Sadly, the resounding feature of the 2012 local elections is one of a weak democracy. It’s true that of the 32 per cent of people who decided to vote, more voted Labour than any other party. But the dominant characteristic of 2012 is that almost seven in every 10 people decided that the election wasn’t worth the walk to the polling station.
Ed Milliband said recently that what saddens him most when talking to people on the doorstep is not when they tell him that they will not be voting Labour, but when they say they are not voting at all because the three main parties are all the same. It may sadden him, but the electorate have a point. And on 3 May, they made that point clear with the lowest turnout since the beginning of the last decade. And the fact that Milliband sees the perceived similarity of the three main parties and the disillusionment with Labour as two separate problems, shows that he still has yet to comprehend the extent of the problem facing his party and British politics.
Even in London, where the mayoral candidates are jealously guarded by the bastions of ‘left’ and ‘right’ in their own respective parties, the election managed to turn into an X-Factor contest. No policy, no substance; just tax evasion and overcharged masculine egos. In fact, the one positive note for democracy to come out of these elections is that elected mayors have been rejected by nine cities across the country. The personality politics of London mayoral elections have left millions facing costly public services and a few facing a tax cut. Fortunately, it was enough to put the rest of the country off.
To see how things could be different we have only to look across the channel. On the 22 April, the top five candidates in the French presidential election all unashamedly stood for a platform quite different and separate from one another. The French voters were allowed to take part in a process that could almost be described as democracy. Communists, socialists, social democratics, the right wing and the ultra right each enjoyed a share of the vote between nine and 29 per cent. Whilst in Britain, we are forced to pick between three posh school boys scrapping around in the increasingly claustrophobic confines of the ‘centre ground’. The French enjoyed a turnout of over 80 per cent at the end of April. UK general elections have not got close to 70 per cent since 1979.
Clearly, the most important lesson of the French presidential elections is not for the UK electorate but for our political elite. The French centrist candidate came fifth on the 22 April. When presented with a political choice, the French people rejected a centrist platform of weak appeasement to powerful vested interest. Given an alternative, the French society showed that they view centrist politics to be insufficient for a country suffering from increasing inequality, rising unemployment and an economic crisis caused and aggravated by financial elite. In the UK, a defunct voting system and media monopolies have denied voters the same opportunity for choice.
But among the largely depressing observations on UK democracy, there is cause for qualified optimism for progressive politics. The Labour party are no longer a party of the ‘left’. They are neo-liberal apologisers who happen to fasten a red tie in the morning rather than blue or yellow. But they do remain slightly less damaging neo-liberal apologisers than their Tory counterparts, who, helped along by their Liberal-Democrat colleagues, are ripping up this country’s public sector. For that reason alone, over 800 new Labour council seats must be greeted with cautious optimism.
It is elsewhere though, that we can see the steady growth of a new, progressive challenge to the Coalition government: untarnished by illegal wars and a habit of nurturing the super rich. In London, above the clatter of noisy egos and personality contests, an increasing number of people begun to discern and identify with a challenge to the UK’s stagnant political consensus – and almost 100,000 of them went out and voted for it. Jenny Jones and the Green Party replaced the Liberal Democrats as the Capital’s third party in both the Mayoral election and the London Assembly list. And across the rest of the country, the Green’s share of council seats increased by over 25 per cent, whilst RESPECT also made significant gains, even usurping the Labour Council leader in Bradford.
The growth of the ‘new left’ is small and steady, but the context makes its significance far greater. In the 2009 council elections there was a large swing from Labour to Conservative, but the Greens quietly enjoyed net gains of 8 seats. In 2012 the swing went the opposite way. The fear was that such was the desperation to remove Tory politicians that people would be thankful for the lesser of two evils and vote Labour – making it difficult for any party offering a new alternative on the ‘left’. But this time the Greens claimed net gains of 11 seats. The number of Green victories is modest but they reveal an ever resilient mood in British politics for change. Whichever way the ‘swing’ goes, Green representation has stood firm, retained seats, and taken a yet another step forward.
The success of George Galloway in Bradford and Jones in London is evidence of the first tiny sparks that could kindle a new political flame. The smokescreen enveloping the UK’s political consensus has so far convinced the electorate that we are better off concentrating on the provision of arbitrary GDP growth (or lack thereof as it currently stands) than on distributing its proceeds. That unemployment is a price worth paying for a deregulated financial sector. And that more deregulation and spending cuts is the best means of ‘recovery’. But an ever growing voice is beginning to make the case that the strength of a society resides not in the size of its economy but on the ability of that economy to provide for society. Even our broken democracy may not be able to prevent that voice from getting louder.Tags: Domestic (UK)
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This post was written by Alfie Stirling