The end of the policy era

An overview of the political process from Climategate to present.

An overview of the political process from Climategate to present. To quote myself: “even if you kick the political system between the legs, because like the proverbial dinosaur, the nerve impulse takes time to travel all that way up to the small brain at the top, it will still take many years for them to respond.”

I was reading the comedy piece in the Guardian on the UKIP elections:

Forget Ukip and these staggeringly irrelevant European elections

In which we read the  thoughts of the old dinosaur media and learn just how staggering lacking in insight they are. For a starter:

  • Forget” – The Guardian (who are heading toward bankruptsy) will be forgotten before UKIP
  • Staggering irrelevant” UKIP is what history will remember as the first foray of a massive politcal change caused by the change in the power from dinosaurs like the Guardina to the new social media. The elections are about the biggest change we are going to see in our lifetime (politically)
  • UKIP is a bubble” – I expect the citizens of Pompey had the same idea about the smoke from the volcano that buried them alive!
  • The impact of the UK’s vote on Thursday on political decision making in Europe will be close to zero” – THAT WILL BE A QUOTE WORTH HANGING ONTO!
  • Minor parties often surge between UK electons” – again this is post-rationalisation “it will go away” – a bit like those who watched the tsunami wave come in at Xmas – who having no concept that the wave would just carry on, stood and watched as it engulfed them.
  • Farage knows he’s not leading a serious challenge. It’s time the rest of us worked that out too” …. classic dinosaur establishment thinking!


However, something new came up this morning, which is why I started this. Talking to a government policy donk, I was made aware that: “UKIP have no policies” – what are they going to do on …

And just like this policy donk and all those in the political class, I had also gone looking for the “manifestos” of all the parties prior to the election (see: The search for an EU manfesto – appalling!). And I was appalled by my inability to find enough manifestos to compare without spending an inordinate amount of time. At the time I had assumed that as the Tories were the ony party who had put effort into their policy document, that the lack of any apparent interest in policy was a manifestation of a general disinterest by the political parties in the elections.

However, during the discussion it began to dawn on me that such manifestos and policy documents have a very key place in teh old dinosaur: establishment-to-establishment communication between large institutional political parties and large institutional press. They are in effect a very large press release. They are not really meant for jo public or susan social media. Instead they are  something that the professional commentators in the media need in order to write their stories. No political party could be without their manifesto otherwise the press could not write about them.

A manifesto is one large dinosaur institution in the form of the monolithic political party telling another dinosaur institution in the form of the press what one instution would like the other to write about them.

But this is not how social media works. You cannot put over a manifesto in a tweet. Indeed, manifestos are so boring and so irrelevant that most of the public are entirely disinterested. Politics is now almost entirely dominated by people talking to people – many of whom have never met each other and are unlikely ever to do so. It’s people talking on issues that are nerish, outlandish, ignored by establishment, and all of it adding together to bypass traditional dinosaur establishment creating a new form of politics centred on social media. So, in a real sense, the age when political parties needed a manifesto is over.

Policy Incrementalism

The old style establishment-to-establishment political system was one in which large groups of people got together to have very lengthy and important meetings to decide very important issues and then to pronounce their important views to the public through the very important journalists who knew the very important people who ran the country.

These people are no longer that important – social media is a great equaliser!

The new style of politics will involve people who haven’t a clue what they are doing (which isn’t new I admit) – but they won’t even have thought what they are going to do until they have to make a decision. The civil service are going to go spare and tear out their hair at this new type of politician. “you can’t run government like that”, they will say, and they will find that surprisingly – you can.

The proof of the pudding is the US elections

The theory that the old dinosaur press and political establishment are being replaced by a new more diverse politics empowered by social media, predicted the rise of UKIP as well as all the other “fringe” parties in Europe, but it also predicts a massive change in US politics.

What it does not mean is “presidential election by facebook” – there will be no single venue that a politicians can go to and hope to swing the election. What it does mean is a rise in politicians who understand what people on facebook talk about and want. It will be a rise in politicians who are not deluded by the views they see printed in the press to believe these are what the public care about. But perhaps the real skill is going to be keeping the old “dinosaur” media onside WHILST AT THE SAME TIME talking the message of social media. A balancing act between old and new.

An the big difference is that social media is just so easy for new political parties, and that means smaller parties, that we will see a massive surge in support for the “third” and even “fourth” parties in the US. I understand the Libertarian party is currently the “third party”. There is almost no doubt, they will do better. But this is not a phenomenon of the right or left. This rise in the “fringe” and the surge could equally affect the left – or indeed other dimensions of politics (like UKIP) which people have never really seen as a “one v. other” division. In short, US politics will get a lot more complex with the main (dinosaur) parties starting to feel under pressure – and like those in the UK – not having a clue why.

Indeed, thinking about it, perhaps Obama – the first non-european president, is the US version of UKIP!

This is why politicians are going to be so at sea. They will see this in terms of the old dynamics of the old left-right divide of the old dinosaur era. The new politics isn’t like that. There are more dimensions – of which colour may be a significant one in the US!


As I say in the above picture, it often takes five years between kicking the “dinosaur’s balls” and a realisation by the political elite that something has happened. But elections are less “kicking in the balls” than chopping bits off parties. Even dinosaurs notice when whole limbs get taken off! However, the same is also true of any social system. The electorate itself will take many years to appreciate that the old two-party (US) or three-party (UK) system has gone. As such many will talk about “change” but continue voting for the same old parties.

