Friday, 6 March 2015

Election Time

It is election time in the UK, we limp like a rough beast towards polling day; at least half of us knuckling along in bewilderment as to what we are actually voting for, and how this General Election will affect us.

Warning, this is neither fair, nor balanced and I'm feeling vitriolic.

It may get a bit ranty.

With good reason, it looks very much as if the political culture here has sort of gone to pot and, even as lines are drawn, activists martialled and the wording of policies nailed down it is hard not to feel as if the whole thing is a bit of a show; and one with little substance. There is not even a nice musical number to finish things off.

Part of the problem is that, with fixed termed Parliaments now the norm, campaigning season has started early; arguably it started back last Summer, with the Scottish Independence referendum, sure it was a local affair but at the same time there was bound to be a knock on to May. It feels as if we have had over six months of politicians doing their best to prove that their trade really is show business for the ugly. And those of who aren't hooked on the process or activists are probably feeling fatigued by the whole thing, enlivened only by gaffes like Labour's pink bus for lady voters; this year's equivalent of the Mum who did not know which way to vote last September. You might think that women could be treated the same as men, not like a group of insouciant children who need coaxing to the ballot box through kitchen meetings and a pink bus with what looks like tampons on the side, but apparently not. And its not such a bad idea, perhaps it just rankles that no effort is made to actually get men to vote, as if the idiots in charge speak to all of us equally.

At the same time our leaders prove themselves not to be statesmen, nor even salesmen. The Prime Minister has done his level best to weasel his way out of any live debates and at this stage he looks like he is running scared. Miliband may look like Mr Punch's younger, less charismatic brother, but at least he has the guts to stand up and debate. Pluck, as it used to be called, does not mean much when balanced against his history of making public appearances, however. Losing to a bacon sandwich and his poor performance at the Labour Party conference, forgetting the most important part of his speech, stack the deck against him, and have nothing to shift his 'geek' image. Neither is an orator, they lack the gravitas and simplicity to sway their own parties, let alone a cynical, sceptical public.

In the meantime the Lib Dems, and Clegg in particular comes across as a tainted brand, one that has tried to inch away from the fire, but I fear to little avail. They are now associated with broken promises, with the high price of University fees and the way that they have effectively been the Conservative's batman, carrying their coats and hats as they put a kicking into the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Early signs of independence proved to be a mirage and they have largely nodded along, with a pained expression on their faces. It is too early to tell if they will suffer for it at the polls, but the received wisdom, if it has any weight at all, suggests they will lose most of the marginal seats they hold.

Frankly though, none of the major parties are that attractive, they all seem to have bought into the philosophy driving our times, austerity, authority and apathy. All are committed to shrinking the state, cutting services and expecting us to be grateful for our penury. None of them seems to know what the state is for, and perhaps that is one of the underlying questions of our time. Personally, a state that does nothing but spin in circles, providing nothing and taking as much tax as the state that pays for pensions and schools and so on, is worth nothing at all; it is odd that we are meant to use cold logic to form our choices in every area but the political one where we are meant to vote on a wish, a wing and a prayer.

The smaller parties are better, but they present their own challenges. UKIP, despite their complaints do come across as a bunch of rightwing racists who have no real idea what they are talking about. The Greens present their own issues, a parcel of change that will be hard to sell to Parliament and the public, even if  a lot of it seems broadly necessary in the long run. It does not really chime with the economics of the time either, and it may be that it would require too much change, something I am not sure our governmental structures or our national character is set up to cope with. Change will come, but only when it is absolutely necessary, or when it stops being a choice because something has to be done.

The issues that we have to face, in the long run at least, are bigger than what flavour of asset strippers we elect into office. We stand on the brink of a multipolar world, one that is increasingly connected, one where capitalism has run riot and set itself up as an alternative to the nation state. It increasingly looks hostile to democracy or accountability, and has grown so large that it is not beyond the whit of reason that every advance that environmentalists and workers rights groups win is Pyrrhic, a case of shifting the buck onto somewhere else. Greenwashing is hardly new news, after all; its something that has been going on forever and as TTIP thunders through the debating process and the pesticide maker Syngenta sues the EU because their product is banned after being linked to the dramatic drop in bee numbers, it makes me wonder if we are actually moving backwards on green politics, or at least seeing it obfuscated behind the scenes. It would be a bit better if the politicians did not, still, seem to be in awe of them. Economic policy feels as if it is set, not with national interests in mind, but to placate financial 'wunderkind' who threaten to throw their toys out of the pram if they are held accountable for their messes. Never mind that it was their gambling that got us into this mess, or that the world they shape is not defined by borders but by bonuses and costs; they will always slip down hill to where labour is cheapest (something that we may not need to be concerned about if robotics becomes as prevalent as predicted). The lessons of 1929 were not learned; the world's shape is decided Davos and Bilderburg and in the offices of groups like News International, as much if not more than at the ballot box.

