Sunday, 18 January 2015

Electing Nuts in May ...

... to abuse the old nursery rhyme, itself a corruption of "love-knots", sprigs of Spring flowers, as nuts are generally not ready until the autumn (a time when before the present Fixed Term Parliaments law was invented in 2010, that Prime Ministers were reluctant to call General Elections, lest the weather be bad, and they get the blame).

So, excepting the possibility of immense crises, this coming election is the one we have known all about from nearly five years ago. There was a radio question just now about whether the Archbishop of York's new book about inequality and poverty was timed deliberately for the election campaign. "The book is published now because it's ready now - it's been four years in the making", said the suave Bishop of Manchester. But four years ago, they knew exactly when this General Election would be, so it's hard to see how the book can be anything else but a critique of the policies - and most of all the values - that have seen a hardening of inequalities in our society, record levels of insecure employment, welfare for those in full-time work, and food banks. The government may wish to dodge the blame for all those things but only at the risk of admitting that it has sat there, powerless, and pointless, for five years. Or maybe defend itself on the grounds that things could have been worse - which is hardly a vote-winner.

What are we to make of the choices laid before us on our ballot papers, for this our once in five years burst of democratic power? To start with, our electoral system means we only have one choice. Relatively few of us are entirely happy with the policies of any one political party, but each party supports one candidate in each constituency, each of whom, unless very sure of themselves, must toe the full party manifesto line. When returned to power, those manifestos are generally discarded, unless a proposal which has subsequently turned out to be unpopular happens to be in them, and a mandate for it can be spuriously claimed, or as a stick with which to beat a government which tries to introduce something controversial which (like the equal marriage law) was not in the original manifesto. And no one reads manifestos anyway, which is one reason why our attention is focussed on the party leaders and those around them, rather than the people who happen to be the candidates in the one constituency in which we have a vote. This is what makes the media so immensely powerful - voting is increasingly impressionistic, and it is through the media that we gain our impressions of our rulers, and would-be rulers. As Russell Brand has been pointing out, increasingly that impression has not been favourable.

My impression is that despite the posturing of the great and not so good, politics has never been so in flux as it is now, so uncertain. There is widespread distrust of the Conservative leadership within their own party - too hard on the disabled, and the poor, too namby-pamby about gays and foreigners, and then what about Europe? Labour has already lost its ancient power base, but to a large extent that's because it has ceased to exist. The Unions have been castrated - although their castrato wail must be shrill enough to cause anxiety for the government to be suggesting still more limits on their actions - and the huge working class work forces of the nationalised industries are no more. We still have the poor, but historically politicians of all classes haven't much needed to worry about a group who rarely turned out to vote anyway (ironically, they were better looked after then), but the rulers of the Labour party look too sleek and rich and plump and plummy to represent anyone who's known financial insecurity and hardship. Then there's the mystery of Scotland and the SNP - which might turn out to be the wild card in May. The Liberals have been morally bankrupted by the compromises of coalition. There is a tragic irony here that after decades of being able to speak with integrity from the sidelines, in the sure and certain hope that real power would elude them and their ideas never be put to the test, now they have the chance of participating in the kind of government that electoral reform would have led to inevitably and always (as opposed to the sheer chance of 2010), they are judged for not being able to win every battle in Cabinet, despite being the minor player. And meantime we have seen the rise and rise of UKIP, and the gregarious Mr Farage, with their councillors, MEPs, and now two defective MPs in the Commons. No one really knows if they have policies apart from Europe, but if they had power, it would take an entire Parliament to deal with that, so perhaps those providing the nation's healthcare, education, social care, and transport, could enjoy a brief respite. Finally we have the Greens - galloping ahead of UKIP for party membership, just overtaken the Liberals, with one respected and not defective MP in Parliament, and slightly less fortunately, a foreigner as leader. No one's much more clear of their policies either, but climate change deniers are thinner on the ground these days, and if the Greens were right about that ...?

Much will be decided on the strengths and weaknesses of the party leaders, not the policies. Most MPs don't understand economics, so there's no reason why the punters should. Of these, Mr Cameron's act is far the most convincing. He is widely trusted in opinion polls on the economy despite perceptions of him as out-of-touch, uncaring, and dodgy on the NHS. He has that effortless manner of entitlement and expectation, and an uncanny ability to deny self-evident truths plausibly. In the end, the peasants will always prefer a Toff over a Boffin, which is the choice they get with Mr Miliband. Absurd really, as both have equally impressive academic credentials, but Miliband looks like the sort of man who will bore you with them, whereas Cameron will tell you a rude story, or gossip about the Queen. Miliband has four months left to find a voice that is convincing, or a devastating policy soundbite. It might happen. What won't happen is any reversal in Mr Clegg's fortunes. The Liberals attract more personal local loyalty to their constituency MPs, so the loss of seats may not be so drastic, but every seat lost is another bargaining chip gone for another coalition, and those who voted Liberal in seats where they didn't last time are unlikely to do so again, as now they are paying their children's university tuition fees which Clegg promised they wouldn't have to. So the overall vote share will go down. Which means that UKIP and the Greens have most to play for. Despite a succession of embarrassments, more over personnel than policies, Mr Farage seems to be the non-stick politician. Just as ruling class as Cameron and Clegg, he gets away with the persona of the outsider with the common touch, and with the hardships of the recession, and European immigration to blame it on, he has a powerful friend in lower class racism (tinged with victimhood). It's not restricted to the lower classes, as Mr Farage and many Tory MPs prove, but "England for the English" is more likely to be said out loud by those who haven't been taught any better. Conservatives and Labour both have much to fear from UKIP. Like Sir Oswald Mosley, Farage will fizzle out in the end, like the house built on sand, but he may well have his day first. And what of Natalie Bennett? Her first task is to teach the nation not to say "who?". If she succeeds, though, the Greens might well clean up the Liberal vote, pro-EU Labourites, and even Tories who aren't Flat-Earthers. It's the most interesting place to watch.

