax arrangements and public procurement practice would reveal a system deeply biased towards (and fully exploited by) the largest firms. I could be wrong but I’d be very surprised.
The truth is no-one of any importance cares about a mini-firm. The little get no help from friends in high places that give them a special market advantage. They simply have to produce stuff or services that people want to buy and want to keep on buying over the long run. It is here, down at the small end, that you find the free market working best.
Ironically, this is precisely where their power could lie. Unlike the big, micro-businesses don’t need to get involved in the unseemly cat-fight for special favours and subsidies that characterises so much of the big business policy discourse. They simply need to call for a level playing field; for the removal of just those special favours and subsidies that keep the big big.
In short, if organised and angry, micro-business could be the true champions of a genuinely free market.
Without much warning, this is turning into a momentous week in British politics. The Party which did more than any other to expand the welfare state and uphold its core principal of universalism has signalled its desire to move on. By proposing a cap on welfare spending while accepting the removal of certain benefits for richer families and pensioners, Ed Miliband and Ed balls are moving their party and the country into uncharted territory. In short, a new political consensus has rapidly emerged on the welfare state which accepts a radical break with the status quo.
For many this will be a moment of deep sadness. Indeed, it is difficult to look back on a century of policy making motivated by the noble idea of shared contributions and shared benefits and not feel rueful about what is being lost and anxious about what may be to come. The truth is, however, that Labour’s shift is an unavoidable reconciliation with reality.
Like all with strong political views that run against the grain of public opinion, those who hold a torch for the welfare state have convinced themselves that voters simply fail to understand the nature of welfare largely as a result of the misinformation spread by the press. There is certainly evidence that the British public do consistently overestimate the size of the welfare bill and how it is spent. But those who cling to this analysis need to recognise that these popular views are indicative of a deeper shift in public opinion driven not by The Sun and The Daily Mail but by profound changes in British society.
The welfare state went through its period of greatest consolidation in the late 1940s and 1950s. This was a time of unprecedented social solidarity resulting from the shared effort and trauma of World War II. As the generation that fought in that conflict and built the post-war state has grown old and died so have their values. The sense of national community that was so important to the creation and acceptance of the taxes and structures that underpinned the welfare state no longer exists to nearly the same degree.
The paternalism that also informed the creation of the welfare state has also disappeared almost entirely. The belief that individuals and their families could look to a set of institutions to protect and support them throughout their lives was hard-wired into British society. The offer of cradle to grave support from the state mirrored what many people expected and received from their employer, their church and their extended family. The welfare state was created in an era of lower geographical mobility and where many worked at the same job for the same company for their whole lives.
This is not our world today. The proportion of self-employed has risen (PDF) from 7% of the population in the early 1970s to 14% in 2011. In 1971 there were around 800,000 small businesses in the UK, today it is closer to 5 million – 40% of that rise has occurred in just the last decade or so (PDF). In addition, the employee relation with their employer is no longer so cosy: the latter offers less benefits and security and the former offers less loyalty in return.
As a result, we live in an economy where people are required to fall back on their own resources and live more independent, self-determined lives. In such an environment, it is hardly surprising that the paternalistic welfare state has lost its resonance and those who are seen to rely too heavily upon it are derided.
And yet despite this erosion of the principles that underpin the universal welfare state, the size of the welfare bill itself has remained largely unaltered since the 1950s (although it has grown very substantially if one includes pensioner benefits). In effect, we have a welfare state with a structure and a scale that has varied little over six decades even though the social values and institutions that once underpinned it have changed beyond recognition. It is this, not scurrilous stories in the press, that explains the well-evidenced and long-term decline in positive attitudes to welfare.
However, we do live in a world where people still need support and help during the difficult periods of their lives. The great majority of the unemployed are not ‘scroungers’ but are desperate to get back into work. There are regions of the UK where joblessness has been endemic since the 1980s – their revival will not happen overnight however smart your growth policy may be. And in an economy where creative destruction is a permanent feature, short to medium term unemployment can never be eliminated entirely.
The rational response to this is not to gnash teeth and wail at the loss of a welfare state that no longer has sufficient public support but to use theopportunity presented by Ed Miliband to engage in a serious conversation about what social security should look like in the 21st Century.
