Magazine article The Spectator

There Has Been a Paradigm Shift in Politics, but Only the LibDems Seem to Understand the New Rules

Magazine article The Spectator

There Has Been a Paradigm Shift in Politics, but Only the LibDems Seem to Understand the New Rules

Article excerpt

Political journalists no longer possess the tools to report events at Westminster. The laws of politics have changed. But journalists try to carry on as if everything were as it was. We are like Newtonian physicists trying to explain away a nuclear explosion, or the molecular structure of the sun. The numerous assumptions and explanatory devices we bring to the task at hand are not simply useless: until they have been discarded altogether we have no chance at all of giving a coherent account of why and how political events take place.

To take several current examples. It used to be taken for granted as one of the iron laws of politics that governments lose their popularity mid-term and regain it as a general election approaches. That did not happen between 1997 and 2001. Tony Blair has demonstrated that it is possible to remain high in the polls all of the time. He has enjoyed an extended period of popularity that is utterly freakish and has no precedent of any kind in the history of British democratic politics.

To take another supposedly iron law: it used to be thought that corrupt politicians would be punished by the electorate. But that is manifestly no longer the case. The three characters most noisily caught up in alleged sleaze scandals during the last parliament - Geoffrey Robinson, Peter Mandelson and Keith Vaz - all gained an easy majority at the general election. Nobody has yet commented on this, let alone explained why.

Modern politics, it is becoming apparent, is undergoing a version of the kind of `paradigm shift' identified by the philosopher Thomas Kuhn in his famous work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. New structures and methods of analysis are demanded for altered circumstances. Nor is it merely the reporters and analysts who have been plugging on with redundant conceptual tools. The same applies to the politicians.

Take the case of the Conservatives. As the Newtonian physicists of the parliamentary lobby have already noted, lain Duncan Smith is doing many of the right things: imposing unity and discipline on his party, developing fresh ideas, moving to the centre, etc. Furthermore, the government of the day is drifting: at war with itself over Europe and the NHS, damaged by the failure to deliver on public services, hurt by new sleaze claims after the Enron collapse. Unfortunately the populace has responded with an almost morbid indifference. According to the old methodology, the Tories would now be surging forward in the polls. Part of the reason they have stood still since the general election is that they are operating within the wrong Kuhnian paradigm.

The main winner from the paradigm shift is, obviously, Labour, though there is no evidence that its underlying analysis of events is any more coherent than the Tories'. But at least Labour knows that something has changed, even though it cannot put its finger on exactly what. Anyone who wants to understand its agonised attempts to comprehend a phenomenon that is beyond its grasp should read an illuminating essay by Philip Gould, Tony Blair's political consultant, which was unaccountably hidden away in the media pages of last Tuesday's Independent. While Gould fretfully ponders the loss of faith in politics and voter despair, the Tories bravely battle on.

I am inclined to think that the Liberal Democrats, in their funny way, are closest to unravelling the mystery. This is not to say that Charles Kennedy is analogous to Einstein - a preposterous assertion. …

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