Politics in Britain appears to be a in state of stasis, nothing seems to happen. No longer is Westminster forum were the decisions crucial to our future well being are made, dullness and a ‘do nothing’ manner seem to prevail. In part this can be put down to Britain decline, both relative and real. Being now of relative global insignificance seems to have a negative impact, realising that are now figures of little significance, fearing that they can do little any import, they have lost the desire to do. However it might not he the loss of empire and the loss respect of the world’s leading statesman that account for this sense of ennui at Westminster. Economic theory offers an alternative explanation.
Parliament is dominated by two parties, although the rise of nationalist parties, in particular in Scotland pose a threat, the power duopoly of Conservative/Labour has not yet been seriously threatened. Duopoly is the extreme example of an oligopolist market and it is the theory of oligopoly that explains this political inertia or caution. Caution is the word that best describes the behaviour of oligopolists. They have reached this position of great power and don’t want to do anything that might threaten this power. What they realise is the power of their rivals is such that they have the potential to do great damage to them. Therefore they will do all in their power to avoid radical or aggressive actions that could provoke a damaging war with their powerful rivals. What they fear most is losing votes to their rival, much as the oligopolist fears losing market share to its rivals. What exist between oligopolists is an undeclared war or a truce of kinds. All fearing a damaging trade or political war that could inflict a death blow to their business or political party.
Oligopolists compete within certain parameters, fearing not to upset the apple cart. Businesses compete not with price but through advertising, marketing. Hoping at best to make modest inroads in a competitors sales. Similarly politics in Britain is another phoney war, conducted within strict parameters, parameters defined by the mainstream political culture. One of these parameters is responsible. Policies be responsible, not commit the partly to a great spending programme, because voters fear for their wallets. The political truism observed by all is increasing taxes is a vote loser, while reducing them is a vote winner. Also responsible politics doesn’t threaten powerful vest interests. The best example is the property lobby. Any policy that might threaten house prices is a ‘no-no’. This mainstream view also excludes as possible policies, those that while they may promise needed radical change, are too difficult to implement as they will upset power groups in society or voters.
In consequence politics is predominantly a war of words, each party claims that they possess that unique set of values that make them best suited to governing the country. Policy statements or policies spelt out in detail are anathema, as they can start a political bidding war in which each strives to out do the other. Potentially damaging to both parties as they have to make good on their policy promises. A leader can state that he wants every person in the country to have a job that guarantees a fair wage, an income that maximises their well being, but must never state how that would be achieved.
This can lead to the politics of dullness, with each party hoping to keep their share of the vote and remaining a major party. Hoping that this caution will be rewarded with those few extra votes that translate into a majority in parliament. The peculiarity of the British electoral system is that a marginally small but larger share of the vote can translate into a disproportionately larger number of parliamentary seats.
One other characteristic that political parties share with oligopolistic corporations, is a ruthlessness in preventing new entrants coming into the market. They are aware that their majority position in politics is always under threat, they are aware that the once in a lifetime event that changes the political landscape. A change which gives an outsider the opportunity to replace one of the two main parties, as occurred in the 1920s, when Labour replaced the Liberals as one of the two main parties.
This strategy is action is demonstrated by the risky strategy that the Conservative party adopted over Brexit. Its vote was threatened by the Brexit party, which one a majority at the last European election, through the support of disaffected Conservative voters. To crush this upstart the party adopted the Brexit party policy so depriving it of the political oxygen which it needed to thrive. This was a risky strategy as it meant their rivals the Labour Party could have opted for Remain, which would have put at risk their candidates in strongly Remain constituencies. Fortunately for them the Labour Party read the political runes and decided that majority opinion or the voters that mattered were for leaving the EU*. This about volte face by two predominantly Remainer parties, deprived the half of the nation wanting to stay in the EU unrepresented.
What can be said is that the British political system works to favour the two main parties in situ? No matter how outrageous their behaviours or betrayals, they need fear being voted out. British politics will continue in its outrageous but merry way refusing to countenance any change. Change that might threaten the power of the two dominant parties. Even when the crisis of climate change is becoming increasingly apparent neither of the two main parties will be willing to make the radical change necessary to help avert it. When the Conservative government reneged on its promise to install a national charging grid for electric cars, Labour remained silent. Fearing being accused of making irresponsible policy commitments that would threaten existing jobs in the motor trade, forcing on the country a change they may not want. Giving the leadership of Cop26 to any British politician is detrimental to the well being of the world. All that can be expected is lots of words, words used to say the right thing but devoid of meaning or commitment. Possibly this is a sign of Britain’s decline, a not willing to commit to anything that might threaten to diminish further Britain’s international power and reputation.