Party conferences have always been an acquired taste, but this year's (even without the McBride and Farrage sideshows) have seemed particularly remote from reality, alien rituals conducted by an alien species. But is this just the latest chapter in the slow decline of mass party membership, or is something else at play?
The Guardian's John Harris, former chronicler of BritPop and historian of new Labour, has been worrying for some months at how the Conservative Party has lost touch with mainstream conservatism, continuing to promulgate the neoliberal nostrums of open markets and free trade, deaf to a crescendo of grumbling from its once core vote. Outside the capital, in 'Alarm Clock Britain' (or whichever new-minted de haut en bas descriptor the narrative-mongers have come up with), Harris finds that open markets and globalisation are not viewed as paragons of efficiency and creators of wealth, but as destroyers of jobs and harbingers of instability.
Harris's argument was echoed in Aditya Chakraborty's analysis of falling party membership (and the takeover of the Conservative Party by financiers), and in the Guardian's reportage from Aldi in Worcester, the front line of this new class war, where shoppers proclaimed themselves either terminally disillusioned with all politics, or tending towards UKIP.
My reading habits are admittedly partial, but I don't think this us just a left argument: Peter Oborne's broadsides at the metropolitan political class are aiming at the same territory. The politicians at their press conferences look increasingly like medieval clerics debating transubstantiation, while the peasants ponder plague and turnips. The detachment goes beyond silly shibboleths about who knows the price of a pint of milk, a loaf of bread, a litre of superstrength cider, or whatever 21st Century staple politicians have to pretend that they buy.
Once you start to look for it, you can see this rancorous detachment everywhere. You can see it in the 'below the lines' comments in newspapers. These may invite provocateurs, trolls and other people with nothing better to do with their time, but there is a toxic undercurrent of resentment too. Sometimes expressed through racism or xenophobia, but sometimes simply presenting as a profound hostility to the political class, and an establishment that is seen as interested only in feathering its own nests.
The sense of alienation is polymorphous, and perhaps hard to analyse clearly, but it's harder still to see where it is going. The crowds are not out on the streets in the UK, and the protests of the Occupy movement never went far beyond St Paul's Churchyard, so will disgruntled citizens flock to marginalised parties of the left and right that diverge from the shared internationalist outlook of the mainstream parties, as Seumas Milne has suggested? Will unrest and violence erupt, maybe targeted at immigarnts and other easy targets as it has been in Greece? Or is a more profound change underway? It seems almost absurd to pose the question, but is Disgusted of Droitwich a British manifestation of the discontent that erupted in Taksim and Tahrir?
Writing in the latest LRB, David Runciman argues that the oil shocks and decaying industrial capitalism of the 1970s gave birth to what we now call neoliberalism, though it was years if not decades before the baby was named or its moment of birth identified. Flip forward 35 years, and ask whether the crisis of the past five years is a blip in the narrative of neoliberalism triumphant, or the beginning of something new. If the latter, pace Yeats (it is National Poetry Day tomorrow, after all), "what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"