The five years are up, Hypothetical Audience, the playgrounds have emptied, Westminster’s head mistress has sent the children home again and, as is traditional, our country has reverted to a state of anarchy until we all manage to sort this mess out amongst ourselves. Yes, that’s right, it’s General Election time again here in dear old Blighty, so roving gangs adorned with garish rosettes are harassing innocent bystanders again. Given how the previous one was a total bust and resulted in essentially an unelected head of government taking the reins, this one is kind of important. Unlike the last one, however, things have changed substantially on the UK’s political landscape over the last half-decade, and the traditional “Big 3” parties no longer have the kind of influence over people anymore, and the minor parties can actually make a difference now. For better or worse. If you hadn’t guessed over the previous postings here (and certainly if you ever read my twitter feed) I am a very political person, so have been watching developments very closely indeed.
For those from outside the UK, here’s a quick overview of how it works here. The only national-level elected body in the UK is the House of Commons, the head of which is the Prime Minister. Elections are held every 5 years, and the political party with an overall majority becomes the party in Government and their leader the Prime Minister, and the largest opposition party becomes “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.” While there isn’t any limit whatsoever on the number of parties involved in the Commons, traditionally certain parties have dominated British politics. For the last thirty years they have been the right-wing Conservative party (note the capital C, also known as the Tories), the Labour Party, which was founded as a socialist party but has veered to centre-right since 1997, and and the Liberal Democrats, a habitually runner-up party formed when two other parties merged in the late ‘80s.
The last election in 2010 came at the end of the relatively unpopular “New Labour” government elected in 1997 and notable for, among other things, our involvement in the Iraq war. But rather than an overall majority we ended up with a “Hung Parliament.” With no majority to form a government, we instead got a coalition between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, with Tory leader David Cameron taking the top roll and LibDem chief Nick Clegg his deputy. This is the only time so far in their history that the LibDems have had any measure of power. The last 5 years of Coalition Government have been notable for aggressive austerity measures, a slow erosion of the welfare state and a gradual loss of confidence in the political establishment. To say the current government has been unpopular is a grave understatement.
There has been something of a problem with voter engagement the last few governments, indeed the low turn out during the last election likely didn’t help with the no overall majority thing. However, two interesting things have occurred recently to change this. First there has been a rise in more fringe parties that have been offering, whether genuinely or not, an alternative from the traditional Westminster established parties. This has occurred on both the left and right wings, with the sudden surge in support for the Green Party UK and the anti-Europe reactionary UK Independence Party (UKIP), and also with the non-English centred nationalist parties like the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru (their Welsh equivalent). The other big change was brought about by the Scottish Independence Referendum last year. The amount of public engagement generated by it was phenomenal, and I believe the final statistics for those registered to vote was something like 70% of all those eligible. Whilst this was only north of the Scottish borders, if similar levels of public interest can be whipped up everywhere the political landscape of this country could be changed almost instantly.
There is another interesting factor in the current election chaos, and it’s a rather interesting one. For the second time in all electoral history we will be conducting televised debates between the party leaders. This was something that was brought in in 2010, and is about as confusing now as it was then. Y’see, here in the UK we don’t actually vote for individuals rather their parties, at least notionally, so the concept of leadership debates is a bit at odds with how things work. I have a feeling we cribbed this from the American presidential elections, where you are in fact voting for an individual and it fits much better. But they seem to be here to stay, and somehow have progressed to the level of sacrosanct tradition in 5 scant years. Our Dear Leader Mister Cameron was absolutely pilloried for pussy footing around the subject, and there has been outcry over the various combinations of parties that were- or weren’t- invited. The end result has been a series of events with gradually diminishing numbers of participants across varying broadcast networks. It’s all a bit confusing if you ask me.
