The main purpose of this article is to make me want to vote by the time I’ve written it. Sorry to have to pare this down to personal basics, but I love politics, I believe passionately that everyone should vote, and I still desperately cling by the fingertips to the ideal that a national democratic debate can do some good to people’s lives. So I really do need a reason to vote, and at the moment I’m not sure I have one. I think it’s out there somewhere.
You might feel the same, especially if you’re a first-time voter. I can see you looking at the revolution in Greece and the one brewing in Spain, and then turning back to look at Nigel Farage and thinking: “Really, is that it? A man with a pint of bitter in his hand and in his breast pocket a Top Trumps card about people who are HIV-positive?” I can see you watching the leaders’ debates and thinking: “The conventional parties look—well, so conventional, but why waste a vote on the others unless you’re Scottish?” I hope, by the time I work this thing through my system, to have persuaded myself that there is a point in voting and that this time round there is a glimmer, a faint but tantalising one, that democracy may change for the better if we come out and make our voices heard in significant numbers on May 7.
But first, why the uphill struggle to find a reason? During the independence referendum in Scotland, I was cheered by the sight of a nation fully engaged, 16- and 17-year-olds taking their vote seriously, people passionately arguing on street corners and in pubs and supermarkets about the merits of autonomous revenue collection, currency zones, and the obsolescence or otherwise of Trident. Above all, the 84.6 percent turnout proved that once again politics was alive, that although the big-party system was crumbling, political engagement was stronger than ever. Hence the hope that something significant was about to take place across the rest of the U.K., too.
But cut to the morning after and the cheesy grin of self-satisfaction at a Scottish job well done immediately fell away. David Cameron came out like a sore winner, and, instead of healing wounds opened by the passionate debate, rubbed them the wrong way with his immediate talk of English votes for English laws. There may have been some cause for him to raise the subject, but not then, not there. It was a cynical and clod-hopping conclusion to a debate that had otherwise inspired passion and idealism. It was a childish shout at the end of a grown-up discussion.
The election drew nearer, and so did the boorishness of angry kids at play. Not just the name-calling at PMQs but the sneering, petty-minded headlines about the likes of Ed Miliband’s kitchen and Grant Shapps’s bank account names, signalling that we had come back utterly to how it had always been: a vindictive ground war of insults and gibes in which nothing of substance would be said. When something as stark as the HSBC tax scandal gets reduced in the space of a few days to a discussion of a shadow chancellor’s window-cleaning receipts, you know that the great operation to shut down argument has begun.
Within a few short months politics has gone into retreat. The main parties, spooked by the rise of the SNP and Ukip on either flank, have withdrawn to base. Panicky policies about EU membership, immigration caps and “English votes for English laws” are flung out to appease wavering supporters, leaving those on the margins either to vote anyway or be forgotten. The campaign to appeal to Middle England started off all those years ago as a cynical attempt to identify the core rump of voters who decided marginal seats, and woo them. Now it has become a terrified last stand to cling on to that rump. Meantime, those outside the target (Outer England? All of Scotland and Wales?) have been tempted to disengage from Westminster completely.
This option has become the default of an increasing number of us. In the last two elections, the number of people who didn’t vote was larger than the numbers who voted for the parties that got into power. Party membership has fallen, while an alternative politics has been played out with e-petitions and online campaigning groups as diverse as U.K. Uncut, 38 Degrees, and Mumsnet. One way or another, the usual Westminster personalities don’t connect any more.
Yet here they are on our screens, talking about free schools, and pension pots, and competitive tenders, and pupil premiums, but all these words seem so disconnected from the world of food banks, zero-hours contracts, high energy bills, benefit sanctions, closed libraries, clogged-up A&E units and student debt that is the real economy experienced by so many. Disconnectedness feels like it’s taking a quantum leap, and the noise from Westminster sounds nothing more than the strangled bray of Rump Politics.
I call it Rump Politics, because it is so clearly marked by an admission that it is for the few. Party leaders confine themselves to the issues of those who they know will turn out and vote—the elderly, those in business, those with property—and unashamedly ignore the plight of those they know will never come out—the young, the long-term unemployed, the poor. That is why they feel they can get away with proclaiming tax cuts for one group (those who vote) and welfare cuts for another (those who don’t). In 2010, 80 percent of the over-65s voted: hence all the talk about protecting pensions. In that same election, only 44 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds voted: hence university tuition fees.
