Is Britain’s election a sign that political parties are becoming little more than consumer brands?

If you’ve been following the news, then you’ve undoubtedly heard that the May 6 British election produced, for the first time since 1974, a minority government — or, as the British call it, a hung parliament. Though David Cameron’s Conservative Party won the largest number of seats in the British parliament, they fell short of the majority that they would require in order to pass legislation without support from at least one other party.

At one time, British elections involved stark choices. This was never more true than in 1983, when then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher, still an idol to ideological conservatives in the U.K. and elsewhere, went up against Michael Foot, the equally ideological socialist who then led the Labour Party.

The 2010 election turned out to be very much the opposite. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, one of the leaders of a ’90s reformist movement that led the Labour Party toward the political centre,  faced off against self-styled “progressive Conservative” David Cameron, who had also fought to pull his party back toward the centre, and the telegenic Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, which had been a centrist party all along.

Undoubtedly, some will say that this indecisive result was the consequence of not giving the voters a stark choice. Who knows — maybe they’re correct?

If you read the following analysis of today’s young people, The Millennials: America’s First Post-Ideological, Post-Partisan, and Post-Political Generation by Eric Greenberg and Karl Weber, it’s possible however to wonder if the political parties are simply acknowledging reality: that the public is losing interest in all-inclusive belief systems and wants to be able to pick and choose their causes while having no obligation to support policies that don’t interest them.

Call it “cafeteria conservatism” or “smörgåsbord social democracy” if you will.

On young people and politics, Greenberg and Weber write:

They’re post-ideological because they’re uninterested in defending specifically “conservative” or “liberal” approaches to national problems. Instead, they’re pragmatic, open-minded, and innovation-oriented, eager to experiment with new solutions no matter where they may come from.

They’re post-partisan because they’re disgusted with what they perceive as the narrowness, pettiness, and stagnation that characterize both major parties. Though they are open to the possibility of a third party, the Millennials are far more interested in getting beyond party identification altogether…

Being as close as possible to the centre gives parties the best opportunity to offer the variety of choices this generation wants and expects.

A young generation that shuns all-inclusive belief systems, however, also raises a challenge for political parties: where will they find people to do the political drudge work as poll workers and door-to-door canvassers?

Without long-term loyalists, will the difference between “Conservative”, “Liberal” and “NDP” become no more meaningful than the differences between Air Canada and WestJet, Rogers and Telus, or Starbucks and Second Cup?

That is, in any case, the parties’ problem to worry about. For the rest of the population, a watering down of politics’ ideological content might not necessarily be a bad thing.


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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