Elections and after
The people’s displeasure with politicians was reflected in the recent polls for local councils and the European Parliament.
Tilt to the Right: More Right-wing representation in this edition…
When I wrote in my last “Cambridge Letter” about the crisis engulfing the democratic system in the United Kingdom, I did not expect to return to the subject so soon. In the past few weeks, however, the crisis has continued to unfold. There has been a succession of decisions by Members of Parliament, from both sides, that they will not stand again. Public reaction has continued to be hostile, with many people suggesting that they should not remain in Parliament but be forced to go now.
Furthermore, we have just had elections in the UK and it seemed appropriate, therefore, to continue to explore the topic. (Let me provide some context: our elections were not for parliament, but for our representatives in the European Parliament — MEPs rather than MPs — and for local councils.) I would have been hesitant about making predictions about the results of these elections. As the Indian electorate will be well aware, predictions can be embarrassingly wrong. My private assumption, however, was that the results would be bad from the government’s point of view — and so indeed it has proved. The Labour Pparty vote in the European polls fell dramatically; the vote for UKIP, the anti-EU, UK Independence Party, rose.
Turnout, as is usual in local and European elections in the UK, was low. As a believer in democracy, with friends in some African countries where democracy is still a hope rather than a reality, I find this shameful, but it is true. (Some of this apathy, at least where Europe is concerned, can be attributed to widespread scepticism about the European Union, and sometimes outright hostility to Britain’s membership, attitudes which the Labour and Conservative parties have done little to confront. Only the Liberal Democrats, of the three major parties, have been consistently European.)
This time people’s expression of their continuing anger at the behaviour of politicians was reflected in voting for smaller parties, or not voting at all. In a sense, that was illogical, because the behaviour that has made people angry has been behaviour by MPs, not local councillors or MEPs, but it was not be altogether surprising. Voting against the main parties in these elections was a way of giving those parties a kick in the teeth without too many direct consequences.
Understandable though it is, and indeed satisfying though it can be, voting against rather than for has real dangers. One, much discussed in recent weeks, is that it may lead people to support extremist parties, which can for example conceal racist policies behind hostility to the EU. Depressingly, the extreme Right-wing British National Party did indeed win two European seats.
In my view, amid all the wholly justifiable calls for reform of the UK political system, the over-riding need is to ensure that we, as electors, once again have something that we can believe in.
On the eve of polling day in the 1997 UK general election, which ended years of Conservative rule and brought Tony Blair and New Labour to power, several friends and I were having a conversation with a highly intelligent visitor from Singapore. He asked what we thought the result would be. Our unanimous reply was that the Conservatives would be chucked out. He expressed astonishment, pointing out that the economy was pretty strong, and continued to be astonished when I said that it was nothing to do with the economy, but with the fact that people were fed up with the government that had been in power so long that it had become arrogant.
Two days later I could not resist pointing out that we had been right. Then I added that, as a good democrat, I was pleased at the result but, as a good democrat, I would now turn my critical attention on the new government.
That major upheaval in the British political firmament was a good example of the kind of change that happens when the electorate have lost their faith in the politicians in power and need something new to believe in.
The big difference between 1997 and now is that then it was the government that had lost popular support, whereas now it is the parliamentary system as a whole. A general election will not mend that, nor will the need go away if the politicians drag their feet until the last moment for a general election. Meanwhile, the European and local elections have underlined the constitutional problems which we face but they are not the cause, nor the route to a solution.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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