It is easy to characterise Ed Milliband’s current spat with Unite as a putative “Clause 4 Moment” or, as he prefers to call it “an end to machine politics”. There is probably merit in both. But a braver leader is the one who calls for an end not just to machine politics, but to party politics altogether.
Of course the system does not allow it. Britain is trapped in the Oxbridge Union gladiatorial adversarlism that the House of Commosn represents – childish yelling across the desptach boxes, a tired relic of a previous age. Now might just be the time for the greatest act of political reform since 1832.
Many years ago, when asked what his first act would be on becoming Prime Minister, Dr David Owen (then of the SDP – remember them?) promised to rip out the seating arrangements of the Commons, replacing them instead with an altogether more civilised semi-circle, better suited to sensible debate. The clumsy first-past-the-post system is not only hideously un-democratic, it is also the progenitor of Punch & Judy politics and an anachronism in an age of networks and coalitions.
Why is this relevant for maybe not-so-red Ed?
Because a better system would allow Ed and Unite to go their own ways. A better system would be one that supports the formation of smaller, more focused parties (even single issue campaigners) and calls an end to the cliche of “broad churches”. The UK electoral system would need to be overhauled, just as political funding would need to be re-thought. Politics could re-embrace localism, ideas and ideals, while citizens could convene around issues that are felt to be personal and relevant. Citizens could reclaim the political agenda from the (party) machine broadcasters. In real terms, Labour (and Ed in particular) would thus be freed from the yolk of the Trades Unions, while Unite – and others – could organise themselves around a more (in their terms) “socialist” agenda. None of this would preclude the formation of future partnerships or coalitions – even pre-election deals – but it would allow both groups to be refreshingly honest about their own agendas and ambitions.
We live in an increasingly atomised and activist world. It makes little sense, therefore, to ignore this atomisation as it plays out with politics or political parties, but to respect it instead. (That’s why Open Primaries also make sense). I am sure the likes of Kenneth Clake take little pleasure in (metaphorically) waking up in the same bed every morning next to Norman Tebbit or David Davis. Conservatives would therefore be as liberated as their Labour opponents, whom they today called “sham”. Some could coalesce with UKIP (and would be more honest doing so anyway), while others might find common ground with Blairite social democrats and/ or a few remaining Liberals (though possibly not Simon or Vince). New networks in deed.
Future coalitions can be better built on honesty and clarity of belief. Public discourse would be richer for it and the electorate’s choices would be clearer and more democratic. Ed’s more radical and progressive approach, therefore, would be to call time not on machine politics, but instead on party politics. This would demonstrate moral courage, political vision and real leadership. It would out-think and out-manoever his political opponents. It would also be more truly representative of how today’s world really works.