David Blackburn

We need to talk about democracy

I’ve been away from party politics for a few weeks and have watched the conferences as an interested reader rather than an active participant, so it is interesting (for me at least) to consider their aftermath this morning. It seems undeniable that, from the perspective of having gone about one’s normal working life for three weeks, the conference halls seemed very distant, almost as if they existed in a different sphere of reality. This is not to say that they are unimportant or even that the politicians found in them are out of touch, necessarily; but it is to say that there is more to our national political life than these salons for the tribal.

I was interested to read Fraser’s view that the fringe was more vibrant than the conference hall, because this was exactly my experience at last year’s Labour conference. The debates were fresher, the ideas keener.  And, most important and surprising of all, there was a constructive atmosphere between opposing views, a sense that the object was to reach an equitable solution rather than strike a pose. I recall one event particularly: a discussion about energy policy and its effects on heavy industry. The panel comprised a trade unionist, a representative of chemical businesses, an environmental campaigner and two Labour backbenchers. There was no name-calling and neither was there group-think, just reasoned argument which led to the conclusion that protecting the environment (and Britain’s environmental heritage) was as important as protecting skilled jobs, and that the present policy, at a national and international level, does neither. I have seen few panel events that better expressed Britain’s interest and belief in politics, and partisanship was conspicuous by its absence.

Parties exist to create dividing lines, as our adversarial system demands. This is as much a question of personality and presentation as it is of policy.

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