Some, including Miliband see a central role for the contributory principle. But there is also a wider debate to be had about the part that mutual associations, civil society bodies, community groups and insurance schemes can play. Appropriately, welfare will itself have to become a feature of that more innovative, fluid and diverse society and economy which has been the most profound factor behind this week’s events.
For a few years now there has been a fashion to offer support for entrepreneurs by focusing on a particular age group.
So, as a recent RSA report noted, there is a plethora of initiatives targeted at the 18-30 age group including the Government’s own Start-up Loans scheme. A trend which will only be boosted by the recent success of David Karp who established Tumblr at the age of 21 in 2007 and just sold the site to Yahoo for the ludicrous figure of $1.1 billion in cash.
There’s also been a surge of interest and support for so-called ‘teenpreneurs’ or ‘treps’ in the 13-18 bracket with a growing number of schools and colleges building entrepreneurialism into their curriculum with the active backing of the government. A cause which Young Enterprise has been championing for half a century!
So that’s everyone covered one way or another. Well, not quite. The age group that is notably absent from all the frantic activity is the middle aged.
Without the allure of youth or the demographic force of the old, policy makers and support organisations don’t get much cred for backing the middle-aged entrepreneur or the ‘midpreneur’ (prize to me for the worst yet). They are generally seen as able to look after themselves jolly well without any extra support.
There is truth in such a view. As the big study of entrepreneurial activity conducted by the Kauffman Foundation revealed, the most promising time to set up a business is between the ages of 45 and 54. 33% of businesses set up by this age group survived beyond the time frame of the study (2004-2008) while only 8% survived in the 25-34 bracket. This is hardly surprising: the middle-aged are more likely to have strong professional networks, good standing in their chosen area of business as well as lots of experience and skills both specialist and general.
Hang on though: why exactly do we do entrepreneurial support? Certainly we want to address age specific problems such as youth unemployment and redundancy in older age. But surely the main reason is to help the economy recover and then flourish by creating innovative and sustainable businesses. If this is indeed the main purpose then resources such as taxpayers’ money and government and voluntary sector effort should also be directed to those most likely to be able to establish those sustainable businesses.
So it’s good to see a call from within Government for the age cap on the Start-up Loans scheme to be removed. But maybe we also need to explore and address some of the specific barriers that face ‘midpreneurs’. In particular, there are the extra risks for forty-somethings who are more likely to have young dependents as well as financial liabilities such as mortgages and loans. They will be less time rich as a result but also have far more to lose by making the leap from the relative security of standard employment into the uncertain world of start-up business.
This is not to begrudge the support offered to other age groups. They face major challenges in establishing businesses and should be helped not least because entrepreneurial spirit needs to be established young. But let’s also maximise our strengths by backing those most likely to succeed.
I’m not a great fan of Labour’s current ‘responsible capitalism’ trope. That’s not because I favour an irresponsible capitalism but because what really lies behind much of the Party’s thinking is a belief that inequality and high risk practices can be resolved by state intervention and greater regulation. I am extremely sceptical about this not least because, despite its best intentions, state activism can exacerbate these problems as much as solve them. Our economy and society is also far too complex and fast moving these days to be easily shaped by the clunky habits of government.
So while much of Ed Miliband’s speech at Google today left me cold, it was refreshing to see him picking up on the theme of micro-business and entrepreneurialism which we have been working on here at the RSA extensively. Here’s what he said in a section nicely entitled “An economy made by the many”
The second part of our task is to harness the ability of the internet to transform our economy. In particular making sure that power isn’t concentrated in a few hands, but we allow the smallest firms to flourish. Enabling individual creators to work hand-in-hand both with the public sector and with global companies as they design the next generation of technology. That will only happen if the big firms don’t squeeze out their smaller rivals.
Sometimes markets themselves see off this danger. Like Google did when it gave Android to the world, open source. It prevented the smartphone market being monopolised.
But we can’t rely on the private sector alone. In the public sector the principle should be create more open access. Think of our great public institutions, like the BBC and the British Library, there is more we can do to open them up, through digital public space. Think of the old world where you had to go to the British Library, where you had to go and have a membership card to get in. Then imagine a world where you don’t need to go to the British Library with an exclusive membership card to access to the amazing archives they have.
