The economy (and political map) of Britain have changed radically since 1977. This is not a controversial statement. We’ve gotten collectively richer, while in the process metastasizing tumours of disadvantage which will take not years but generations, plural, to heal. We’ve shifted our economy finally and irrevocably from one based on most people working in manufacturing or primary industry to one where better than two thirds of the country work in service, knowledge or other tertiary industries. We have not evolved adequate union models for an era in which increasing numbers of the under-40s are self-employed and multi-skilled but broke and completely disenfranchised by demographic accidents and a broken political system. And we’ve had two, very long, governments in that time, one Tory and one Labour.
More or less, the offer from both senior parties to the LibDems depends from the same flawed premise. Both parties are prepared to put AV to the country; neither are prepared to do the same with STV. And I believe the reason why is pretty obvious.
It’s about safe seats. AV is the only one of the alternative systems which preserves them intact. Safe seats are graphably the reason for the expenses scandal. Safe seats allow parachuting of candidates, placing too much power in the hands of central committees over local candidates and parties. Safe seats are wholly counter-democratic. And the LibDems have almost none of them, but the other parties have quite a few each.
For voting reform to matter, it must remove safe seats. Only one system does. Neither large party can countenance that easily. 62% of those polled recently support PR. Therefore neither large party can offer a referendum on anything other than AV, which isn’t PR.
Some real politics has happened in London, nothing like the scale or reach of the G20 demonstrations last year but arising from the same kind of alliance of grass-roots movements; by which I mean Power2010, Make Votes Count, Unlock Democracy, the Electoral Reform Society, Ekklesia, Compass, Hang ’em, Vote for a Change, and Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the New Economics Foundation… According to the Head Research Otter’s on-the-spot reporting, there were somewhere around 2,000 present at the original rally in Trafalgar Square, and that about a thousand of them fitted into Smith Square to invoke Nick Clegg.
And they got him. It was remarkable in British politics to see a spontaneous demonstration of political intent call out a politician to stand on his steps and speak to them. It rather stunned the BBC, whose coverage has a slight scent of the bewildered about it. It seems to have surprised Mr. Clegg, though he was also pretty chuffed.
When I was young and drunken I used to bait people at Speakers Corner. One of them challenged me to take a turn on the soap-box, and I took him up; for a while, I became slightly addicted to the experience, which was invigorating for a fan of the Pythons and Withnail & I who had reasonable reflexes. But Speaker’s Corner is a safety valve; it is a place where the ignored can go to feel heard, without being heard by anyone who matters. The role it once played in providing a public and adverserial agora for the intrepid Foxes and thundering Burkes to sell their ideas in has been transferred to the Internet.
A bit of a theme of my writing since May last year is that Britain hasn’t seen real politics for so long that the denizens of the Westminster bubble and their clattering commentariat have forgotten what it looks like. A more recent theme has been comparison between the progress towards democracy of my adopted nation, and the slow lurch that way currently occurring in the UK. Well here’s installment 3; this is what real politics looks like. Only this is rather more polite than most real politics; though we may have recently fallen into the slough of complacency, we have a lot of practice at this and we do like good manners.
Were there no other reasons to see this election as an open call for a new system, there is the loss of Evan Harris. I was guessing that this outcome would lead to a second election soon. Now that we need to get Dr. Harris back into Parliament, I’m hoping for one.
The Independent are continuing, in this case once more through Johann Hari, to prove themselves unusual in the UK print media. Hari’s article is a needed one; there were, indeed, five years of slightly shoddy, British-Rail-sandwich Labourism before Blair got handed an excuse for a crusade and the rest of his party leapt caroling into the shark pool. The bit of ‘real Labour’ legislation I tend to cite is the New Deal, which although it had problems, did achieve real effects. Yes, it put my friend for seven months into the power of a psychotic barrow-boy who attacked him with a chair during a tantrum. On the other hand, my friend got seven months in work after two years out and has re-built his life successfully since then. Score one for socialist politics.
There is an argument that says the main difference between left and right wing is that the left believes scoring one success matters.
The gap between Labour and the Conservatives is far too small, but a lot of people live and die in that gap. If you say this difference doesn’t matter, you are saying all these people whose lives have been changed since the sun rose over the Royal Festival Hall that morning in May don’t matter to you. You are saying to the call-centre worker paid five times more because of the minimum wage, the gay couple getting a civil partnership, or the old woman who doesn’t have to wait two years to be able to walk again – that difference in your life isn’t worth a cross in a box to me. Wouldn’t that be a betrayal as ugly as New Labour’s? Don’t these people – the beneficiaries of what we all did on May 1st 1997 – deserve more than a defeated and dejected sigh to protect them from the Tories?
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Laurie Penny is usually at her best when impassioned and also right. Many of us are. This post is an excellent example; her injucntion to vote to avoid your children growing up through the kind of schools I did, and the kind of hospitals I did, is well received. But there’s another aspect to the reason one should vote that isn’t in the post. It’s a fucking privilege.
Until this election, when asked the most significant domestic political event of my lifetime I would say “Ghana 1992”. I had lived in a military dictatorship all my life. I could remember Ak-47s from the muzzle end by the time I was five. The economy was fucked (mostly due to corruption and stupid policies in the 1970s, partly due to four years of harvest failure). “They” tried to kill the guy in charge 17 times before I hit ten years old, but he was still there. And in 1992, a decade after promising to fix the economy and then hold free elections, he actually did it. Even the BBC thought so. The country certainly did. The referendum on the 4th Republic passed with over 80% of the vote. Rawlings was re-elected in 1996; they wanted to change the constitution so he could stand a third time but he refused, stepped down, and left the world stage.
The children I grew up with had never hoped for control of their government but they got it. The social and political atmosphere in the villages and on the football fields of northern Ghana was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Jerry Rawlings, the Big Man, JJ himself had got his wealthy ass and his trademark sunglasses into a Land Rover for seven months. He’d driven it round the northern villages, standing in the sun and talking to chiefs and women and people in the markets. By day twelve, his message was simple. Elect me; I’ll fix the damn roads, they’re dreadful, why did none of us know? Because we stayed in the south where the money is. All of my opponents are still there. Elect me; I will build the roads that can bring that money north.
And he did fix the roads, too. And built a telephony system that kinda works. And got the power grid out into the countryside, and …
Because of the greater geo-political and economic significance of the United Kingdom, its slow lurch towards democracy must supercede my smaller and earlier experiences. But I would like to say this to those who have watched and read and talked and still don’t think they’ll bother. We in the West look down on the illiterate, because we have a culture whose success is based on literature. We look down on those who farm their own food on their own land as ‘subsistence’ farmers. But in that illiterate, hard-working, simple tribal village, there wasn’t anyone over 16 who didn’t see the chance to elect the government without getting beaten up as a gift from heaven to every free soul in their nation. No-one failed to be enthused; no-one stayed at home. At church, the people drummed and danced, and held up their ink-stained thumbs and chanted thanks to God for new freedoms. The pastor wasn’t even there, they were just encouraging those still queuing to vote.
Please, vote! Please help me believe that the peoples of the oldest modern state can still see beyond their complacence and become full citizens again.
…when heckled by annoying woman. Film at fucking eleven. Seriously, as of this Gillian Duffy thing? I’m beginning to wonder about this election becoming far too American. Neither she nor the Prime Minister’s brief moment of temper are worth five minutes on News24, let alone all bloody day.
Edit 15:57 In fact, how cynical do we want to be? For the first time in two weeks, no-one is talking about Nick Clegg…