Election fever? (April 2010)

They tell me there is a general election coming.  This I know because a polling card came through my door this morning, but more particularly because politicians are suddenly everywhere like a rash.  For the previous 5 years they were conspicuous largely by their absence, or occasionally named and shamed regarding their frivolous (or criminal, depending on who you ask) expense claims.  Naturally, it’s in the interests of the Westminster clan and their activists to talk up the election, claim they are creating a buzz of interest, tell you their story and only theirs is true, spin you a wonderful yarn about how the UK will be transformed under their leadership, explain how they and only they can lead us out of recession and into the land of milk and honey.

Truth is, we’ve heard it all before, and increasing numbers of us are sceptical or downright cynical.  “If voting made any difference,” the saying goes, “they would abolish it.”  The voting public has by common agreement become apathetic, divorced from participation in organised politics.

Peter Osborne, writing for the voice of the right-wing disaffected of Surbitons, otherwise known as the Daily Mail, puts it down to the impact of corruption.  Expenses, cash for honours, clandestine party donations, taxi cabs for hire, lobbyists, you name it… sleaze, in the common parlance.  All these and more have created distance, indeed a yawning gulf between the political elite and the ordinary voter, says Osborne.

Without any doubt, that has had an effect, except was it not always so?  We’ve had scandals as long as there has been politics, and this does not explain the long-term decline of the political party and the election process.  Membership of mainstream parties is lower than at any time since the second World War.  True, we get the occasional flares of single-interest parties, but that again was always the case.

Election turnout has been dropping steadily over the past 60 years.  It reached a peak of 83.9% in 1950, the heady post-war years and the air of radicalism that saw the basis of the NHS and the welfare state created by the founding fathers of Atlee’s government.  By 2001 it had plummeted to 59.4%, the lowest on record, and was not much higher in 2005 (61.4%.)   2010 might see a rise since it is arguably the most important and competitive election in decades, but that does not deflect from the deepening underlying disillusionment of the British voting public.

So does this mean we don’t care any more?  Not a bit of it!  We care about issues relevant to us and the country with a passion!  Ask anyone in the pub what’s wrong with the country and they’ll wax lyrical, or more probably moan ad infinitum about the economy, healthcare, immigration, any number of issues.  Yet they don’t trust Westminster, or more particularly the people elected to govern.

We can look beyond the Osborne version to gain insight.  Firstly, the fact that to be a successful politician nowadays, you can’t be yourself.  You need an alter ego, an Incredible Hulk to your meek and mild Bruce Banner.  You create a monster, and that monster has a voracious appetite for publicity, self-promotion and climbing the greasy pole of power.  Rather than speaking simply with the voice of authenticity about issues on principle, parties and MPs have made themselves into brands, collectively and individually.  And with the brands come the entourages.  The advisors, the media and PR experts, the speech writers, the organisers, the whole kit and caboodle.

Every message is spun to within an inch of its life, and the truth has become a distant stranger.  Small wonder nobody trusts the message any more, especially when that process has become so cynical and manipulated.  Leaders (who you will recall are elected to high office only by their own constituents and members of their own party, not directly by the whole electorate) answer questions but only from specially invited audiences.  They walk away from hecklers and never engage in open hustings debates.  Even TV debates, supposedly the big innovation to save our democracy, are carefully orchestrated affairs with a book of rules 30 pages thick!  Whatever happened to the politician being a man of the people?  Come to think of it, where are the women leaders?

And what about policy itself?  Is this not prima facie evidence of the cynicism within politics.  Every policy is bounced off focus groups and honed to check whether it is a potential vote-winner.  If making black white were deemed to be popular, there it would be in the manifesto!  It’s long been said that parties crowd into the middle ground to win over middle englanders, but the reason for doing so is not because the policies are necessarily the best for the country, it’s simply those regarded as most suitable to keep the party in power.

The punch & judy politics and slanging matches we’ve been so accustomed to have become an end in themselves.  You stole our policies, oh no we didn’t, oh yes you did…. In fact, there is not an original thought among any party.  Collaborative politics would place the onus on the right thing for the country, not who proposed it first.

Then there is the political system itself.  It was probably appropriate for the 19th Century but now looks increasingly archaic.  And naturally, the parties who talk most about change are the ones who want it least, those most likely to gain power as a direct consequence of our ailing institutions of democracy.  Power and change work in inverse ratios, so it seems.  Far from Labour and Conservative, what we now have is conservative and radical.  And the further from power you are, the more radical you can afford to become.

Accountability in politics means putting the voter back in control, not the party.  I could go on to describe my agenda for change, though there is probably little point – yes to electoral change to make our voting system proportional, yes to an elected second chamber, yes to shifting the balance of power back to the voter, a bill of rights and much more.  But most of all, reducing the party machine to impotence, abolishing whips and making the voter king should mean elections actually mean something beyond faux-sincerity and rictus grins on TV.

So to hell with election fever.  I shall vote but I shall do with great care.  Ignoring rosettes, I shall vote for the candidate with the greatest merit and highest integrity rating, the one who will serve and take account of my needs, the one who is not afraid to vote against their party on principle, the one who will make time for a voter and not simply line their own pockets or aim for the highest office available.  But then, such a person would probably not be elected under first past the post.  Is it any wonder that people think it’s not worth bothering with?

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