Helping a whole new generation of small businesses in this country.
As I’ve suggested elsewhere making that link between the rise of micro-business and the challenge to concentrated economic power is very important and powerful. Forging an understanding of how that link might also address inequality and deprivation seems to me to offer a far better potential route to ‘responsible capitalism’ than talk of tinkering with tax and heavy handed regulation.
It would be good to see Ed M and other politicians developing these thoughts beyond the over-hyped tech sector into areas such as banking and energy where the state plays a role rather less than friendly to micro-business.
This is the sort of blog post that can lose you 200 Twitter followers at a stroke but what the hell.
Politics is a profession prone to humbug and those stripy mints rarely come thicker or faster than when public debate turns to party activists. No politician ever damaged their career by talking of their deep affection for their grassroots and, as we have seen over the last few days, any suggestion that the love does not run deep can cause turmoil.
An assumption behind much of the long-running tension between party leaderships and local activists is the notion that when political generals ignore their troops, democracy has somehow been undermined. This assumption needs to be challenged.
Democracy, of course, is primarily about the relationship between government and the citizens of a nation based on accountability and responsiveness. There are many good arguments for why political parties strengthen this relationship but the claim that local activists act as a transmission belt between the voters and government in between elections is surely false. Indeed, they often get in the way of a proper conversation. I think there are three key reasons why:
- Party activists believe they are more in touch with public opinion than their leaders (or anyone else for that matter) because they speak to ‘ordinary people on the doorstep’. Indeed this claim is used regularly to influence debate within parties. It is nonsense, of course, as any professional pollster will tell you. The party activist’s ‘sample’ is about as far from random as you can get and the views of that sample are never understood nor presented in an unbiased fashion. This is why the Chairs of local Conservative Associations, for example, can convince themselves that there is a wave of hostility to same sex marriage out there which will lose the Tories the next election. Many local Labour activists seem to have come to similar conclusions about the Government’s welfare policies.
- The wider public have not shown any great desire to engage with local political parties for a long time now. Membership figures have fallen consistently over the last forty years. As the Power Inquiry reported (I was its Research Director), people have a strong dislike for political parties both as a concept and in practice and generally feel highly alienated from them.
- Securing a position of power within a local party elite is not at all reliant on one’s strong link with local communities or even voters but is usually the result of simply being bothered to get involved and/or the capacity to impress other members of the elite.
Many will see those points as an argument against democratic engagement. In fact it is the opposite. When party leaders engage closely with their grassroots, it is a dialogue between two very well entrenched elites. Democracy best flourishes, in my view, when leaders have the culture, tools and incentives to have meaningful conversations with the millions of people who are not part of an established political elite.
There are some moves in this direction with national and local politicians making wider use of social media and some MPs and Councillors (as Joe pointed out) ‘embedding’ themselves deeply in their communities. Efforts are also being made in the Labour Party to forge closer links between activists and local communities although I do share the scepticism about how realistic this is.
If we really want to deepen democracy then learning from and developing these initiatives will serve our purposes far better than letting activists set the terms of national debates and policies.
Lord Young’s report on micro-businesses contained some fascinating data pointing to radical change in the UK economy:
- in 1971 there were 820,000 small businesses in the UK; by 2000 there were 3.5 million
- since 2008, over half a million new businesses have been established
- 95.5% of all businesses are micro-businesses (with less than nine employees) accounting for 32% of private sector employment and 20% of private sector turnover – this makes micro-businesses a far more important part of the economy than SMEs with between 10 and 249 employees
- most notably the number of microbusinesses has been rising inexorably since 2000 – there are 40% more of them now whereas all other sizes of business have remained static or even fallen.
I wonder if anyone, for example, has explored a possible link between the well-evidenced growth in hostility towards the welfare state and the rise of the micro-business. It seems at least possible that if you have much larger numbers of people working as sole traders or leading businesses that they are less likely to have sympathy for welfare claimants exhibiting no entrepreneurial spirit. It’s not so much a ‘get on your bike and find a job’ but a ‘get on the internet and start a business’ attitude that might be growing.
