General elections, coming as infrequently as they do, allow for a moment to pause and think about your own political instincts, allegiances, and how they have changed over time.
I was brought up in a middle class, conservative family, under Thatcher and Major governments whose Eurosceptic views were mirrored by my parents. At school, I made my political views clearly known, indeed one friend said to me recently ‘if we were to cut you in half all you would see was blue’.
Yet moving to California changed my views fundamentally. Able to see the country from a distance meant I warmed to Britain having closer ties with Europe; living in a pure capitalist society moved me politically to the left – the ‘American Dream’ being nothing short of a slogan for greed and selfishness.
At the same time, increasing deregulation in America allowed risk-adverse business practices to go unnoticed as long as the consequence was profit. This environment of unfettered capitalism ultimately led to financial crisis in the banking industry and the resulting bailouts, recessions and deficits that now besiege our country and many others across Europe.
I’m reminded by what David Mitchell wrote recently in his column for The Observer:
Public limited companies are amoral. They’re driven purely by their constitutional requirement to turn as large a profit as possible for their shareholders. People can be good or evil, ambitious or lazy, angry or fearful – plcs are none of these things. They unthinkingly, unswervingly, pursue money – that is their programming.
To this end, they’d murder or steal if it weren’t for the risk of prosecution, and do so in its absence. People are different. While the law is a disincentive, the main reason most of us don’t kill, punch or burgle is that we think it’s wrong and consequently prefer not to. Corporations have no such moral sense.
If there is one thing we should learn from the economic crisis, it is that whilst companies should be free to peruse profit, create jobs and contribute to the overall economy, they need to be kept under close scrutiny to ensure their own ambitions don’t become so great as to threaten the stability of the country in which they choose to reside.
Therefore we need to elect governments that actively serve the electorate over the narrow interests of corporations, their lobbyists and shareholders. Never again should a politician utter the words ‘too big too fail’.
Conservatives: Everything Changes But You
With this in mind, I can’t seriously consider a vote for the Conservatives. This party is not only supported by an array of unscrupulous and powerful figures (Lord Ashcroft, Rupert Murdoch et. al.) but its centre-right beliefs mean it exists to defend capitalism, the market economy and limit government regulation, the very things that got us into this mess in the first place.
Its allegiance with business could be clearly seen from the outset of the campaign. As party leader David Cameron rolled out a long list of business leaders who supported his call to scrap Labour’s planned 1% national insurance rise (a tax that both employer and employee have to pay), it was no surprise their response was the same as if he had asked if they wanted free ice-cream.
Is it the right decision to start cutting this year whilst we are slowly exiting a recession, or wait until next year as both the Labour and Liberal Democrats argue is the best way forward? I don’t know. Whilst I like the idea of reducing the size of the public sector, I’m not sure I want the Conservatives wielding the axe.
Whilst the ‘Big Society’ sounds like a great idea, dig a little deeper and the policies that contribute to it soon start to fall apart. For example, the idea to allow local referendums. The Conservative manifesto states:
We want to give individuals more direct control over how they are governed. So, mirroring our reforms at the national level, we will give residents the power to instigate local referendums on any local issue if 5 per cent of the local population sign up, and they will also be able to veto any proposed high council tax increases.
Conservative Manifesto 2010, page 75
David Cameron talked about this policy being based on the proposition system used in California. I assume he was hoping mention of this sunny American state would be enough to persuade voters, but it’s this system that has seen California’s budget become increasingly ring-fenced from successive ballot measures and contributed to its bankruptcy.
The policy of aligning with the Ulster Unionists seems incredibly short-sighted, created purely to benefit the party rather than the stability of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The same could also be said for the Conservative led grouping within the European Parliament. Whilst David Cameron talks of ‘compassionate conservatism’ – taking action on climate change and ensuring equality – this was soon forgotten in the quest to form a right-wing eurosceptic coalition alongside parties that believe quite the opposite.
Whilst Labour once had Murdoch’s favour, it is now the Conservative Party that has the support of his papers (which occupy 40% of readership in the UK) and his other media outlets, a deal that no doubt ensures a Cameron lead administration will opt for policies that benefit his own business interests.
In a recent Guardian article, former editor of The Sun, David Yelland wrote:
Over the years the relationships between the media elite and the two main political parties have become closer and closer to the point where, now, one is indistinguishable from the other. Indeed, it is difficult not to think that the lunatics have stopped writing about the asylum and have actually taken it over.
With a BBC Charter renewal process to begin within the lifetime of the next Parliament, I would fear cuts to its funding and further changes to it’s regulation, all of which likely to damage its independence and strengthen Murdoch’s dominance.
Opposition to Reform
Finally, at a time when the country has an appetite for electoral reform and greater accountability of politicians to the electorate, it is only the Conservative party that advocates less representation, suggesting the number of MPs be reduced, and the size of constituencies increased (no doubt to their own benefit). Their manifesto states:
We support the first-past-the-post system for Westminster elections because it gives voters the chance to kick out a government they are fed up with.
Conservative Manifesto 2010, page 75
When the current poll ratings suggest that Labour could come third in the popular vote, yet return to Parliament with a greater number of seats, this confirms the level of fantasy contained within their manifesto.
On examining every part of the Conservative offer, I see no benefit to me, wider society or the country as a whole. All they offer is unspecified change, perhaps looking across the Atlantic and the success of Barack Obama. Yet Obama’s promise of change was backed up by real policy, whereas the few proposed by David Cameron reveal themselves to be hollow and poorly thought out; designed only to benefit the success of his own party, rather than the country he hopes to lead.
