I almost promised myself that I wouldn’t say anything about the General Election in this column. By the time you read this, you’ll be heartily sick of it. Nevertheless, this is a good moment to examine what we’ve just done, because I believe that the most boring and puerile election campaign in living memory offers a vital pointer towards the development of our democracy and, more importantly, the role of business within it.
It is a truism that this week we will not decide between competing ideologies for stewardship of our economy, but between relative competencies for doing so. Short of Tony Blair emerging between my writing this and Thursday morning as the front man for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of the West, a Labour government will have been returned not on the basis of a political creed, but because it is not as ghastly a prospect as the other lot.
Indeed, Labour’s campaign has largely been based on that premise. Witness the posters of William Hague digitally reconstructed with the bouffant hairdo of Margaret Thatcher with the cinematic rubric “Be very afraid”.
This is an odd differentiation on which to base a marketing campaign. We’ve been asked to vote for Blair because he’s not as much like Baroness Thatcher – allegedly – as is Hague. This is like being urged to buy a brand of porridge oats because – allegedly – it is not as reminiscent of cow dung as its rival.
Or like two manufacturers of soap powder arguing that each other’s products damage clothing – and we know companies of the stature of Procter & Gamble and Unilever would never indulge themselves in the negative campaigning tactics of politicians. Anyway, political campaigning has been reduced to such differentiation. This is what has got “spin”, which is really shorthand for the communications end of marketing, such a bad name.
But that’s another story. What I’m concerned with is that what we might call a market for political ideology has been abandoned in favour of arguments about competence for stewardship. As with nature, markets abhor a vacuum. Where a market is vacated, there is invariably an opportunity to fill it. It may be filled with an alternative, or something better may turn up to replace that market – the ship’s replacement by the plane, or the letter’s by e-mail, are cases in point.
If politics ceases to provide a suitable market for democracy, then what is to replace it? My answer would be global business, but not in the sense that eco-warriors and anarchists would claim that globalisation is disenfranchising us of our democratic rights. That may or may not be true, but the point is that the old democracy of politics might be replaced by the new democracy of the global technocrat.
Before justifying that, let me dwell on the abrogation of the market for democracy by politics. Traditional political differentiations run like this: Capitalists believe rich people are better than poor people, should be in charge of everything and should be encouraged to be so. Socialists believe rich people are worse than poor people and that their money should be taken away and given to poor people.
The Conservative and Labour parties would deny these definitions, but only in the detail. They are essentially correct. New Labour’s great triumph of marketing has been to redefine itself with the Tories’ market differentiator, while giving it a modernist make-over. New Labour says rich people are better than poor people, not in the qualitative sense but in the sense that it is better to be rich than to be poor. This has the twin advantage of winning over much of the middle-class electorate that traditionally voted Tory and of allowing Labour politicians to grease up to business people.
All Labour has to do now is understand that profitability isn’t an inherent evil and that people are exploited by business by definition, and it’s home and dry as the natural party of government for this century. But in becoming Tories with a conscience, New Labour has disenfranchised the market from the essential power of the consumer to make a choice (and don’t tell me the Liberal Democrats are returning to their constituencies to prepare for government).
The market for democracy has consequently been abandoned. If we no longer have the power to replace one political ideology with another, where can the people turn to exercise their collective power? The answer lies with one of the richest men on earth.
I watched Bill Gates unveil Office XP, Microsoft’s next-generation to Windows, in New York last week and realised I was in the presence of the new democracy. Here was a man who had been forced to the edge of technology markets, nearly marginalised by anti-trust regulators, but was back with information technology that could, again, redefine society.
Such technocracy has the power to reshape how and where we work. It liberates not just companies but individuals from local economies. That is true empowerment of the people. And, whatever the troughs in its development, that empowerment will represent a contribution to the democratic process this century that will surpass anything our rather pathetic politicians might have to offer. Technocracy, I’m afraid, is the new politics.
George Pitcher is a partner of issue management consultancy Luther Pendragon