Thursday, 29 May 2014

I’m feeling like an alien

Last Thursday we had the local elections and the European Parliamentary Elections and as I’ve reflected on the results I’ve realized that I feel like an alien in my own land. In the European election the party that got the largest vote was UKIP: a party that I consider to be xenophobic and possibly racist with homophobic and misogynist leanings. A party that is in favour of tax cuts for the wealthy and wants more grammar schools.  I simply don’t understand why people would vote for them. I suppose I do need to keep things in perspective. The turnout in the European election was very low – just under 34% and so UKIP were actually only supported by about 9% of the population. The media have made bold claims about the rise of UKIP using words such as “earthquake” and “surge” but the facts may not justify the hyperbole. Nonetheless, UKIP did very well in the European Election and surprisingly well in some areas in the local elections. I want to share a few thoughts on low turnout, the appeal of UKIP and what is important to me.

Low turnout. UKIP are very concerned about the EU but it would seem that the majority in this country are not.  I believe that it’s important for people to use their hard won democratic right to vote but a large majority of people in this country disagree with me when it comes to Europe. There are a host of reasons why people may not vote: ignorance of how to; a feeling that it won’t make any difference; a distrust of all the candidates. The European elections have an element of proportional representation in them that does away with some of the arguments against voting that people often cite with regard to UK parliamentary elections. In the first-past-the-post system many people argue that your vote is irrelevant if you don’t live in a marginal constituency but in the European Parliamentary elections smaller parties can be elected. So why don’t more people vote? Possibly, despite the claims of UKIP, most people don’t feel that the EU makes a lot of difference to us. In my opinion they’re wrong, but that seems to be some people’s thinking. If there were an in/out referendum, as some people want, I’d be worried if there weren’t safeguards against low turnout. It would be a bizarre situation if the United Kingdom, (or former United Kingdom if Scotland is independent by then), made a momentous decision like leaving the EU with only a minority voting for it. It would be a real worry because minorities sometimes make decisions. In Salford we have an elected mayor because 10% of the electorate voted for one – 2% more than voted against. In my opinion you shouldn’t introduce significant constitutional change with less than 50% of the electorate in favour.

What is the appeal of UKIP? Clearly UKIP have been helped a great deal by an enthusiastic media. Scare stories about migrants and EU legislation proliferate in the tabloids and even the BBC has been guilty of talking up the success of UKIP. The other parties have tended to respond by pointing out that they too are going to give migrants and the EU a hard time. I’m not sure that this is all that helpful and I’ve been especially disappointed by the Labour Party. UKIP will always be more anti-immigrant than the Labour Party so it isn’t helpful to compete with them on this. Some correction of facts would be helpful but not trying to vie with them on policy.

Another part of the appeal of UKIP is that they are seen as anti-politician politicians. Despite his wealthy, privileged and privately educated background Nigel Farage is portrayed as an “ordinary bloke”.  The Labour Party does need to see this as a serious challenge as it has become too professionalised and too remote from most of the country. National politics are dominated by London’s needs and desires and this can’t be allowed to carry on. During 13 years of Labour Party government there were some moves made to decentralise but nothing like enough. I believe that the Labour Party and others need to reconnect with ordinary people across the country. They need to genuinely listen and we need some more northern, working class voices in there.

So what are the alternatives to the UKIP “earthquake”? The Labour Party had some success in the elections but didn’t do as well as it should have. They want to win next year’s general election and are busy aligning policies with what they think will be popular. Democracy seems to be a constant compromise between ideals and popularity. I’ve been a member of the Labour Party for almost all of my adult life and persevered even through the dark days of the Iraq war but I find it hard to be motivated by what I hear recently. I suspect this is because they’re not trying to impress me. They are trying to impress swing voters in marginal constituencies but it feels like they are saying  “look we’re not quite as bad as the Tories so vote for us”. It’s not anything to stir the blood!

On Monday Ed Milliband tweeted: “If you share my values of hard work, fairness and opportunity then help show that we can make Britain work again:” I’m not quite sure what that means. It’s not bad but I don’t think it’s what I would choose as my three prime values… “Hard work, fairness and opportunity?” It got me wondering what I might choose. Perhaps “fulfilling work, justice and freedom”? Freedom and opportunity though, are slippery concepts that can allow one person the freedom to oppress another. With freedom must always come responsibility. Perhaps I could borrow from Brinsley Schwarz and have “Peace, love & Understanding”? Perhaps, to steal from the French, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”? I’d like to remove the masculine implications of “Fraternity” but I would really want something in there about community or solidarity. For me, my political views and my Christian faith are intertwined and in both I believe that we human beings are at our best when we work together for the good of all. I believe that human beings are inherently sociable and I believe that the world will not thrive if we all isolate ourselves and put barriers up. So I believe that even though the EU is flawed it is a good thing. The problem is not that the EU is too big but that in a world that is dominated by global tax-dodging multi-nationals the EU is not big enough! If the human race is to survive and thrive we will need to increasingly find global ways to co-operate. We will need to tackle the injustices of the world and put an end to poverty. If people want to reduce migration to this country, the long-term solution is to make things better in other countries, not strengthen the barriers here. The wealth we have accumulated, and continue to accumulate here, is at least partly dependent on poverty elsewhere. Thomas Piketty and others have argued that increasing inequalities could lead to the collapse of capitalism if they are not tackled. It may well be that this would be a good thing in the long term but it would be painful and isn’t something to rush into.

To me, it seems that UKIP and the Conservative Party have as their core-values selfishness and greed. They might put a positive spin on these by calling them individual freedom and opportunity but selfishness and greed are what they are. And this is where I start to feel like an alien in my own land because it seems that many and possibly most people in this country feel that selfishness and greed are acceptable, or even good, values. I hope I’m wrong but this is what I see in the political sphere. The Labour Party seems to have decided some time ago that in order to get elected it needs to pander to our societal individualism and selfishness. The Liberal Democrats have terminally damaged themselves through their toxic pact with the Tories and although the Green Party courageously recycle old socialist policies alongside their environmental ones, they simply fail to get enough votes. I’d still prefer a Labour government to this current one but I’d love to be truly inspired! I suspect that in the long term either the values I cherish will triumph or our civilisation will come to an unhappy end. In the meantime I’m the oddity in the corner asking with Brinsley Schwarz and Elvis Costello “What’s so funny ‘bout Peace, Love & Understanding?”