And then, even as the change starts occurring, it will perhaps take even longer to work out what system is replacing it. Because the implication of “the end of the dinosaurs of the establishment” are that political parties in themselves will lose power just as the press and many other establishment institutions like “science” have done so. Society is a structure, that structure will adapt to the new politcal power dynamics, but it may have a very different kind of structure. It may e.g. be very much more local – with a rise of the small state of around 5million like Scotland. It may be that superstates are on the rise. It may be that we lose any concept of “state” and start thinking in terms of different global communities who are not geographically located in space but coneptually grouped together by shared interests.

Using the analogy of the impact of the print revolution on the catholic church, which took several hundred years between the communicatoin change of printing and the mass change in the power structure of Europe, I thought I was being rather optimistic when I thought we might start to see changes after 10-20 years. Indeed, the implication was that what we saw in 10-20 years would be only a tiny fraction of the totally induced change.

Before the election, I went onto twitter and then had a look at the various party hashtags and was surprised to find that whilst the number dropped at night, there were far more people tweeting in the early hours than I expected. To try to understand this I spoke to our postman (postmen used to get up very early) before the election to ask them whether his colleagues still sat around as they had when I worked in a factory and read the paper during their break. It took him a bit of time to understand the question (which is quite symptomatic of the change), but eventually he told me that everyone goes on their phone at break. This is more or less what I predicted – people are no longer reading “snoose-papers”, but instead are talking peer-to-peer on social media like texting, facebook, twitter.

The social media revolution is alerady upon us. What I cannot now decide is whether the impacts I thought might take 10-100 years (as in the print revolution) might because of the speed of technology change, take only 1-10 years. Technology might change, but people take time to change their attitudes. Even after the dynamics have changed, people still believe in their old ideas. A great example is the way debate on climate is now carried out in a few blogs like WattsUpWithThat. The amount of material from these blogs is phenominal. They are almost newspapers in their own right. They certainly out produce even specialist academic publiciations dedicated to climate. YET PEOPLE STILL COMMENT ON THESE BLOGS: “WHY DON’T THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA COVER THIS?” The simply cannot comprehend that they are already reading the mainstream media on climate. People take a long time to understand such momentous changes.

Perhaps the real revolution is that the political dinosaur that used to take 5 years to respond even to the biggest kick between the legs is going to be replaced by a new more nimble kind of politics?

Indeed, lets be honest, one of the reasons I am so accutely aware of the mass change in social media, is that far from being one of the first to use it, I am at very best a very reluctant user. The change is therefore all the more apparent to me! To others, (like my children who have grown up with it) they cannot see what I am talking about.

Is UKIP the revolution – or just the first wave in the revolution?

And the most interesting issue for me now, is whether UKIP are themselves a revolution or are just a symptom of the revolution. In a sense there is very little difference. The new politics is fractional – UKIP will most likely itself split into fractions – much to the delight of the old dinosaur parties, who will then sigh in relief expecting the old politics to return – only like the tsunami to be engulfed in an even bigger and more sustained wave which whether or not it has the UKIP name on it, will be part of the same UKIP phenonenon.

The lesson of Monsieur Guillotine

And one final warning: the quintessential symbol of the French revolution: the guillotine, was invented my a Monsieur Guillotine – a figure in the early revolution – who like so many revolutionaries finally circumed to their own revolution and lost their life.

Nigel Farage may be the winner today – but the same social revolution that is undermining the other party leaders may well be the same revolution that undermines him!

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3 Responses to The end of the policy era

  1. neilfutureboy says:

    My favourite Guardian lie was “The Ukip soap bubble is certainly big and certainly shiny, but it’ll still pop as soon as it’s given a good nudge.” So if only the Guardian, or the BBC, or C4 or ITV, or every other paper had just thought of nudging UKIP with one or two critical stories their vote would have collapsed. Gosh they must have been asleep at the wheel not to think of that over the last few months.

    However, if I understand your main point I am going to disagree absolutely. It may be my bias as a policy wonk but I think policy is more important than ever. The days when you knew Labour was the worker’s party and the Conservatives, the conservative one & you just had to decide which slot you were to vote is gone. The days when the mass media focussed on 1 or 2 soundbites, what the leader’s wife looks like and whether he shaved, are on the way out.

    If neither ideology or charisma cuts it then parties will have to rely on policies – ie saying what they intend to do & eventually even how they will pay for it. Good thing to since while the showbiz may be symbolic of what they stand for the policies are the real thing.

    • Interesting as ever Neil!

      What I meant by “policy” was something a journalist or a civil servant could read before the election as a finalised “this is what we will do” assertion. I noticed it when I went to have a look at all the parties before the EU election to “compare and contrast” policies. When you get into this mindset of a political journalist – you start to see how these lists of things to talk about are so useful for creating stories where none exist.

      In effect, the old-style manifesto was like a formal job-application CV. Parties were more or less required to say something about all the different aspects of government and every party was obliged by the press to present their CV for inspection to the press so that they had plenty of material to cut to pieces. And so e.g. the Guardian would immediately look at environmental, blah blah, and if there was nothing it would condemn the party for that, and if there was something – it would then say how bad it was unless it was sycophantically their view. And all the press would do it – so what the public heard – was a kind of “consensus” view of policy from a extremely narrow social group we call “journalists”.

      The benefit, was that the civil service would dutiful comb the party “CV” work out what they were likely to want to do, and then start costing out the policies and preparing for a smooth change of government, so that the civil service may already have been working on likely new policies months or even years in advance.

      So, when the journalist said: “UKIP are policy light” – what they actually meant is “they’ve not given me enough material to write about”. That used to be important – but no longer as the power of the press has waned.

      But as you say, it won’t be the end of “policy” – but more the “manifesto”. What it might mean, is that parties will start to focus on specific issues of importance to them and not feel obliged to dream up things to say about less important areas which can be dealt with if needed.

  2. cornwallwindwatch says:

    Reblogged this on Cornwall Wind Watch.

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