Monday, 8 June 2009

Business as usual

So, no change there then.

After week upon week of headlines and hysteria about a collapse in trust in mainstream politics, the European elections in Britain produce a result remarkably similar to last time's. In terms of share of the vote, the Conservatives, UKIP and the Lib Dems find themselves more or less unchanged: UKIP and the Tories up about one percent, the Lib Dems down about the same. The result in terms of seats is even closer to 2004. Only five out of 69 changed hands.

Of course, Labour did badly. But compared to last time, it only lost around 7% of the vote. It is striking that the governing party can command not much more than 15%. But considering the ongoing narrative of incompetence and collapse, we shouldn't be too surprised that few people could be bothered going out and voting Labour. It was merely a Euro-election, after all. European elections don't affect the government of the country (to be more exact, people don't realise that they affect the government of the country); they typically have a low turnout, which means that those who do vote are likely to be more highly motivated; and there was a confusing plethora of alternatives to choose from, everything from the Cornish nationalists to the Christian Party. In these circumstances, Labour can take a crumb of comfort from the fact that they managed to beat the Lib Dems, something which eluded it last time.

With all the talk of protest votes and an implosion of confidence in mainstream politics, this result was thoroughly conventional: an unpopular government lost votes in an election that was won, convincingly, by the main opposition party. Another lot of politicians, in other words. The people had an opportunity to express their resentment at the system by voting for fringe parties and independents, and they failed to take it. Yet this was the most propitious time there will ever be to wipe out the big parties. If the British people truly wanted a new politics, to turf out the tired and parasitic political class, they could have taken it on Thursday. They didn't.

Of the alternative parties, the English Democrats (whose policy platform reads like a Daily Mail editorial with its complaints about immigration and political correctness), the Christian Party of the Rev George "So Macho" Hargreaves and Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour all polled slightly more than 1%. The rest were nowhere. Few people were turned on by Declan Ganley's Libertas, despite its good organisation and funding, and its attractive pan-European platform of institutional reform. The Jury Team of Sir Paul Judge, whose ambition is to break the party monopoly by supporting independents, gained less than a half of one percent. The talk in recent weeks of the next Parliament being as celebrity-packed as the Priory looks like fantasy on such figures. Only a handful of Britain's pensioners voted for the Pensioners' Party, and even fewer wanted to give the Peace Party a chance.

But what about UKIP? What about the BNP? What about the Greens?

The thing to understand about UKIP - the thing that the media narrative consistently fails to understand about UKIP - is that it is no longer a fringe party in terms of the European parliament. Its support on this occasion - even allowing for the several thousand votes they probably lost as a consequence of poorly folded ballot papers - was not notably different from their result last time. In 2004, their campaign had a much higher profile, due to the topicality (which has dwindled) of European issues such as the Euro and the constitutional treaty. This time they probably benefited to some extent from a protest vote - but no more than the Greens, who improved their showing marginally, and less than the BNP, which is for various reasons a more natural home for disillusioned Labour supporters than UKIP, which is basically Tory in character. Most of their votes, this time and last, will have been anti-EU votes.

There is a largish constituency in Britain for the view that Britain (and perhaps the world) would be better off without the European Union - especially the EU as it is presently constituted. In a democracy, it is only natural that this view should be articulated by politicians; yet among the large Westminster parties none - not even the Conservatives - is unambiguously Eurosceptic. There is thus a gap which UKIP, for all its faults (including amateurism, fractiousness and dubious candidates) fills with increasing success. It's not going to go away. Given the inevitably low turnouts associated with EU elections (elections in which hardline Eurosceptics, paradoxically, are more motivated than most others) 15% strikes me as a perfectly natural and sustainable figure. If anything, UKIP should be doing even better. By this stage in its history, UKIP votes are scarcely more likely to be protest votes than are votes for the Lib Dems. Or, at least, they are a particular and structural protest against European integration, not a general and temporary protest against "the system" or politicians in general.

And, taking UKIP out of the equation, the illusion of a large protest vote is dispelled. The overtly racist BNP's share of the vote increased marginally; the total number of votes cast for them actually fell. In two regions, the collapse in the Labour vote (most of which seems to have stayed at home) gifted the BNP seats. But even here the picture is complicated. The North West, where Nick Griffin squeaked in, was in 2004 home to a controversial experiment in all-postal voting. This undoubtedly benefited Labour, and was probably responsible for keeping the BNP out last time. Some may believe that the affront to democracy that the experiment entailed was worth it for that reason alone. But I don't think we should be overtly worried by the neo-fascist success, which in percentage terms was rather small. That they have any MEPs can be put down to the voting system. It is regrettable, of course, that our money will now be paying Mr Griffin's salary. On the positive side, the increased exposure to which he and his party will now be subject will be effective in discrediting them. In any event, in a democracy even unpleasant views are entitled to representation if they are shared by a sufficient proportion of the population. But I don't imagine that they will go much further. Griffin will not be walking through the front door of Number Ten any time ever.

