Commentators should be indebted to The Times (of London) ace columnist Clare Foges for transposing the medical affliction Achromatopsia, or colour blindness, and applying it to the bewildering world of (non) Brexit Britain.
In her Monday offering, Foges noted that the Conservative Party – hitherto the most successful and enduring party in the Western world, the “natural party of government” – was suffering this degeneration in extremis.
The inability to perceive the world in terms of nuance without the shades of grey and the full spectrum of choices, in her view, could cause the party convulsed in a new leadership election to go into freefall.
To be fair, the comment was written before the results of the European election were known. But the peculiar poll – for Britain at least, which should have left the European Union on March 29 and thus not have participated – yielded a triumph for the parties offering a binary choice: get out now or have another referendum.
The huge gains for the single-issue Brexit Party, which topped the poll, and the Liberal Democrats and Greens (who finished second and third) suggests more than 70% of British voters last week chose parties whose position was clear-cut and whose message was very simple.
The biggest losers were the two traditionally largest parties in Britain, which separately have governed the UK for the past century. For most of the post-World War 1 period, either the Conservative Party or Labour has governed alone. This of course does not mean either enjoyed 50% of the vote, since the first-past-the-post system exaggerates the strength of mainstream parties. But it is indicative of how entrenched their governance has become.
However, Sunday’s Euro result reduced each to a derisory share of the national poll: the governing Conservatives to a humiliating single-digit finish at 9.1%, its worst result in any contest ever and fifth place in the poll; barely any better for the official opposition Labour at 14.1%, just scraping into fourth place.
Of course, this anomalous poll does not portend what might happen in a national election where constituencies, not percentages – and local issues other than European matters – dominate both campaign and result.
Still, the clarity and concision of both Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party – Brexit means Brexit – and Lib Dem and Green – vote to remain and for a people’s vote on any deal – accounted for their surges.
The Conservatives under hapless and now exiting Theresa May had promised exactly what Nigel Farage offered, but had spectacularly failed to deliver on it. Their punishment was both inevitable and just.
The Labour dilemma also saw it punished by its voters –who deserted to both the Brexit Party, if they were leavers, and to the Liberal Democrats and Greens in the case of remainers.
Precisely because the Labour Party knew it had two incompatible elements in its constituency it has, for the past three years, practised “strategic ambiguity” on the key question of the past 75 years: disentangling Britain from Europe. Or put more crisply: it has faced two ways at once on how to leave the European Union after 47 years of membership.
British voters are not in this respect much different from our own: literally and figuratively, though on a less dramatic scale, the South African election on May 8 offered rich rewards for the two parties that offered a crisp message, unadorned by nuance and complexity, and appealed to the black or the white and no shades in between.
Thus the parties on the fringes, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Freedom Front Plus, posted the largest gains in the SA election just past. Although the EFF did better in votes than the FF+ (some 10.78% versus 2.38%), the FF+, with a smaller constituency, rose by far more: threefold on its 2014 performance as opposed to the EFF, which managed a 40% increase.
In both cases, as in Britain, simple messaging, a clear offer, no ambiguity and good leadership delivered dramatic increases. And these came in the case of the EFF entirely from SA’s “natural party of government”, the ANC and for the FF+ from the long-time official opposition, the DA.
Of course, larger and more diverse parties such as the ANC and the DA, both of which declined significantly here in May, cannot appeal to a narrow sect. In reality, the broad church each represents is, in biblical terms, “a house of many mansions”.
But the fraying of their respective support bases means a refocus by both is urgently needed. For the ANC, this is both helped and hampered by the fact that it is also the governing party.
And for Cyril Ramaphosa to succeed as president he will need to embark on and sell some tough reforms to kickstart our ailing economy and pervasive unemployment, if for no other reason than that his government will soon run out of money.
And if that happens, how is a party with a hugely dependent constituency of 17 million grant recipients and 2.4 million public servants going to keep on paying them?
Just how close to the edge we are was summarised in the report from Standard and Poor, the ratings agency that has already delivered upon us a credit downgrade (and we are holding on by a gossamer thread to our one remaining investment-grade rating). It forecasts a miserly 1% GDP growth for the year, which means we continue to bump along at the bottom. Or put another way, at this rate it will take 100 years to double the national income per capita.
S&P has little confidence that Ramaphoria will do the trick simply because it has sized him up and found his appetite for real reform wanting. In its report published last week it suggested the appetite for difficult and contentious reforms was absent, whether it is retrenchments in the vastly overstaffed and essentially bankrupt state-owned companies or tackling the “labour aristocracy” of Cosatu, whose privileges and preferments keep 10 million South Africans unemployed.
“Overall reforms are likely to be lacklustre and unlikely to be significant enough to drive strong GDP growth.” That very black-and-white analysis is the essence of the S&P analysis.
From a different era, the last president in this country with his back against the wall who went for wholesale reform was FW de Klerk. But he lost his job within four years and his party disappeared within a decade. So the price for reform can be steep, but it depends on the driver of it and whether he places country before party or the other way around.
But as Ramaphosa contemplates a cabinet and his reform menu, or the slim pickings he might offer on it, depending who you believe, he at least has the benefits of power from which to exercise the option: to be a timid reformer without results or a bold mover who takes great risk.
But opposition leader Mmusi Maimane has no such perch. And his ship is currently being bombed by his predecessor, Helen Zille. His margin to move is even riskier than Ramaphosa’s. But standing still for him is even less of an option than it is for Ramaphosa if the DA project is to be refreshed for purpose.
Like Britain’s Labour Party, the current DA is perceived by many voters to be “facing two ways at once” – appealing to two constituencies and reassuring neither of them.
Clarity and movement on pledges get rewarded by voters; dithering in the middle gets punished. That’s true here, in the UK and probably everywhere.
How the president of SA and the leader of the opposition move, and in which direction, will determine not only their own fates and futures but those of their parties and the country. It’s both a black-and-white issue and also has to account for the full-colour spectrum. Not easy, but then leadership never is.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London.
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