It could also start having a very big impact on how we understand routes to a fairer economy. Both right and left see the growth of traditional organisations in the private and public sectors as the key to more jobs which ultimately leads to greater wealth shared out more fairly. The left, of course, tends to favour a bigger role for the public sector in this while the right tends to favour the private sector.
But if millions of people are establishing their own businesses then the imperatives shift. What is required is not the expansion of the leviathans of the public or private sectors but precisely the opposite. The big players would need to be encouraged to get out of the way to allow more business activity and hence more wealth to flow to the growing ranks of micro-businesses. That might mean looking very hard at all the subsidies, regulations, legal structures and political prejudices that keep those leviathans in place.
For example, how would we bring about a micro-business revolution in banking, energy generation, transport or construction? It can’t just be through the sort of exhortation and very minor interventions Lord Young recommends. Surely the oligopolies that exist in key parts of the economy that have yet to see a micro-business revolution need to face a more forceful policy challenge.
It was Friedrich Hayek’s birthday yesterday. Were he actually alive I imagine he’d be having a rye chuckle at today’s criticism of the Queen’s Speech which, despite including twenty-one parliamentary bills most of which either extend or tinker with regulations, has been accused of not having enough in it or even of being a laissez-faire programme.
The Nobel Laureate is reviled and loved in equal measure but here’s three reasons from me why I think he should be read whether you agree with him or not.
1. Hayek is a great counter-point to our dominant culture of ‘do something’ politics. In a world of highly competitive political parties and 24 hour news coverage, the pressure on governments to be seen to be taking action in the face of any and every problem is intense. Sometimes it is undoubtedly right for governments to act but Hayek offers an important challenge to the easy assumption that the blunt instrument of legislation is any match for the highly complex world of distributed information in which we live. For FH, this was nowhere more the case than in economic policy where the best governmental intentions can often lead to awful consequences particularly over that deeply unfashionable time period: the long run.
2. Hayek was more subtle and complex than many of his opponents and proponents recognise. He is, of course, regarded today as the high priest of laissez faire, sink-or-swim economics. What Mao’s Little Red Book was for the Chinese Communist Party, The Road to Serfdom has become for Tea Party sorts in the US. What is less acknowledged by both sides is that Hayek argued that certain state protections did have to be extended to citizens. For example, he was a supporter of a universal basic income: the guarantee of a flat rate income to all citizens without conditionality. Indeed, it has even been asserted by some that Hayek was much closer to being a moderate social democrat than a classical liberal.
3. Hayek could never be accused of thinking boom and bust had been abolished. While our most influential economic policy-makers and more than a few economists may have convinced themselves that The Great Moderation was some sort of proof that the biggest economic challenges had been cracked, I think we can be pretty sure that Hayek would have thought no such thing. Based on his analysis of trade cycles in his early academic career, Hayek argued that rapid swings in economic fortunes were only exacerbated by the efforts of governments and central banks to stimulate growth. The idea popular in the nineties and noughties that committees of economists and politicians could tweak fiscal and monetary policy to keep the economy chugging along nicely as though they were the Captain of a ship gently touching the tiller would have had him chortling into his Viennese coffee.
Like any thinker of Hayek’s prolific output and enormous influence, he wrote and said a lot of things that were less impressive than his best work and in the case of his warm words for Chilean dictator Pinochet shameful and bemusing. And, of course, those who fundamentally disagree with his beliefs also have a lot of good arguments and evidence on their side. But there is a bracing quality to Hayek’s work and more than a little wisdom worthy of consideration by all whatever their values and outlook.
Anthony Painter is the newest Director in the RSA’s Action and Research Centre leading on the Independent Review of the Police Federation for which the RSA is acting as secretariat. Here he argues that the UK’s democracy will be severely tested by the rise of UKIP.
UKIP has captured the headlines following their first convincing performance in a set of local elections. What has been largely ignored is that these results may hint at something rather more profound. It is commonplace to explain away any seemingly new political development as the ‘same as it ever was’. Yet, there is the possibility that the emergence of UKIP is just the latest manifestation of democratic stress. If so, this would have serious consequences for the ability of any party to govern effectively in the near future- even if they were in possession of a majority.
