Election special ….

07Jun09

This week saw the UK lurch from the expenses debacle into the European and local council elections. Despite predictions that the expenses scandal would precipitate a high voter turnout to ‘punish’ politicians and send a clear message that these sorts of abuses won’t be tolerated, it looks like the turnout will be at a record low.

Why should this be? Is voter apathy making democracy irrelevant, or is a lack of perceived true democracy driving voter apathy?

I’m not sure there’s a simple answer.

Local council elections are rarely well supported. Certainly, where I live, you could put a Conservative badge on a donkey and it would get elected, so there’s little incentive for supporters of opposing parties to stand up and be counted, because there’s never enough of them to make a difference. And, if the main parties can’t make a dent on the Conservative stranglehold, then there’s little point in independents making the running, either. It was sad to see the likes of UKIP and BNP putting candidates up locally, and even worse to see them attracting votes – I find it disturbing that UKIP did better than Labour, though I’d imagine those are votes that would have otherwise gone to the Conservatives, rather than anywhere else. One does wonder, though, which way the 62% of the local electorate who did not vote would have gone, and whether that would actually have made any difference to the overall outcome. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that they didn’t turn out to vote. Aside from the general perception of the local result being a pretty much foregone conclusion, I think there is a general understanding that local councils really have very little power.

I’m not sure that this is correct. Certainly, in terms of big-picture politics, local councils are pretty much hamstrung by the increasing degree of state centralisation in terms of both budget and target setting for local services, but certainly I’d say that local councils are the state bodies with which most people have most direct contact, AND the state bodies who have most impact on the day-to-day lives of most people: things like road and public transport provision and maintenance, refuse collection and environmental services can have a huge impact on quality of life. Grumble though we do at the council tax, it does fund a raft of services that make life workable, and I’ll be the first to say that we are fortunate to live in an area with high property values and therefore proportionately high council tax incomes – this means that the local councils have the luxury of extensive green policies in terms of sustainable development & energy policies and recycling facilities which I know are not common across all councils.

These, then, are worth voting for.

It would be a happy day if control over emergency & healthcare service provision and education could also come back to local councils, instead of being driven by central government. The one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work, and it makes a mockery of the supposed ‘user-chooser’ model the government promotes. The reality is that there is little choice available – certainly, in the education system, it is all very well and good that in our local area we have Specialist Colleges at secondary level – one in the sciences, the other in sports – but that is meaningless if secondary schools are, by-and-large, allocated on a catchment basis rather than student aptitude or parent preference. If these came back to local level, and there was the ability to make a real difference in the provision of these services depending on which way one voted at local council elections, voter interest and turnout might well increase.

And this touches on the key of it: potential electors do not vote in local elections because there is a widespread perception that the power of local government is so limited, it makes no difference who is in power, and which is why, in turn, votes for those parties who are not the dominant party in the area tend to be protest votes and/or votes recorded by staunch supporters of the minor parties.

The same could be said of UK national elections. The expenses scandal has exposed a parliamentary system that appears to be almost completely morally bankrupt. Yes, very few of the MPs exposed actually broke the ‘rules’, but when the rules themselves are set so as to allow and encourage a degree of self-interest that few, if any, employments would permit. Here is a system that is secretive, self-supporting, and with little or no accountability, and no sense that any of its component members feel any sense of personal responsibility. I have written before about how large organisations cause personal responsibility, accountability and autonomy to dissipate, and the same thing is happening here.

Yes, the electorate is pissed about the expenses, but it’s more that the expenses furore is just the latest in a long line of political incompetencies, idiocies and downright corruption. But when it comes down to it, who do you act against? No one party is cleaner than the other, so there’s no alternative. One party is much the same as the other – there’s so little political ground between Labour and the Conservatives, that it effectively comes down to personality politics. Cameron is no Barack Obama, but when you compare him to the dour Brown and the lacklustre Clegg (who is he? I couldn’t pick him out of a line up – could you?), he’s downright dazzling.

And there’s another nail in the coffin of UK democracy.

There’s no real difference between the main political parties, so what does it matter which one of them is in power?

And it’s true. Not only is there a widespread belief that government exists to support the interests of business and property over the rights of the individual (and an examination of the legal system supports this perception), but there is also the fact that membership of the EU has brought the UK to a point where large swathes of national policy are dictated by Europe-wide treaties. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. Common European social policies should allow for the formation of a huge common ground on which all participating nations can connect with and build on each others’ diverse, unique and precious cultural heritages. Common European trade policies should allow individual nations to play to their own strengths, whilst taking advantage of the wider influence and power of a bigger trading bloc, so that a group of otherwise geographically, demographically or economically small nations can compete with the bigger global powers in a way not otherwise possible.

It is a beautiful dream.

It is shame the reality doesn’t live up to it. When I voted last Thursday, I was saddened to see that of the 14 possible choices, 7 were anti-EU right-wing organisations, committed to taking the UK out of the EU altogether. In part, one can see why. The EU, as an organisation, is broken. The idea of the individual nations coming together to determine progressive social and economic policies, guidelines that enable & facilitate success, is struggling to be seen against a backdrop of non-accountability and personal advancement that makes the Westminster expenses scandal look like a vicarage tea party, and it is this lack of accountability, and the predominance of a few powerful national figures who are interested only in protecting and advancing their own interests, that have opened the door to let the invidious miasma of these xenophobic organisations waft through our political awareness. They feed off the anger and awareness that a large number of our rights to self-determination have been eroded, without the corresponding payback of the benefits that such a union should bring us.

I am not anti-Europe: I think that only by acting in concert can individual nations make a real difference to the globalised environment in which we now all live and work – that is an unescapable reality. However, to make that difference, nations still need to have the ability to take local actions which are right in context of their own populations, economies and environments, and the wider EU organisation needs to have both the flexibility and accountability to deliver that. The hearts of pro-Europeans sink to hear tales of MEP expense claims, and the preponderence of good legislation that is either diluted or defeated by national or business interests, or bad legislation that is passed without debate or consultation at national level by unelected commissioners who hold more real power than the elected representatives.

This is something that needs to change.

However, the voices of the reformers (rather than the refuseniks) are few and far between, and so the electorate is left with no choice and no voice. It should not be a surprise, therefore, that voter apathy is rife. Our democracy is an illusion: not all members of society have equal access to power, and our freedoms and liberties are being gradually eroded in a system with such an uneven distribution of political power that the right to vote has become a meaningless gesture that has no real impact in terms of how that system is adminstered, or in how it responds to internal and external pressures.

We are in a system that is bankrupt in so many ways, that the attempts to patch and salvage it look increasingly desperate and futile, on an economic, social and environmental level. Until the political mechanisms start to accept that, and offer real alternatives to get us out of the current mess, alternatives that recognise the needs and rights at individual and local level whilst taking a broader, strategic and long-term perspective, the electorate will continue to vote with its feet and find better things to do with its time on election days.

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