openDemocracyUK

The haunted election

The comic tragedy of British politics: 1  

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
29 April 2015
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There is the general election - and then there is what is going on beneath the general election. There is the official election of the two main parties ‘the choice’. And there is the unofficial election, expressed through the rise of the unmain parties.

The view of the New York Times is that there is little to choose between the main parties while the electorate outside their support is merely “fragmenting”. The polls are static, there is no ‘breakthrough’, Labour wants a better country and the Tories can’t understand why a majority does not think it is already better. Be afraid! They warn, but if so, why not be afraid of them! The current Private Eye has Cameron falling asleep with the headline: ELECTION CAMPAIGN COMES ALIVE and the caption, “Passionate Cameron captures national mood”.

Yet at the same time this is the most interesting and potentially explosive general election since the 1970s. Not because there is a defining or transformational difference between the two main parties. Instead, the issues below the surface that their dance is designed to confine are closer to bursting point than ever before.

This is more than symbolised by the rise of the Scottish National Party, the SNP, as a Westminster force threatening to expel both Labour and the Lib Dems from their safe seats across ‘North Britain’. If this happens – and the polls only disagree over the extent of the cleansing – there will no longer be any British Unionist parties properly represented right across all the mainland countries. There are plenty of Labour, Lib Dem and Tory voters in Scotland, of course, but as they are excluded a Westminster Union that lived by first-past-the-post will die from it.

The sheer stubbornness and capacity of official politics to repress honest acknowledgement of realities that point towards its termination can be measured by the distorted way the rise of the SNP has been dealt with. ‘The system’ threw everything, including Gordon Brown, at keeping Scotland in the Union. But once it agreed to stay it wasn’t supposed to behave like this! Far from being a healthy society that has normalized itself by throwing aside belief in the undead of Whitehall, it is projected back in the land of poor England as the nightmare itself: a blood-sucking vampire on the holy body of the British state. The Tories, picking up the anxiety this generates, hope it might persuade Ukip supporters to embrace the undead. They are stoking the fear, declaring that a Labour Government supported by the SNP would mean “mayhem”, to quote the master of mayhem itself, ex-premier John Major whose outstanding contribution to good order was the privatization of the railways. So effective was this alarmism that Ed Miliband felt forced to rule out any deal of any kind with the SNP, however the Scottish people vote. They will not be allowed to count in the crazy mathematics of main party rule.

Main-party-democracy may not add up, but worse than that it smothers the issues a general election should be about. Let’s try and take a look at what else is not being addressed by them, whatever the voters’ concerns.

