Complaining about the state of politics in our country has become about as habitual as Lords Reform rejection. So, why is it that one particular complainer gets everyone so riled up? What is it about Russell Brand that makes people label him a dangerous radical when, like the majority of us, he’s simply expressing his exasperation at the current state of British politics. Why is his admission of abstention different to any other form of political expression? The answer is, it’s not. The only reason people consider such an expression to be dangerous is because it reveals the flaws in British democracy.
Elections have become the litmus test for democracy, but unfortunately that test is flawed. In Britain, the combination of a first past the post system and an electoral map made up of single-member constituencies has created a situation in which so-called marginal seats take precedence. Indeed, from a political strategist’s point of view it makes little sense to allocate resources to seats whose voters are unlikely to change their allegiance, even if they’re your own voters. Thus, during elections periods the voters which receive the most attention are those who make up these marginal seats.
Unfortunately, as a result of this targeting, the nature of the voters who constitute marginal seats can end up dictating the content of policy proposals, as political parties aim to please these swing voters. Indeed, swing voters are the unique minority who do not necessarily place political parties within a broad ideological framework or, if they do, this factor rarely plays a role in their voting decision. Therefore, a shared characteristic of swing voters, as the name suggests, is their centrist attitude to politics. Their lack of ideological prejudice means that not only are they moderate, but also that their vote is easily influenced.
This combination of factors leads to political parties tailoring their policies to a centrist political attitude, resulting in a mainstream politics which is largely out of sync with the rest of the electorate’s political interests. However, if this is the case, if the majority of the electorate are further left or further right of the mainstream political parties, how come the Green Party, the BNP, and now UKIP, have never had a following that can match that of either Labour or Conservative? It’s a good question and one whose answer is complex and not entirely understood.
However, today, one of the most significant factors in election outcomes – a factor which has become a trend in recent decades as the British political sphere has morphed into a two-party system – is tactical voting. Just because I put a tick in the box next to a particular political party, this doesn’t necessarily mean I believe in their policies. In an electoral system where some constituencies are one fifth of the size of others and where marginal seats tend to dictate election outcomes, tactical voting has become a necessity either in maintaining that constituency’s seat or in bolstering its main opposition.
As a result, the majority of the electorate end up lumping for either Labour or Conservative, simply as a means to keep the other party out of power. So when the Conservatives, in 2010, ended up with a majority of 36.1%, that did not translate as 36.1% of the electorate got what they wanted. In fact, most likely, only the portion of swing voters who put a cross next to their Conservative candidate really got what they wanted. We can’t even say for certain that the loyal Conservative base got what they wanted, because, well, they probably weren’t voting on policy proposals. The government they voted for might tick the box in terms of historical ideology, but that ideology doesn’t necessarily match their now very centrist policies.
So, what do we do? How do we resolve the problem that we’re stuck in a vicious cycle of prioritising swing voters and tactical voting? Change up your vote next time maybe. That’s what I’m going to do anyway, but I doubt it will help. My constituency is in Scotland where things have radically changed over the course of the past year, but we as a county probably still don’t have enough protest votes to sway the political make-up of Westminster. One thing which would, for sure, radically overhaul the system would be mass abstention. There’s no denying it, the most sensible thing to do, given that my vote will only count if it’s given to one of two political parties whose policies I largely disagree with, is to not vote. Abstention isn’t dangerous, it’s rational, and that’s what scares people about Russell Brand.
‘…it’s true the Conservatives are much more united, as their MPs stay completely loyal right up to the moment they leave for a different party altogether.’
Without a doubt U.K party politics has become more centralised over the past two decades, that is, it has become more about the party leader and less about party policy. This change in our political system can be attributed to many different factors which influence one another: a decrease in loyalty due to a dilution in political ideology; technological advancement, particularly in the media; entrenched distrust in the system as the number of scandals increases; and, of course, the rise of PR.
As our political parties attempted to become more ‘catch-all’ and less ideologically-orientated, the impetus was on the party leaders – or perhaps more accurately, the spin doctors as party leaders – to present this change to the public, to become the best ‘all-rounder’. Thus, we are at stage where personality politics is all we seem to talk about in the run up to elections, which these days is all the time. But nowhere is our increasing obsession with our leaders more apparent than in political TV debates.
