For better or worse, the Thatcher-Blair era succeeded in making Britain one of the most individualistic nations on earth. You can’t even get more than a few million people to watch the same TV programme any more – so how can we ever expect anyone to come up with a policy programme that appeals to a majority of voters?
If great swathes of the population are apathetic, it’s out of touch to think – as most politicians still appear to – that they are just waiting for someone to come along with a grand, high-concept political programme that they can all get behind.
It’s not even that people are apathetic, or at least not entirely. Most people do care, a great deal, about a few narrow issues close to their heart. Tuition fees, say, or immigration, or drug policy, or the environment, or whether or not women should be allowed to express opinions about computer games. Almost everyone cares passionately about their own tiny corner of the political landscape. But nobody has time to get worked up about the big picture.
And so the successful party of the future needs to be, in effect, a loose coalition of broadly compatible interests. What Tony Blair used to call the “big tent”.
Jeremy Corbyn has been talking about taking Labour back in this direction, becoming more of a grassroots-led social movement – although some of his more enthusiastic devotees rather undermine the sentiment with talk of kicking opponents out of the party.
None of this is new – it’s how political parties used to be, it’s only in the last couple of decades that parties have embraced a neurotic, for-us-or-against-us mindset in which everyone must be on-message about every area of policy, all the time. Party conferences used to be full of ideas, a forum for debate, before the spin doctors turned them into a rubber-stamping exercise for policies dictated at the top table.
Absorbing special-interest groups has worked wonders for the Scottish National Party, who cannily positioned themselves as the natural home for those who backed the cross-party Yes campaign in the independence referendum. But it will be a more complicated task south of the border, where there is a distinct lack of a shared identities to fashion a mass movement around.
What’s needed is a broad, unifying goal, a simple guiding principle, like the Conservatives’ “work hard and we’ll make you better off”, that can tie together disparate groups of interests.
Labour needs to find its equivalent, and fast.