Labour: End of the Line
I’ve never voted Labour, and although my political views have moved further to the left, an unjustified war in Iraq and support for George W. Bush means I still find it difficult to place a cross beside a Labour candidate. Whilst their 13 years in power saw them do some great things (investment in public services, equal rights, less crime, reduced child poverty etc.) the gap between rich and poor has increased, civil liberties have been eroded, and the economy is in tatters, primarily thanks to the stewardship of former Chancellor and current Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.
I actually welcomed Gordon Brown’s eventual succession over Tony Blair. I liked that we might have a Prime Minister less concerned with presentation, more focused on substance. Yet it soon became apparent that what he lacks in charisma, he also lacks in leadership ability. His cabinet has splintered and disintegrated to the point that is now made up of a number of unelected peers running departments within the executive.
Bringing Lord Mandelson back into the cabinet, brought with it the retched stench of New Labour. After a failed attempt to privatise the Post Office, he set about satisfying lobbyists for the music and film industries with the Digital Economy Bill. Not only did this bill benefit those with vested interests (with parts of the bill written by the BPI), but it was allowed to pass into law during ‘wash-up’; a period of inter-party deal making before the dissolution of Parliament. Yet another undemocratic procedure we’ve learnt about during this campaign.
This was particularly surprising given the public outcry over expenses scandal and Labour’s promises to reform Parliament. Yet only the very minimum was ever achieved; Gordon Brown only talking up the idea of (limited) proportional representation once it became clear he was leading his party into its largest electoral defeat in decades.
If I was to vote for a party that respects the will of the people then by that measure, the Labour Party has dramatically failed. It’s 13 years can be summed up simply as lies and spin under Blair, indecision and inaction under Brown.
Liberal Democrats: Refreshingly Different
Whilst it always seemed probable that Labour wouldn’t win this years campaign outright, nobody predicted the surge in support for Britain’s often overlooked third party, the Liberal Democrats. I believe the polls still show them with a considerable proportion of support because many of their policies are credible, even though the other two parties and the media cabal continue to discredit them.
On the Trident nuclear deterrent, the Liberal Democrats position is that it should be looked at as part of a wider defence review. Given the massive deficit, how can such a costly line item be ignored? It’s worth noting that no party wishes to argue the case for full disarmament. If you’ve been asking yourself why, it’s because this round-the-clock nuclear deterrent ensures we keep our seat on the UN Security Council.
On immigration, it seems that Nick Clegg was the only leader of the three main parties willing to talk about this issue in the first place. We saw in Rochdale what happens when Gordon Brown is questioned about immigration, and I assume the Conservatives wished to avoid this issue all together given they based much of their 2005 election campaign on such policies and lost. Whilst I think there are elements of the Liberal Democrats policy that can be argued against, at least they seem willing to tackle the problem in a serious manner, rather than cloak the issue with rhetoric that plays straight into the hands of parties on the far-right.
On the European Union, an institution I think nobody has a deal great respect for (even Europhiles), at least the Liberal Democrats are proposing to put this issue to the public in a referendum. Given the party has long been arguing for fixing our own democratic system, it seems unimaginable that they wouldn’t be arguing for similar reforms in Europe too. Any sign of a party wanting to engage with our other European partners is seen as a weakness, yet this country’s approach to date has only seen us lose influence within the Union.
On electoral and constitutional reform, the Liberal Democrats have been arguing for proportional representation for generations, although only now has it become clear to the electorate as to why. It’s absurd to think a party can achieve 30% of the popular vote, yet only gain 15% of the seats available in the House of Commons. The fact that our upper chamber is full of unelected appointees is sickening and gives our country no right claim itself as democratic.
It’s also important to remember that Liberal Democrats are not affiliated with the unions such is Labour, and given their third party status, less attractive to special interests unlike the Conservatives. Returning to David Yelland’s article, he states:
Make no mistake, if the Liberal Democrats actually won the election – or held the balance of power – it would be the first time in decades that Murdoch was locked out of British politics. In so many ways, a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote against Murdoch and the media elite.
That sounds like my perfect vote.
This has easily been the most exciting general election in living memory – mainly because it’s been a true three party race. This was largely thanks to the televised leaders debates, that gave the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg the sort of exposure that’s been lacking up until now.
Whilst the resulting surge in support for the Liberal Democrats can be seen as a good thing, it does seem that the debates have been at the cost of scrutinising policy – the media more concerned with the leaders body language and slip ups rather than what they and their party are proposing in their manifestos. Yet if they have meant increased voter engagement (and hopefully this will be reflected in the numbers turning out to vote on Thursday) I think we can consider them a success. However, we need to be mindful that we don’t sleep walk towards a presidential system, a style of government that seems to be solidifying with each incumbent at Number Ten.
Even without an appearance in the debates, it’s also important to note the relative success of the smaller parties too. There’s a real chance that the Brighton Pavilion constituency will return the first Green MP to Parliament which has been too long coming.
Indeed, with such a choice available to voters, the inadequacy of the First Past the Post system is plain to see. I really hope we elect a government willing to reform our democracy and constitution, meaning this can be the last election where we talk about ‘safe seats’, and tactical voting (something I refuse to partake in).
Whilst the Conservatives argue that proportional systems lead to ineffective coalitions, there is nothing to be feared by having such a result (unless your a Tory of course). Not only have they worked well in other countries, but it’s shown to work in the UK too – the devolved Parliament in Scotland had a coalition government for many years, and the Welsh assembly has one now.
Indeed, as our country faces severe austerity measures – large tax increases and cuts to public services – surely a government representing 60% of the electorate is best able to enact these polices rather than a government with a minority (or slight majority) only commanding 35% of public support.
I don’t fear a coalition or hung parliament, I do favour electoral and constitutional reform and I like many of the policies proposed by the Liberal Democrats. That’s why I’ll be voting for their local candidate on Thursday May 6th.
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