The Greens, for their part, underperformed, increasing their share of the vote by not much more than 2%. This despite the increased prominence of environmental concerns on the political agenda. It might be supposed that they would be a natural focus for left-leaning protest votes. Besides their basically socialist agenda, the Greens have been less tainted by political sleaze than the three main national parties or UKIP. So far as I can discover, they were not tainted at all. Indeed, in a population truly sick of the standard parties, and looking for a new politics, the Greens might expect to clean up. Their lack of sparkle in these elections therefore adds to my sense that conventional politics is functioning much as it ever did.

And I'm not particularly surprised. Most of the talk in recent weeks of "a very British revolution" has been complete guff. There are no people out on the streets, demanding the overthrow of the constitutional order. There are certainly no riots. Yes, people have been feeling even more aggravated than they usually do about the political class - but not with any expectation that things will change. No, this has not been a very British revolution. It has been a very British whinge.

Here's Kate Fox (Watching the English) on moaning:


Ritual moaning... is a form of social bonding, an opportunity to establish and reinforce common values by sharing a few gripes and groans about mutual annoyances and irritations. In all English moaning rituals, there is a tacit understanding that nothing can or will be done about the problems we are moaning about. We complain to each other, rather than tackling the true source of our discontent, and we neither expect nor want to find a solution to our problems - we just want to enjoy moaning about them. Our ritual moaning is purely therapeutic, not strategic or purposeful: the moan is the end in itself.

Most of the moaning Fox describes is about trivial things - train delays, the weather, meetings, Christmas and so on. But even in the midst of a supposed constitutional crisis the rule holds good. In this case, the predominant emotion is one of annoyance at politicians as a whole. This may be reflected to some extent in demands for a change in "the system" - especially when people are asked the question "Do you think the system ought to change?". Yet the intrinsic inertia of the system is as powerful as ever. Most people cannot conceive - except in jest - of actually voting for anything other than one of the conventional parties.

All we really want to see is politicians squirming, suffering, resigning, being publicly humiliated. We want to jeer and heckle on Question Time. This is entertainment comparable to watching celebrities undergoing degrading ordeals on I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. In the case of that show, viewers' pleasure is not greatly diminished by the knowledge that the assorted D-listers are getting paid handsomely for their discomfiture. Likewise, voters accept that even the most deplorable expenses-grubbing MPs are unlikely to face proper justice. They also accept that, come general election time, they will with little enthusiasm exercise their quinquennial choice between one of the major parties - however many independents and new political movements are also angling for their vote.

And then it will be back to moaning as usual.

13 comments:

indigomyth said...

Who do you think will be the Opposition after the next general election, assuming that the Conservatives get in?

If the destruction of the Labour party in this EU election is as long lived as people are expecting, they could find themselves as being third or fourth. I have heard mutterings of maybe the LibDems being the Opp., but UKIP have been fielding strong, and if, as you say, they are now mainstream, their support is likely to stay into the general election.

Who would the Heresiarch's money be on?

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

That they have any MEPs can be put down to the voting system.

Oh dear, you've rather lazily swallowed that myth. If it were true that "PR let in the BNP" then how do you explain all the council seats they won under FPTP that they would have lost under PR?

BNP gained a seat in Lancashire (Padiham and Burnley West), on 30.7 per cent of
the vote.

BNP gained a seat in Hertfordshire (South Oxhey, a council estate ward near Watford) on 29.2 per cent of the vote

BNP secured a seat on Leicestershire county council (Coalville ward) based on a paltry 27.7 per cent of the vote.

There is an important difference between representation, which obnoxious parties like UKIP & BNP have gained and power which they have not.

The Westminster FPTP system looks set to usher the Bullingdon Club into power with only 38% despite them being soundly detested by 62%. Hardly democracy or representing the will of the people is it?

The Heresiarch said...

@ Indigomyth. It will be Labour. Whether they can survive long term will depend on what happens to them after what I assume will be a fairly big defeat. But the electoral system is almost parodically biased in their favour, and just enough traditional supporters will be lured out in the safe seats by fearmongering about "Tory cuts" to keep them at well above 200 seats. I write this not with any enthusiasm.

UKIP are now mainstream, but only in the Euro elections. They are most unlikely to get seats in Westminster. Ironically, the Greens (who did less well) are in with a shout in Brighton. As for the Lib Dems, they may well take some seats off Labour but they will lose seats to the Conservatives, so they may finish up more or less where they are today. The real breakthrough could be by the SNP, who may well win a majority of seats in Scotland.

Woolly: "If it were true that "PR let in the BNP" then how do you explain all the council seats they won under FPTP that they would have lost under PR?"