One particularly interesting and striking example of this phenomenon is the TV debates which took place in the run up to the Scottish Independence Referendum. The first two of these debates involved Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond, the de facto leaders of the opposing campaigns. The third took a rather different form, involving three spokespeople for each campaign from various political parties or, in the case of Elaine C. Smith, from non-political professions.
Now, anyone who watched all of these debates will most likely tell you that the latter was by far the most intelligible and informative out of all three. However, on brief analysis of the media coverage of these debates it becomes apparent that the latter was the least talked about. Indeed, the BBC website hosts an easily accessible and extremely thorough breakdown of the Darling/Salmond debates, including polling data, social media analysis and key quotes. Whereas, on the contrary, it reveals no articles discussing the third debate, let alone an in-depth analysis.
The few articles and pieces of analysis that can be readily found are in newspapers, primarily Scottish national newspapers, and on the ITV/STV websites. However, even their coverage of the third debate is pitiful in comparison to that of the Darling/Salmond show-down. Thus, a debate which had the potential to be highly influential, if not the most influential out of all three, is forced down the media-agenda and consequently the public-agenda.
Now some people may read this and come to the conclusion that the media are to blame, and they are to an extent. But we must always bear in mind that they are working off of data which is telling them that we, as a society, prefer to hear about the personal politics of our leaders over the political policies of our parties; so much so, that in a vote with two campaigns dedicated to no one party, we managed to assign party leaders.
A fantastic article, pre-independence referendum, by a fellow Glasgow University debater, about the need for political reform in Britain.
For me, being forced to rethink your own ideas about the world which surrounds us is essential not only to self-development, but also to societal progression. Without the continual clash of opinions, ideals and convictions, which we are experiencing more and more as the world of social media takes on more influence, society would stagnate. Which is why I was excited when a friend introduced me to the concept of ‘new Liberal bigotry’, thus forcing me to rethink my often too liberal ideals and morality.
This friend, having read through some of my blog, suggested that I watch an old episode of Question Time, in which Peter Hitchens speculates on the threat of a rising ‘new Liberal bigotry’. Now, I’m not a huge fan of Peter Hitchens, I feel like he makes too many sweeping statements and applies broad definitions and ends up with, well, not that much. However, in this particular panel show, he made a valid point, even if I don’t wholly accept it (12:35 onwards).
Hitchens claims that liberalism has reached a point where it is now forcing upon society and its individuals an ideology of diversity and equality, and that this ideology has in turn become accepted as a moral absolute. Now, I accept his point to a certain extent: society has indeed gradually become more and more liberal and an ideology of diversity and equality has indeed become the norm. However, unlike Hitchens, I do not equate an increase in liberalism with a decrease in conservatism (or an increase in the persecution of conservatives).
On the contrary, as is evident from the change that has taken place in the political sphere since 2012, the gradual rise of liberal morals has finally resulted in the resurgence of a more conservative morality. Even Hitchens himself has been commentating on the exasperation which has swept the nation, that is, exasperation with the failure of liberal government after liberal government to instigate real change. Liberalism has finally come up against some opposition and is perhaps now being forced to rethink itself.
So Hitchens was wrong. The supposed ‘new Liberal bigotry’ has not resulted in the persecution of conservatives, and I don’t think it ever will. I will concede that liberal ideals have come to be preached too often as moral absolutes, a practice which completely contradicts the concept of liberalism itself. However, the result of such ‘bigotry’ hasn’t been negative, it has in fact been positive. This persistent ideology of equality and diversity has provoked the very opposition which is now placing it under scrutiny.
Indeed, recognising the value in how someone else perceives the world allows for the opportunity to reach a compromise. Sure, a lot of the time, if not most of the time, we don’t reach that compromise before the opportunity has passed us by; and even if we do, the ever-changing face of our society means it can only ever be fleeting. But I feel, right now, society is feeling its way towards a compromise, so that hopefully in the future, for however brief a period, liberals like myself, who are too often prone to preaching moral absolutes (see my last blog post…), will bear in mind their conservative counterparts before they put finger to keyboard or pen to paper.