After devolution, referendums and possible succession[s], what’s happening to our politics?

Janan Ganesh is an outstanding new talent in the UK political press. His columns for the FT are fresh and sit outside the niggly media bubble of Westminster.

A few days back he outlined an apparent effect within the political political system currently more pronounced on the Tory side of things, but which may also have echoes elsewhere. He argues

As the biggest parties weaken as corporate entities, individual politicians and factions within them become more powerful. So even personal patronage, the one lever that only a prime minister can pull, cannot be pulled very far. Mr Cameron, Mr Blair and his Labour successor, Gordon Brown, all abandoned plans to demote one cabinet member or another for fear of reprisals from their supporters.

In fact, resignations by influential ministers – a kind of reverse patronage – can be more potent than patronage itself. Mr Blair discovered as much in 2006, when the departure of a hostile minister forced him to announce that he too would be gone within a year.

Running deeper than any of these constitutional and political changes is a new culture of centrifugalism in the country. There is a vague but insistent belief that power is essentially dirty and should be smashed into a thousand particles and scattered around the public realm. Mr Blair divested power to the courts, to self-running public services, to the Bank of England, to Scotland, Wales and London.

Mr Cameron has largely run with this and, even if Scots vote to preserve the union in next month’s referendum, more powers are on their way to Edinburgh. Referendums themselves are becoming semi-regular events, taking great questions of state – from the electoral model to EU membership – out of the prime minister’s hands.

In Ireland Referendums come thicker and faster than ever. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which has been much in the news recently, was passed in October 1983, making eight referendums in forty six years. There have been twenty five in the thirty one years since.

As Paul Evans has perceptively noted

Referendums are often used to deal with the difficult questions that political parties dare not address during elections. They allow politicians to park awkward or divisive questions when they’d be better offering joined-up answers. They provide a way of letting the political class off the hook.

Ganesh suggests there’s a process of alienation in play here, not least in consideration of Labour’s resilient poll lead over the Tories when Ed Miliband’s personal ratings are so poor compared to the PM. The explanation? Perhaps the electors have figured…

…that the office of prime minister is shrinking, and this has political implications that are already visible. There is a question detaining people in Westminster: how does a leader of the opposition with personal ratings as bad as Ed Miliband’s manage to remain competitive? Why is Labour still ahead in the polls nine months before the general election?

True, the party does well out of the Conservatives’ reliably noxious reputation, which puts a cap on Mr Cameron’s vote share. But there is a cruder explanation. Voters might simply think the job of prime minister does not count for much any more.

Denuded of executive power, trammelled on all sides, the nominal head of government is no such thing. So what David wants or Ed wants matters little to the people choosing between them.

 

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