Easy. Council wards are geographically small, and there are pockets in which the BNP have majority support, for demographic reasons. Over a larger area, this effect is cancelled out.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Let's try again with bursting the lazy cliche that those unscrupulous types who benefit from the lottery wheel of FPTP keep perpetuating.

Under a PR system the BNP would not have won any of those council seats. The system in some areas is, as Heresiarch might say, 'parodically biased in their favour'.

The problem with FPTP is that in the vast majority of the country it is "parodically biased" in the favour of one party or another. During the 80s and 90s it was the Tories which allowed the perennially unpopular Maggie Thatcher to rule with untrammeled power despite being rejected by the electorate.

The Heresiarch may be content that his views are not relevant to the government and that his vote, if he bothers, is a waste of time. Or maybe he is one of the lucky few swing voters in marginal constituencies who get to choose the party in power.

FPTP puts the fate of us all into the hands of a small, unrepresentative and generally uninformed and disengaged from politics so the very worst people of all to be making important decisions. The only surprise is that we get MPs as honest and talented as we do. Given who chooses them one would expect far worse outcomes.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

When I say "parodically biased" I mean per seat. Labour currently benefit from there being more seats in which they are favoured by the "parodically biased" system. The second biggest beneficiary are the Tories which is why David Cameron will not countenance any change to a system which benefits him so greatly. He will doubtless be toasting the FPTP lottery that will put the Bullingdon Club into power with less than 40% support.

Who are the big losers from FPTP? Look in the mirror. It is you.

Martin said...

"Who are the big losers from FPTP? Look in the mirror. It is you."

A good one Woolly.

Edwin Moore said...

Yes, a rational account of the election, thanks H.

One of the major imbalances in British politics is the absence of a credible left, and there are some large imponderables simmering away.

One example: even 10 years ago if anyone had said the most popular party in Scotland 10 years hence would be led by a man who said that Scotland welcomed economic Thatcherism (while somehow rejecting 'social' Thatcherism), I would have called for men in white coats.

Yet lo, it has happened, Salmond has said exactly that and has lost no votes for saying something few Scots Tories would dare say.

I think this means that none of us understand anything about where British politics is going.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

A credible left? When has there ever been one of those in the UK?

Edwin Moore said...

Woolly, political credibility can be measured in terms of intellectual, moral or spiritual authority I suppose, but more often in terms of effectiveness of power.

Two (very negative) examples

- in the late 70s I was the Glasgow delegate (for Amnesty) to the first Amnesty International / Trades Union conference, an attempt at creating more support on the left for Amnesty's campaigns. The CPGB managed to mangle or delete just about any action or resolution that was critical of the USSR. They had the power to do that.

- around the same time, our Glasgow group adopted a Hungarian miner. One of us wrote to a very senior member of the NUM asking for support: this NUKM figure wrote back to her saying that Hungary was owned by Hungarian miners, and our prisoner must be a class traitor. The NUM had the power to say this.

The fact is that the left is dead - almost completely dead. Just a few years ago, a prominent Scotish journalist said how proud she was to be living in a country that had elected Tommy Sheridan as an MSP. The SSP had MSPs, and was a growing power - now it is two parties who hate each other more than they even hate Salmond.

I said earlier how unimaginable it would have been 10 years ago to hear someone like Salmond express admiration for Thatcher's economics, but the death of the left in cities like Glasgow is even more startling.

I freely admit I no longer have any delusions about being able to predict anything very much about politics!

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Edwin Moore said...
Woolly, political credibility can be measured in terms of intellectual, moral or spiritual authority I suppose, but more often in terms of effectiveness of power
.

Spiritual authority can be measured? What are the SI units for that I wonder. The 'humbug' perhaps?

Socialism is about as discredited as you can imagine anything being : its as defunct and downright weird to us today as Feudalism and the Divine Right of Kings. We don't treat the humours or let blood to treat diseases any more because even the BCA don't believe that nonsense. Why should we miss socialism?

Edwin Moore said...

'Spiritual authority can be measured? What are the SI units for that I wonder. The 'humbug' perhaps?'

Woolly you must have noticed hierarchies in religion - Bishop Brennan outweighs Father Ted, a dalai lama outweighs a lama. For believers, hierarchy is a measuring tool!

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Edwin Moore said... Woolly you must have noticed hierarchies in religion - Bishop Brennan outweighs Father Ted, a dalai lama outweighs a lama. For believers, hierarchy is a measuring tool!.

That's authority not credibility. A humble nun may have far more intellectual or spiritual credibility than Pope Strangelove even though she is a very long way down the hierarchy from the old ex-Nazi cowardly deserter and peddler of embarassing medieval superstitions.

david cameron's forehead said...

Re: the English Democrats, watch their winning candidate in Doncaster being flayed alive for having no idea how to actually run a town or anything beyond mindless grandstanding.

http://tinyurl.com/nn4ysd

I imagine this is the sort of thing that would happen if Jeremy Clarkson became an MP.

What a hilarious turn of events.