But, ultimately all the kinks were ironed out and a fortnight ago this Friday ITV took to the stage and held the first grand political melée to a live audience. This time around we had representatives from the Labour, Liberal Democrat, Conservative, UKIP, Green, Scottish National and *deep breath* Plaid Cymru parties all trying to make their case in a two hour period. This doesn’t sound like that much time, now, does it? It really wasn’t. Each leader got an opening and closing statement, between which a series of carefully selected questions from the carefully selected audience (though not too carefully, as Cameron did get heckled at one point) were put to them. Each leader got to grandstand on the point then it became an open debate until such time people needed to move on. And yes, it did degenerate into arguments at times. Even after watching this entire display, and I’ll freely admit to snarking along with friends on Skype, I can’t say I’m wholly sold on the debate idea as a method for public engagement. It did, however, provide a fascinating insight into each of the leaders, and I want to give you my condensed opinion on all of them.
David Cameron, the current Prime Minister and apparent champion of the “Insert Coin” school of political discourse, was in a bit of an odd position with this debate. Much rumblings had been made as to why he felt it wasn’t worth his time, and after all his demands were met it did feel like he wasn’t entirely confident with being there. But, as the current PM, he was obviously there to retain power, admittedly through that curious delusion the Conservative party have about actually winning the last election, and made that abundantly clear. Constant references to “The Plan” and its successes were made, without actually outlining the full extent of the plan itself (unless selling off the country and dismantling the welfare state was it, in which case well done you awful bastards). Every now and again he’d trot out statistics to back this up, including the particularly odious and oft-repeated line that “Two Million people were back in work,” which fails to mention that this also includes those not being paid for it by being placed on mandatory workfare placements. Throughout the whole ordeal his was constantly out performed by his opponents on charisma alone, not once did he have any point that made me at least consider his view, which put him joint last with the leader of UKIP for reasons I will address later.
As is tradition, Cameron’s main rival was Labour leader Ed Miliband, a man who genuinely looks like a Wallace and Gromit character. No, really, he does. He is also a man who shouldn’t smile in public all that much, as the sheer number of teeth he displays while doing so creep me out. As has been become the norm for his party leadership, Ed’s main arguments tended to be “The Tories are bad, my, vote for us” while simultaneously managing to fail to prove why his lot are any better anymore. Seriously, with things like erosion of social services and the victimisation of the poor and disabled, New Labour is currently pulling about equal with it’s traditional rival. Long gone is Labour being the party of the poor and needy of yesteryear, much to my dismay after coming from generations of Labour voters. Throughout the whole debate Miliband provided a counterpoint to Cameron’s fear of change by outlining the fear of allowing Cameron to continue. Occasionally he managed to one up his rival by pointing out a few statistics but generally it was the same rhetoric, just pointed in a different direction. While I genuinely think Miliband as a leader may do far better than Brown or Blair, his two predecessors, it’s something of a worry that the party he presides over is rather uncomfortably right wing compared to it’s history pre-1990s.
On the subject of Right-Wing, Nigel “King Kipper” Farage, chief of the crazy purple people, or UKIP to their friends, was on hand. The media attitude to his party, who’s slogan might as well be “I’m Not Racist, But” is rather odd if you ask me. Constantly they seem to be treated like a major player in Westminster, despite currently only possessing a single seat in the Commons and being predicted to only contest a further three, if that. But, the man was present, and pretty much played to type. Every answer out of his mouth was somehow blaming whatever problem was being debated on immigration, Europe or both. This included, believe it or not, how to make my generation feel better about politics. Seriously, his answer was basically “Fuck Europe” (Of course I’m paraphrasing here). He did come across as a right loon at the best of times, but did manage to out do himself in the crazy right winger stakes. When the subject of the NHS came up, Farage was quick to jump in by blaming health tourists, which have never really been identified as a genuine problem but was totally expected. As he went on he then took the unexpected, and incredibly distasteful, choice to deliberately invoke “Foreign HIV Positive” patients being a specific problem. As I discussed with a friend at the time, I imagine it took conscious effort not to say “Them Gays” at the same time, as this was the clear inference from his statement. Quite rightly he was leapt upon by both viewers and his fellow debaters for how vile this comment was. Farage is genuinely one of the most odious main stream politicians going right now, and more than the others preys upon people’s fear. I really hope people manage to see through his bullshit before the ballot box.
Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats was also there. Ok, a bit more than that: Given how his opening statement started with “No-one will win this election” I get the impression Clegg has already given up. Certainly I wouldn’t expect anyone to vote for me had I given Cameron the keys to the city. Indeed, it seemed a lot of his time was spent attacking his former partner in government, which resembled a marriage falling apart. While he did occasionally say some things that got me nodding, including a quite spectacular smack down on Farage over immigration, I don’t think anyone is taking him that seriously anymore.
The Green party, as represented by Natalie Bennet, is in a similar position to UKIP at the moment, but was rightly invited to balance them out as a nationwide left-wing party. Bennet also seemed to be quite able to balance out the fear mongering being used by the previous four leaders. She tended to be far more direct, pointing out how the establishment that Clegg, Cameron, Miliband and Farage all represent was what got us into the mess we’re in right now, as opposed to beating around the proverbial bush. Her anti-austerity arguments tended to be backed up rather than simply saying “We should stop this.” Certainly her part in the debate was far more positive than the four men, arguing change for the better rather than arguing against it. As I mentioned previously, I come from a family of Labour voters and consider myself something of a progressive. Right now, the Greens are the only UK-wide party that seems to represent the worldview I ascribe to. While they certainly aren’t perfect, no politicians are, they certainly are the ones getting my vote right now.
Leanne Wood and Plaid Cymru were, I will admit, relatively unknown to me before watching this debate. That being said, she did manage to impress upon me quite well. Much like Bennet, she had a far more positive set of arguments than the male leaders. She did argue almost exclusively from the viewpoint of Wales, which makes sense for the leader of the major Welsh nationalist party, and I can imagine this may have turned more than a few people off during her speech segments. Nevertheless she did remarkably well during the debate if you ask me, managing to have me agree with here as much as Bennet, and receiving the first of the scant few applauses of the night after laying in to Farage over his distasteful “Foreign HIV” comment. Much like Sturgeon below, I think it’s unfortunate that Plaid Cymru are limited to standing in Welsh constituencies only, as I could see myself voting for them based on their leaders opinions presented here.
The stand out performance of the night had to be current leader of the Scottish National Party Nichola Sturgeon. Despite being from a party that, as she fully admitted early on, wants independence for Scotland, her standpoint was of one fighting for a positive future for all people of Great Britain. Unlike Wood, Sturgeon tended to take a more nationwide approach to her arguments, outlining how the SNP could help all of us not just Scotland. Given how they are set to leapfrog the LibDems and become the third largest party in Westminster (exclusively with Scottish seats alone!) this is perhaps the best tact if it might come down to Sturgeon having the deciding votes, as it were, in a future coalition. Throughout the debate she proved herself more than a worthy successor to Alex Salmond, the man who managed to get an independence referendum, by constantly providing counterpoints to the traditional Westminster parties that didn’t dwell upon the creeping fear they are employing right now. She also proved herself to be a skilled orator, as her opening and ending speeches were definitely the most impressive of those present. As I said, it’s a shame that the SNP only stands in their native Scotland, however if they manage to be the literal balance of power in the new government, and actually keep to their ideals, I can see a more positive future for the whole UK ahead of us.
So that was the impression the leaders left upon me after their mass debate (arf). The next debate will be on the BBC this thursday (the 16th of April) and will only feature the opposition leaders, so Insert Coin has gotten off lightly this time. Anyway, it does seem that the traditional parties are beginning to wain, leaving the floor wide open for the smaller groups to creep in and change things in the most dramatic way. In all honesty this could go either amazingly well or terribly badly, depending on how we go as a nation. Part of me has faith in the British public to not totally screw this all up and fall for the politics of fear as they have done so often in the past. We’ll have to see come May 7th whether that faith is misplaced.
Until next time, folks
—Possibly the longest blog here to date, appropriate for a heavy one, huh?