The case for a new era of progressive politics

I apologise if this post is rather more ‘philosophical’ than usual, but as both a philosopher and a Green Party activist I believe that the current political debate around progressive politics or the forging of an alliance between the progressive parties is deserving of closer philosophical scrutiny. I fully accept the importance, even the priority, of replacing the existing FPTP voting system with some form of PR – the reason most often cited for such an alliance.  I also accept the sentiment that more unites us than divides us and the imperative of preventing another Conservative government. But the case for forging such a progressive alliance, for developing a new type of progressive politics, needs to be made on more fundamental grounds. Based on an understanding of the sheer complexity of the social world I want to argue that it is simply not possible for any single political theory or any single political party to claim an exclusive and comprehensive description of that social world and have an exclusive agenda for its future direction.

My understanding of the nature of the social world is that of a very complex and dynamic system embedded in, and emergent from, the eco-world. Whilst details of this process would be out of place here a few ‘headlines’ would help. Two of these are:

  1. Individual social actors emerge out of the social process that they are born into through the development of ‘expectations’ regarding what they think will or should happen in any situation, and that as these ‘expectations’ can only be formed via their relationships with the social other.
  2. Social structures and organisations emerge and are maintained through the progressive codification of the these ‘expectations’.

The word ‘emerge’, as used above, relates to an important concept within complexity theory, the concept of the creation of meaningful and substantial entities out of a dynamic process that cannot be reduced to that process. I believe that the language and concepts used by complexity science provide the most useful means of understanding the social world. Of the many features that such an approach brings to light, five are of great importance to politics:

  1. Within the social world there exists an inherent uncertainty; it is impossible to predict with anything approaching 100% accuracy what the consequences of any action will be.
  2. There is no inherent meaning or purpose to human social life on the planet Earth; such life is an emergent property of life in general and the only valid meaning is that which we give to our actions.
  3. There is, consequently, no absolute good or right; there are no transcendent or transcendental goods that exist outside of those which we construct as a means of achieving any goal or purpose given to human life.
  4. Because of the complexity of human social life and its relationship with all other life and the eco-system as a whole, no single theory is capable of describing all the relationships that exist.
  5. Any theory that does exist is by definition abstract; it has been abstracted from the complexity of the actual world and can only be assessed by being applied to the actual world.

Like it or not (and at times I do find this hard to accept), political pluralism is not just a passing fad. It is an honest acceptance of the complexity of the problems that need addressing and the need for the application of multiple view points. As no single perspective is capable of explaining the whole, multiple view points need to be synthesised through their focus on actual and particular problems. These multiple view points only need to broadly agree a description of the actual problem (for example dangerous levels of carbon emissions or growing wealth inequality) and a description of the desired end that any action would achieve (the reduction of carbon in the atmosphere to 350 ppm or the reduction of wealth inequality). The only justification and assessment of the agreed action is the extent to which it achieves the desired end.

My main argument against such an approach has been the fear that the perspectives and policies I honestly believe to be of vital importance will be ‘watered down’ in the practical task of winning votes to get elected and gain some degree of power. But I have been won over by Rubert Reid’s argument (Green House report The Green Case For A Progressive Pact) that moving towards such a progressive way of doing politics would allow each party and campaign group to continue to promote and campaign for their particular perspective; that such a move would promote differentiation. Yes, we would need to accept that in politics practical decisions need to be constantly made (and that not making a decision is still a decision), but if we can appreciate the fact that it is impossible for any of us to see the complete scenario then it becomes easier to make a practical decision whilst still holding on to your own particular theoretical viewpoint.

I am also becoming increasingly convinced that healthy democracies and creative decision making require discussion and debate about the application of theoretical (abstract) differences to actual problems. Quite simply, the wider the range of perspectives of an agreed problem the greater the composite understanding of the problem, and, therefore, the greater the chance of arriving at a creative solution – providing, of course, that all parties accept the impossibility of their own particular perspective being totally accurate and comprehensive.

Have the Tories lost their right to govern?

In many ways Theresa May is to be applauded. If she is successful in repositioning the Conservative party not only on the centre ground of British politics, but (and I can hardly believe that I am writing this) does so with one foot to the left of centre, she could assign the Labour Party to the margins for a long time. If (and I admit that this is a big ‘if’), if the country as a whole believes her rhetoric of support for not only British workers, but the British working class, and actually manages to introduce legislation that protects workers’ rights, the number of voters available to support the Labour Party will be reduced to only those who support them at a theoretical level. Those that vote on practical grounds will be lost for a long time.

However, two fundamental problems arise out of her keynote speech to yesterday’s Conservative Conference. If she is really drawing a line under David Cameron’s premiership, if she really believes there is “a need to change again” the direction of her Party, she is surely forfeiting her mandate to govern. She can parry the accusations that she has not been elected as the Prime Minister by pointing out the technically correct point that in the UK we do not elect a Prime Minister, but a party to govern – a party selected on the basis of the manifesto presented to the electorate. But if that manifesto changes, which surely it must if there is a need to change direction from that taken by the Cameron government, then the mandate to govern changes with it.

The second problem, of course, is that if she does accept that this change of direction requires the support of the British pubic before she has a mandate to govern, she will need to produce a fresh manifesto – a manifesto that all her party could support, not just those with one foot on the left of the centre line. Making a highly rhetorical speech to conference is one thing, but providing the policy detail to support her thoughts and getting the whole party to commit to the change of direction is something all together different. Getting those members with both feet firmly planted to the right of the centre line to publicly endorse such a manifesto would, I suspect, be next to impossible.

But the second problem is hers, and hers alone. The first has much wider democratic implications. The Conservative 2015 manifesto was only endorsed by 37% voters. Since then the Conservative Prime Minister who was re-elected on the ‘strength’ of that manifesto has resigned, and the new Prime Minister has just announced the need for a change of direction from that taken by his government. Under what conceivable stretch of the imagination does she consider that she has the democratic right to govern?