This is possibly one of the most important elections in recent history. Although this is a cliche and has been applied to the last two elections, the timing – following the Brexit vote – represents an incredible opportunity for the British electorate to register it’s intentions about how they wish the country to be run. However, there are several prevailing conditions, as I see it, that are holding the country back from true progress. Firstly, the point of elections and the way in which the electorate engages, and it encouraged to engage, in political action. Secondly, and intimately connected to the first, is the choices we have.
One of the most interesting aspects of this election is the prediction of turnout. Current estimate predict that … will turn out to vote, a rise of … from the previous, and an encouraging sign from the previous 20 years. With turnout dipping as low as 59.4% in 2001, political engagement seemed to had died a death. Of course, this has more to do with the poverty of political choice in Westminster and the inability of the elites to mobilise people (which will be returned to below). Don’t forget that the election started off, with general applause, for Brenda from Bristol’s comment, “Not another one.”
While Brexit mobilised the electorate, how have we been unable to carry this democratic surge through? Everyone can recount a time sitting on a bus, in a coffee shop, or passing people on the street who were debating the issue. It was the first time in recent memory when the future of the country was in the hands of the electorate.
However, there does seem to be a clear misunderstanding, in some circles, about what engagement is. We often hear of the responsibility citizens have to vote, how they must turn up and make themselves heard. I’ve heard recounted, or read through Facebook, countless people grumbling ‘if you don’t vote, then you can’t complain’.
However, it is the electorate that allows MPs to hold the positions they do, not the other way around and it is a position that needs reaffirming. Sovereignty is given by the people to MPs. It is the job of politicians to appeal to the electorate and put forward plans of action that people think worthy of the power to enact. We have found ourselves in a position were many question “not another one” because they recognise that from one government to the next there is no change, no substantial difference in the way the country is run, and that politicians are certainly not listening to the electorate – precisely why Brexit was a huge shock.
Voting is not the be-all and end-all of political engagement and action – despite attempts, such as that by Brew Dog, to offer free beer to those who vote, or Banksy’s cancelled giveaway for those who voted against the Conservatives. Of course, it is an important part of a vibrant and free society, but what we need to recapture is our ability to hold politicians to account. One of the arguments voiced against the current election was that it broke with the 5 year fixed parliament, enacted by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. However, while the case put forward for this Act was to create a stable government, the underlying message was a contempt for the people and democracy. Within a representative democracy it is both the right of the electorate to give their sovereignty, and their right to take it back. The Act only sought to undermine this right, providing what was, really, only five year job security for MPs.
The fixed term Parliament also played into my next argument – there is no choice. This is an argument that has been prevalent for many years, but it’s continuing currency serves to prove it’s validity, we have become merely caretakers of human history, reaching the end of ideology.
This is why this election campaign political parties, as well as the media, have been quibbling over costings. Without any grand economic narrative through which to understand economic and social issues, and how the future Parliament might be shaped by these, the battleground has been set around who can balance the books and do best with what we have. This isn’t Thatcher throwing Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty down on the Cabinet Room table announcing,”this is what we believe”, and despite John McDonnell brandishing Mao Little Red Book, any true ideological contest is missing.
Following the Brexit vote there did seem to be a genuine feeling of energy and renewal in British politics. While many did take to the streets to protest the democratic outcome of the referendum, there were also many pro-Brexit organisations that have sprang up. However, none appear to be making any real move upon the political elites. Indeed, the collapse of UKIP makes me concerned that the effective two-party system is reestablishing itself, and the anti-establishment energy has been lost. And while I don’t necessarily believe that UKIP embodied any grand-narrative about the progress, they at the least, are/were closer to understanding the concerns of ordinary people, free of the political point scoring of the main parties. Surely there are spaces for principled, politically (that is driven by a political-philosophies, not a desire to win elections) driven parties who can challenge the Tories and Labour, and truly represent people.
This is where the responsibilities of the electorate come in to play. It is all well and good of me to proclaim that politicians need to appeal to the electorate and engage them. But, of course, if the people don’t like what they see, they should act upon changing it through changing the Parties, or creating new ones. It is this lack of action that needs to be addressed and there are many reasons as to why this isn’t happening.
This general election should have been more than about slogans, hashtags, and quibbling over the miniature of costings. It should have been about democratic renewal, about how the country will be led over the next several years and led through what will be a difficult period with a true plan and belief in democracy and liberal values.