Election Special

02May10

With only a few days to go until the election, to say I’m an undecided voter would be an understatement.

Primary Colours by Guervos (Flickr CC)

I will vote, simply because I believe that it’s a privilege to be able to do so, to exercise choice and free speech in a democratic society, but come polling day on Thursday, I really don’t know who is going to get my X in the box.

I just feel massivley disillusioned by politics in this country. The recent expenses debacle kind of confirmed in my mind the feeling that politicians, by and large, are interested in power for its own sake rather than some noble-minded or altruistic desire to serve the country, the people or some other ideal. Perhaps it would be naive to expect them to be anything else, given the times we live in, when the powerful elite cling desperately to Adam Smith’s notion (as personified by Thatcher) that the self-interested pursuit of gain is the best we can do. (And yes, I do know that he went beyond that).

Add to that the fact that ther’s so little ground between the three main parties – the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and the choice gets more complicated. I’m not much of a socialist – I don’t like the idea of big government and state control/interference in much of anything, so Labour is a non-starter. But then again, I’m not keen on the patriarchal elitism of the Conservatives. Which leaves the Lib Dems, but I’m not terribly sure what they do stand for, since they seem to sway with the prevailing breeze.

I think there’s a strong feeling, certainly amongst the people that I’ve spoken to, that we’re sick of the cycle of Conservative-Labour-Conservative-Labour – where we get 13 or so years of government from one, starting at the bottom of a recession of some sort, and ending in the middle of the next … and where nothing much seems to change for the better. Perhaps, then, it’s worth giving the Liberal Democrats a go, because surely they can’t do a worse job than either of the others?

Who knows?

There are, though, a couple of things that bother me, and none of them are issues that any of the parties are addressing.

The lack of ground for them to occupy is one. Membership of the European Union severely restricts the areas in which the UK is truly sovereign, and that cuts back the amount of political ground available for the national parties to inhabit … and therefore necessarily reduces the distance between them, since there are only a limited number of options available to them in the various areas on which they can manoevre and still remain within the legislative restrictions Europe places upon the UK. I’d like to see more discussion about the role the EU plays in national politics, and a sensible debate about where this is going. I don’t want the only party prepared to discuss Europe to be UKIP. I don’t think it’s in our national interest to pull out of Europe, as UKIP advocates – in a global economic environment, pooling ones resources with a bloc of countries with similar interests makes sense. However, I don’t like the overall lack of accountability in the European framework, and I don’t like the way forward-thinking legislation is derailed by national interests, and I don’t like the fundamental dishonesty about how much influence the EU has on national politics. And I particularly don’t like the way the EU bloc operates in matters of global trade – it is effectively a protectionist, anti-competitive device that prevents fair trade with the developing world through its massive subsidy system and undermines that development by allowing the continuing exploitation of labour and resources so that Europe benefits (and the developing world suffers). In the long-term, this looks short-sighted, and flies directly against the purported mission to promote free-trade, a core feature of a genuine capitalist society (if that’s what we really want – I’m not convinced, but the ruling powers tell us that’s the only viable option). But it’s not an issue that any of the main parties are prepared to address, other than in some rather fluffy platitudes.

I guess the second thing that bothers me kind of links back in to the expenses scandal, and the sense that these people are essentially self-serving. The big political parties are set up and structured so that their candidates are well-funded and supported from a central point, but in return they are expected to give their loyalty and support to a centrally-generated manifesto and political agenda. This means that the people they are supposed to be representing, we the electorate of their borough, are generally unrepresented. The assumption is made that a centrally generated manifesto will cover, in the main, the concerns of the everyman citizen, and to an extent I’d agree that is true. But it does leave us with a parliamentary representative who is compromised by the deal made with the central party for whom they are standing – when push comes to shove, in most cases they will toe the party line, rather than genuinely represent the concerns of their constituency.

Ultimately, the big parties are concerned with promoting the interests and agendas of the big parties, rather than addressing grass roots concerns on a local level, particularly when the influence of big business comes into the equation. Only those who already have wealth and power are able to access and influence the decisions at the highest level of politics, and whilst the interests of the economy as a whole – as represented by corporate business – must be considered in the political choices and decisions to be made, the level of influence is skewed in favour of those who can afford it.

That means, for example, that solutions to the energy problem are considered in terms of big business, in ways that keep big businesses profitable, rather than looking at decentralised solutions on a smaller scale – a political program of rolling out efficient photo-voltaic roof panels, say, would compare favourably with the proposals for new nuclear power stations and be less risky in the longer-term, but it generates a system of small-scale domestic producers of energy to the national grid, and that does not serve the big multi-national energy companies’ interests and so is not even on the political agenda.

And it’s not just in the energy business that such examples could be found. In agriculture, the massive bureaucracy generated by the EU and, by extension, the government is a crippling cost to small-scale producers, but benefits large agribusiness. The same in the food production industry. And in almost every area of economic activity you can imagine, the levels of bureaucracy and legislation place an enormous stress on small and medium size businesses, whilst serving to protect the big multi-nationals and effectively limit competition.

It’s not just business that suffers from this centralised decision-making process. Health, education and housing are likewise effected, and any number of crucial supposedly local decisions are hamstrung by the central funding system. What I don’t see from any of the main parties is any sort of devolution or dilution of that central power down to local level, so that schools can set targets appropriate to their catchment population and the needs/wants/aspirations of the pupils they serve, or so that hospitals can target services effectively at the population segments that need them most in their local areas, or so that local Councils are able to develop realistic and environmentally sensitive housing programs to meet the needs of local populations. The current political system is just not set up in such a way that targets can be anything other than top-down, when a bottom-up approach within a general framework would surely be a more effective approach.

Change is hamstrung by our first-past-the-post political system – if you didn’t vote for the winning party, your vote counts for nothing. And even if you do vote for the winning party, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be able (or willing) to keep the promises they made at a local level when it comes to managing the multiple demands of a national system, particularly one as tied to a big technocratic bureaucracy as ours.

All of which makes it difficult to support any one of the main political parties.

However, where are my other voting options? Whilst the Green party is a large force in Europe, it’s marginal at best here in the UK. Voting Green is a waste of a vote. Many of the other smaller parties are either single-issue soap-boxers, or seriously nasty in one way or another (UKIP, BNP), and a vote for an independent candidate (even if there is one) is unlikely to count for much.

Which leaves me more or less back where I began. Undecided, and feeling unrepresented, and with only 4 days left to make my mind up.

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