Politically things look pretty grim too, our system seems to be set up to favour delegates, not the Burkean ideal of representatives, despite the rhetoric. The central offices have grown stronger and stronger, to the extent that local parties often have no say in who stands in their constituency. Whilst individual MPs are decent people, the culture of the House has slipped to 'do as I say' rather than allowing MPs to vote with their conscience; hardly news I know, but it seems more pronounced of late, as younger and younger MPs, who have little experience outside of politics and law enter the ranks of the House of Commons. In an earlier piece I talked about the democratic deficit with regards to women, but it is fair to say that there is an equal one for people who are not middle class, white and from the professions. Essentially we have turned the clock back to Victorian times, without even realising it. Forgive me if I think that having half a House of middle class women is scarcely better than the situation we are in now (assuming a 50/50 split between the sexes).

A similar pattern has been observed within the Houses of Parliament themselves, Tony Blair's government slipped bills through Parliament that allowed them to alter laws without debate, and despite the libertarian cant that both Tories and Lib Dems brandished in opposition, how many of the authoritarian measures passed under New Labour have been repealed? Admittedly we have not heard much about ID cards or databases recently, instead attacks on liberties have been more circular; Cameron's Great British Firewall, for instance. Root and branch reform is needed, we need to admit that the big three brands are a) just that, and b) that they don't speak to most people, let alone everyone. No matter how much I roll my eyes at the Labour Ladies Bus, it is at least a decent marketing exercise; or would be if it didn't fall into the trap of pinkification.  But we have passed up the chance to reform, at least for the foreseeable future; the referendum on electoral reform and the initial moves towards giving cities New York style Mayors were flatly dismissed at the ballot box. British people are too busy looking at cats online or spreading memes to pay attention, and the media has overstuffed us with bad news that apathy is the order of the day. No wonder we seek our solace elsewhere.

What's worse is that the future looks like it holds more of the same, like we will sleepwalk into the sale of the NHS, the privatisation of everything that is not nailed down and the increasing 'professionalisation' of politics. The day of the amateur does appear to be dead and, as management buzz words and policy wonks continue to be the order of the day, the drawbridge gets higher and higher, cutting off entry for anyone outside that background.

So what do we do? I am no Russell Brand, I will not say 'Do not vote', even if part of me thinks a grand swell of disinterest is what's needed.

I would rather see a huge turn out that votes for lots of smaller parties and sends the big three into a panic. As long as only the old vote in any great numbers, they're the group people will listen to, the people they'll court and the rest of us will be dismissed. The same is true of all those 'hard working families' you hear so much about; the reason they're courted is because they get to the ballot box, and politicians are actually afraid they'll lose their vote. I would rather a wave of letters and emails to MPs demanding information, demanding answers, about everything and anything; to make them sit up and take notice. I would rather a change in tone on Europe; readers and viewers saying to the media, 'give us the facts, not your bendy banana claptrap'. Perhaps we should go punk and set up our own parties too, a British Steampunk Party standing for Nation, Excellence, Social justice, (Sandwiches), Idealism and Eccentricity* anyone? Or perhaps if Lindi St Claire stands for office again we should vote for her; a dominatrix could scarcely do worse than the current bunch of smug boys.  We could encourage groups like UK Uncut to step forth and put candidates up for election.

What's certain is that we need to see more engagement with the processes of power, just as we need to see the architecture of the state so we can decide what to shore up and what to demolish. Sites like They Work For You are a good place to start, but I'm not sure they go far enough; ultimately it does need to be driven by the voter, the constituent and that means we need to believe that what we say matters and is listened to.

In the meantime, let's encourage good journalism, let's encourage openness in government and more participation; let's give a fuck. Turn off the internet, stop looking at pictures of cats and pay attention so your vote counts.


*I admit it, I ran out of things to put in the acronym and really, really wanted it to be NESSIE.