A final mystery is the turn-out. The 1997 General Election was the last time it was just above 70%, falling to just above 60% by 2001, but climbing a little each time since. The largest post-War rises in turnout have been at times when a government was in trouble - 1950, 1974, and 1992. This government is in trouble. We could be in for an exhilarating ride.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
January 2015


  1. Until five years ago, the attitude was widespread that what we needed was a coalition and 'an end to yah-boo politics'. I wonder if we'll say 'goodbye' to that idea now that we've had a coalition ? We got an expensive referendum out of it. We also got no election for five years: good, no interference with normal telly,bad, in five years' time we'll have nothing but the election on the telly for six months instead of four weeks. When I was taking A-levels, the class was told that the concept of an opposition party,complete with a shadow cabinet paid to disagree with a government, was rare in the world,and that it could only happen in a politically educated country like ours. I felt quite proud.
    When I was teaching, I discovered that few adults knew the difference between a councillor and an MP and hardly anybody knew the names of theirs.Where the politically educated voters had gone, I didn't know.
    When I was in my teens and forming my own political views, ballot papers bore only the names and occupations of the candidates,not their parties.It was mainly by reading the leaflets that came through the door that voters knew which candidates represented which party. Although the public may not have read the manifesto,they had little choice but to look at the leaflet if they wanted to know where to put a cross. In those days politicians did have very opposing ideas about what was right for their town or for the country and voters tended to be more polarised,it seems to me.
    Something that I've noticed in the last five years or so is the greater acknowledgement of the existence of poverty. We no longer refer to 'the financially deprived','the monetarily disadvantaged' or the 'less prosperous' but to 'the poor'. Honesty at last ! Something the poor have always known is that the poorest are those who work but don't bring much money in. It is nowadays mentioned in the media that x or y% of those in poverty are in employment,as if low pay is a surprise to anyone but journalists. Before the expansion in welfare, workers used to make up more or less 100% of the poor. Not that welfare benefits have ever been riches, but the reason the working classes clamoured for decades on the doorstep for politicians to reform the system was that benefits could so often be more than earnings.
    Any politician who thinks there are votes in accusing Her Majesty's Government of cutting welfare is in for a surprise.
    Anyone who's fallen sick or unemployed since the system was computerised and is kept waiting weeks for their benefit to come through is undoubtedly in a bad way but they blame it on the incompetence of the little hitlers who take longer to do their job than ever they did with card indexes and paper forms. Nobody imagines the Prime Minister rings the DWP office and tells the staff to sit on the payments and they don't imagine the leader of HML Opposition can do anything about it.

  2. Continuing :
    My first awareness of food banks came about in 1966. I'd been left school about two years and was working in Local Government. The people on benefits who came to put their names down for a food parcel usually had more money coming in than any of the family men working in our office. The availability of food parcels wasn't widely publicised. Word just got around.
    I suppose the publicity about food banks in the last couple of years has been good if it's led to more of them being set up. If the need for them is greater, however, that's sad. Whether there is more 'food insecurity' - as the Americans call it - about in Britain than there was five years ago, or whether we're just more open and honest about it and so now that food banks are more common, fewer are going hungry, is hard to tell.
    Certainly the number of adults,particularly men,finding themselves financially obliged to two homes with no increase in income is on the rise. The man who deserts a home, leaving a woman and children to go and set up on his own as if he's a bachelor and then gets another woman with child was not the sort our Department was hearing about in the apparently swinging sixties. I know a man who has done just that and now wants the Housing Department to find him a bigger place than the one they found him two years ago so that he can put his teenage daughters from his first home up at weekends and his two-year-old son up when he has access. But for his parents he'd be lining up at the food bank. It's not the fault of anyone in Whitehall or Town Hall that he has both a mortgage and a rent to pay out of his wages. Apparently among his daughters' school-fellows this sort of parental situation is so common as to be normal. I don't think this contributor to the housing shortage is public-spirited enough to vote. Not exactly a pillar of responsibility.
    The mother of his son already had two older sons she doesn't work to support. Another example of a demographic unenvisaged when the welfare state was set up. I don't think there'd be much of a sympathy vote if her 'plight' was publicised on a party political broadcast.
    As for inequalities : I for one am not interested in how much more anybody else has than me, and I don't think I'm unusual. If somebody is richer,good luck to them. May they keep a seat on the top bench for me in case I get the chance to join them one day. Nobody is raised by bringing someone else lower. If Mr A needs two hundred quid so that his life is not uncomfortable, it doesn't matter if Mr B has two million so long as he's not keeping Mr A's two hundred quid from him. I'd be surprised if many of us think about equality when we're in the ballot box. We want to know that our own lives are in good hands. I want to know that the MP will be competent if I need him or her to solve a problem. I want a Prime Minister other leaders aren't going to laugh at. I want armed forces that keep invaders out and are prepared to defend the weak and a parliament that will supply what they need. I want our youth taught by men and women who are literate themselves. I want a police force of whom criminals are afraid. What I don't want is leader who looks as though he/she doesn't know how to provide any of the above. High heels,shabby raincoat,a pipe and a handbag - that's my vision of a PM.