The psephologists, Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, project a small Labour majority on the basis of Thursday’s vote. This is rather unsurprising given that we are mid-way through the Parliamentary term. What is surprising is that this majority is secured on the basis of a 29 per cent national equivalent vote.
Given the very inefficient way that our electoral system turns support into seats, its singular virtue is that it produces majorities which, it is argued, is a recipe for stable government. Interestingly, in 1992-97 it failed to cushion the then Government from the instability of a small majority. Then in this Parliament it has failed to engineer a majority. In two parliaments of the last five, the UK has had either an absence of stability or majority. The benefits of the current system are over-stated.
At the same time, the negatives are considerable. Imagine for a moment that Thursday’s result was replicated in 2015. This is not a forecast, it should be emphasised but a low support, majority government is entirely with the realms of possibility. On the basis of national support of 29 per cent, we would have a Labour Government faced with enormous national challenges, having to make very difficult and unpopular decisions, with a majority of a handful of seats that would leave it susceptible to backbench rebellion. Unless some magical economic fairy bestowed her generosity on the Government, it is not difficult to imagine such a Government going into rapid meltdown at the first sign of difficulty. It is a shocking prospect. It would be a Government of the few at risk of capture by the even fewer.
Electoral democracy is a special type of ‘market’. In the UK’s case, it has exceedingly high barriers to entry. Dominant market players rarely become extinct in western democracies. In the UK’s case, it is even harder for the major three parties to face such a prospect – they just continue for long periods of time with a low market share. This was the case for Labour in the 1980s and the Conservatives in the 2000s. UKIP, like the SDP and the Green party before it, challenges the status quo and is likely to find convincing market entry beyond reach.
It’s rather like Napster and the music industry. They will create panic for a while – witness the Tories calling for an early European referendum – but eventually the market structure and legal framework will prove formidable. Eventually, the upstart is neutered then subsumed.
Before it collapsed, the SDP to a certain extent helped Margaret Thatcher to a landslide in 1983 and in part spawned New Labour. Like the SDP, UKIP will leave its mark as it responds to a portion of the electorate who are perturbed – even angry – at both political elites and the nature of national, cultural and economic change. The Searchlight ‘Fear and Hope Report’ suggested that this could be around 20 per cent or so of the electorate in England. It is not inconceivable that UKIP will win a seat or even a very small handful of seats at the next election. If they get their organisation right, they now know where their potential support is concentrated following Thursday’s results. Beyond that, it is difficult to see them making any real progress unless we are seeing a seismic re-configuration of the political ‘market’.
It would be easy to dismiss such a scenario but I wouldn’t completely rule it out. Again, building on the low support, small majority Labour government scenario, adding in two or three UKIP MPs, a Conservative party in disarray post-2015 and a distrusted Liberal Democratic party, where will disaffected voters then turn? What is being described here is a completely dysfunctional market. When we add in the diminishing ability of parties to hold on to support as voters become more footloose, it compounds the problem.
The desire to rig the market-place protects the dominant players but potentially undermines the market itself. Democracy is not a luxury product but nor is it a necessity – large numbers of people can simply choose not to participate with no noticeable and immediate direct impact on their lives.
We are in a situation of democratic stress . Political leaders of the dominant parties have two broad options. They can accept the risk, trusting the system to resolve itself and eradicate new entrants. This option means accepting that the space of democratic party politics may well diminish further. Or they can open out.
This means unpicking nepotistic, guild-like structures that retain control for a self-chosen few nationally and locally. Having used the duopolistic structure of the political ‘market’ to shield themselves, like any bureaucratic institution the major parties have failed to innovate and are now paying the price. The alternative path is to change parties as institutions through such mechanisms as primaries and looking at how to open out the electoral system and wider democracy. Yes, AV failed but it was a system promising little or even negative change. Constitutional reform may well be the preserve of ‘chattering classes’ but disdain for the current state of the UK politics is widespread. Linking that to change could be the route to real reform.
Given the strong path dependency that exists within party structures and amongst the leaders who have benefited from them, it is entirely likely that today’s leaders will choose the risk option over opening out. They have been warned: just occasionally it is not just the same as it ever was.