A Seismology of Political Earthquakes

What should we make of the recent European and Local election results? Nigel Farage’s claim that his party has secured the “most extraordinary result in British politics for the last 100 years” is, at first glance, hard to deny. As the party with the largest share of the national vote (around 28%) – the first time that the Tories or Labour have been displaced at the top of the pile since 1906 – UKIP have achieved a remarkable entry into mainstream UK politics. Their 24 MEPs are very hard to ignore indeed.

Likewise in the local elections; although Labour have topped the polls, winning control of six more Councils and adding 338 new Councillors, UKIP gained 161 new Councillors, to give them 370 Councillors overall and make them the 5th largest political Party in local government (after the SNP).

This demonstrable shift rightwards in British politics is a challenging reality for those of us on the political Left. What this might mean for the General Election in 2015 is open for discussion, but it’s certainly not to be dismissed.

Meanwhile, we are well and truly in the countdown to September 18th, the day our friends in Scotland will make a decision on whether to separate from the rest of the United Kingdom and form an independent country. Although the No vote has consistently remained out in front in all polls, there’s no question that a sizeable Yes vote exists in Scotland, and that the referendum result can yet go either way.

So what does all of this mean? I think that there are a few points worth making:

1. The UK electorate is tired of political business as usual – I think that the drive for an independent Scotland by a large minority on one hand and the remarkable growth in support for UKIP are both indicative of a more widely-held frustration with the way that we do politics in the UK. The lightning rod for this politics fatigue was, of course, the Expenses scandal. But the national furore around this scandal was actually encouraging – if society can’t raise its voice on an issue like this, then there really is no hope for our politics. Instead it’s the widespread apathy and disengagement by huge sections of the electorate which is to me a more worrying phenomenon. It’s the failure of all of the major political parties to really connect with and inspire the great mass of the electorate (and in fairness, we’re trying!) that has been the handmaiden of the rise of Scottish Nationalism and UKIP Little Britainism. If your narrative is that the system doesn’t work, and that politicians aren’t listening, then why not fundamentally alter it and just hope for the best?

2. The UK electorate is feeling fearful and protective – Although supporters of Yes Scotland and UKIP would each claim to have very little in common, both are supporting a political programme which is fundamentally about a retrenchment away from internationalism and collaboration, and back into what they regard as their primary identity – whether British or Scottish. These are political views which have been with us for a long time, particularly in the case of Scottish Nationalism. But their resurgence in recent years is, in my view, closely connected to the economic situation which began in 2007 and which we are still trying to untangle. When we are fearful about our material situation, we tend to withdraw to the familiar. We also tend to think that we can spend limited resources better than ‘them’. There is some truth in this, and I’ll say more about localisation of power below. But this withdrawal often correlates to – or even facilitates – an irrational fear of the Other; and soon some are complaining about the Romanian family who have moved in next door.

3. The Labour Party needs a reformation – I would say this, but I think that the mainstream political party trying hardest to move to a new model of politics is the Labour Party. We’ve always been about community organising and everyday people, but initiatives like Your Britain and the Future Candidates Programme are trying to move Labour Party politics beyond the usual suspects. Nevertheless, Labour needs to go further. As I’ve become more involved in the party over the last three years, it’s been a steep learning curve. Coming in with the zeal of the convert, looking to change the world, it’s easy to quickly get bogged down in a whole new lexicon of in-group language and behaviour, which can tend to dampen enthusiasm. It strikes me again and again just how similar this must be to a non-Christian joining a church for the first time. Like most long-established institutions, people don’t want to engage with the Labour Party in the same way as their parents or grandparents generation. They want to be part of a movement for change, something that focuses less on meeting protocol and more on policies that bring tangible social progress. If we’re going to re-engage our society with a new enthusiasm for the political process, we’re going to have to go deeper and faster in our attempts to change business as usual. Constitutional reform – such as a serious democratisation of the House of Lords, or implementation of a version of proportional representation in General Elections – would help. But the Labour Party can continue to lead by example, by introducing more measures like one member one vote for leadership elections, the Union opt-in and more grassroots campaigning.

4. The country needs to localise more political power – On paper our political system is fairly well set up to balance local and national decision-making. Yet if we can draw one lesson from all of the above, it’s that the common experience of politics in the UK is that it’s too remote. Many people feel like politics is something that happens to them, not through them. The more we can move decision-making downwards towards ordinary people, the better. The hope that ordinary voters can influence their communities around them is a strong card to hold. I believe that it’s the relative lack of that hope and connectedness to the political process which is a major factor in parts of the electorate turning to alternatives like Scottish Independence or UKIP or being turned off politics altogether.

One thing’s for sure, if we don’t do something about it, there are many more political earthquakes to come – and I can’t remember hearing an earthquake described fondly.

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