  1. England. This is the question that is posed by the rise of a more independent Scotland within the UK. Having English votes for English issues in the Commons, as the Conservatives propose, or not doing so and pushing it the England question out to some undefined ‘convention’ as Labour suggests, are both procedural responses not substantive. No one is articulating - what other word can I use? - the need for England to have voice (Farage is mere expulsion of air).
  2. Surveillance and liberty. A transformation of the way we live is accelerating, with colossal consequences. We all know this. The parties proceed without addressing it. Most important of all, the combination of American corporations aka Gafa (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) in combination with the surveillance state of NSA and GCHQ threatens to undermine our liberty. This has now to be defended with new rights, such as the protection of our metadata. A gripping discussion of the issues with Open Rights Group director Jim Killock was part of oD’s election coverage. Now listen to the silence. Worse, the main parties are collaborating with deep state in the name of protecting the population from terrorism. On this vital issue there is no choice on offer.    
  3. Europe. The Conservatives are proposing a “smoke and mirrors” referendum on Europe after reforms have been extracted from a willing Brussels. Labour says this is a distraction generating uncertainty, not a priority. Voters are right to see there is no significance difference between them behind the scenes. But an enormous change is underway that an election ought to be an opportunity air and share. The excellent Open Europe newsletter reports European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker speaking to journalists  saying he wants a “fair deal” for the UK, adding, “There’s still room for finding intersectional space between what I think Britain will propose and what I think about the European reaction to that.” Asked about the prospects for Treaty change, he responded that, “It depends on the request, it depends on other issues such as the deepening of economic and monetary union that could easily lead to treaty changes too, but it’s too early to have a final view of that.” This is of lasting importance: today the masters of the EU are saying they now want a two-tier Europe, in effect a multi-tier one with Germany and France dominant at a centre, with the UK sidelined, whatever London wants. Cameron's treaty reforms (not including preventing free movement of people) will be a codicile to this major reframing. You might welcome mere attachment to the EU as a good place to be. But it is a geopolitical earthquake for 'Great Britain'. Blathering on about Britain’s role in the world without taking this on board is close to delusional.  
  4. Corruption. A new book edited by David Whyte, How Corrupt is Britain, sets out the case for regarding the entire British system of government – the terrible twins of Whitehall and the City – as riddled with systemic corruption, decorated by the House of Lords, the only legislative body in the developed world made up of cronies who work for private interests. In an article in oD summing up its conclusions Whyte notes that "bribery is part of our way of life" and Britain has "lost sense of what constitutes the ‘public interest’". David Marquand in Mammon's Kingdom sets out a sustained case for the collapse of core values. Have we heard this matter debated? There has been more coverage of Putin’s links to Russia’s oligarchs. [PS: oD is working on a joint project to monitor press coverage and Olly Huitson reports that from the start of the campaign until now, "In the wake of the multiple lobbying scandals, lobbying reform has been mentioned only once in the Sun, the Mail, the Telegraph and the Times, taken together, while Ed Miliband's kitchens have been mentioned 14 times"].
  5. Access to justice. All political parties celebrate the rule of law. But there can't be the rule of law if people do not have access to claim justice when they have been wronged or can't afford to defend themselves when they are charged. Like many fundamental rights that are ignored by the 'popular' press if not derided, in fact most people understand the need because they experience the vulnerability. YouGov were commissioned to poll opinion on access to justice by the Criminal Law Solicitor's Association and found that 84 per cent said a fair trial and access to legal aid were a fundamental British right, slightly more than the 82 per cent who said that access to the NHS is. With legal aid gaining stella ratings why isn't it out there as an election issue? It is easily paid for, as Geoffrey Bindman has proposed, through the simple solution of a modest 10% levy on all lawyers' individual earnings above £150,000 a year. Hmm, what could be the answer, maybe the fact that the House of Commons shredded all records of MPs expenses before 2010 to protect them from scrutiny has something to do with it.. all this 'access to justice'... (see corruption, above). You do not need a finger to count the political leaders who have made a strong stand on the need a return to the principles symbolised by the Magna Carta.
  6. The trade deficit. This is name of the precipice the political parties face with their backs. It is not the fiscal deficit that matters when borrowing is so cheap, and anyway private borrowing and indebtedness are more serious as Aditya Chakrabortty points out. It is the fact that the UK has the largest balance of payments deficit ever recorded since readings began in 1948. A point hammered home by John Mills in openDemocracy and with a campaign so vigorous and well directed at policy specialists that an active decision has been taken: ‘we had better not talk about that’. Because, of course, we all knows what happens to the first messenger who reports that the country is screwed…
  7. Climate Change. The silence here is quite extraordinary given the agreement. It is the one issue that you would have thought that all the leaders would in concert have sought to face down the pseudo-populism of deniers. The complaint here is not that there should be a choice on offer but that it is essential the need for action is not seen as an elite stich-up. Once more, voters are not being trusted with a major issue.
  8. Our democracy. Is this the word for loss of trust, disenchantment, flight from politics, the House of Lords, a grotesque electoral system? A slow-motion system breakdown is underway that none of the reforms mooted in the various manifestos addresses. For the main parties the election is a conspiracy to keep the show on the road. Take the most radical of them led by Ed Miliband. His view, he told the revolutionary Russell Brand, is that the problem we have with our system is “who it is run for, that is why we need a system that changes the way the country works”. He does not think the problem is who it is run by. Alas, Brand went along with this, the great seducer seduced perhaps by proximity to a real politician rather than an entertainer like Paxman. Brand told Miliband, “what we need to feel, ordinary people, is that there is the will in politicians. That they get into politics not because of cronyism, not because of careerism but because they want to represent ordinary people in the face of powerful elites that seem to be somehow be beyond the grasp of ordinary politics…  There is a real sense of ‘how is this happening’, ‘there is nothing we can do’. I completely agree with you Ed, we don't want some giddy ‘Yes we can’ euphoria, we want a bloke who is going to say, “look, I’m in it for the rights reasons, I’m prepared to take on Murdoch, I’m prepared to take on HSBC, I’m prepared to take on the powerful elites who have got control of the Tory Party…" people want security and stability and an end to that fear.”

If this is revolution, count me out! Brand is in danger of recycling the same old deference in the guise of complaining that our beloved leaders no longer deliver! The nature of the British state means it simply can’t deliver fairness - let alone democratic socialism, any more than, as the famous phrase goes, you can get milk from a vulture. We need a step change, as Stuart White argues, from the Sovereignty of Parliament to the sovereignty of the people. Is this on offer in the election? To borrow a soundbite: Hell no.

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