You can spot Rump Politics in play whenever a party does something that it knows others will hate, but which it also knows those same others will never come out to vote against. Labour’s campaign mug saying “Controls on immigration” is one (it knows that most first- and second-generation immigrants will probably vote for Labour anyway); Cameron ducking head-to-head debates with Ed Miliband is another (it annoys the media, might get a tabloid newspaper to follow him with a man in a chicken costume, but if it starves Miliband of a platform, who cares?).
It’s a calculated contempt against openness and honesty. Rump Politics thrives on keeping silent, saying nothing, giving nothing away, above all not engaging with anyone who your algorithms tell you won’t vote. It’s a contempt perhaps best symbolised by Iain Duncan Smith’s refusal to set out how the Conservatives plan to cut £12 billion from the welfare budget. This isn’t just him, it’s not a clumsy misspeak; it’s part of a concerted strategy that can no longer be bothered to conceal itself. Here’s David Gauke, the financial secretary to the Treasury, as early as March 20, talking about that same spending plan: “We’ll set it out nearer the time, which will be after the election.”
There are two operations of Rump Politics at play here. One is the calculation that alienating the welfare claimant is a risk worth taking. He or she will either vote for another party or, more likely, not vote at all.
The second manifestation is less obvious but more deadly: It’s to turn the concept of an election completely on its head. If we see a general election as a collective democratic decision about the future of our government, those who drive Rump Politics do their best to shut down that alarmingly open and unpredictable view by redefining elections as referendums on the past. Hence, it’s all about what has been achieved, or, if you’re in opposition, what has been ruined, while giving as little coherent information as possible about what will be done in the future. The more the parties fighting Rump Politics can get you to focus on what has happened, the less obligation they have to stick to anything too particular in the future. The past is knowable, the future dangerously not.
In the last election, the three main parties succeeded so magnificently in drawing a curtain of silence around their future plans for government, that the dominating policies of the past five years have all been ones that simply were not discussed in the election campaign or mentioned in the party manifestos. These policies were: £9,000 university tuition fees, the bedroom tax, the total reorganisation of the NHS and 40 percent cuts in local government. Put together, it’s a stark program. Not an iota of it was mentioned during the 2010 campaign. This time round, both the main TV debates were conducted before the parties published their manifestos. No wonder they felt like talks about nothing. Is it any wonder that people feel disconnected from Westminster? If what government does is not discussed with the people first, what is the point of the people engaging in the vote to determine government?
But here is where I see the potential for something truly transformative and why I cling on, only just, to a hope that this time things are not going according to the old script. First off, the safety-first strategy of Rump Politics is not winning. In the first few weeks of the campaign, what has dominated the agenda has been the very issues the party leaders have tried to hide. What we remember are Cameron’s unease and inarticulateness when asked questions about food banks and zero-hours contracts, Osborne’s obfuscation when asked about Tory plans for welfare cuts and Miliband’s rather unconvincing attempts to portray himself as tough on immigration. The agenda is not the one foisted on the electorate by the campaign managers: The alternative politics of the internet has become a useful adjunct to the conventional politics of the TV studio. The public has turned into Jeremy Paxman and is refusing to let these questions go away until fully answered. It is as if the possibility of alternative homes for our vote has reinvigorated us and encouraged us to persevere with our inquiries.
Second, the old campaign strategies aren’t working. The best example of this is the Tory divide-and-rule of old, putting up posters showing Miliband in the SNP’s pocket. After Nicola Sturgeon’s performance in the leaders’ debate on ITV, the Tory threat of “Vote Labour, get SNP” turned into an unexpectedly positive idea to those who rather liked the idea of a progressive alliance of parties winning the election. Holding out the prospect of another party in power as a threat to distract the electorate from looking at your own agenda has gone the way of the VCR and the Squarial.
It’s as if the old Labour-bashing ploys dug up from the 1980s suddenly looked to the electorate like a set of battered and tatty sofas, completely out of place in a much more sophisticated environment. An electorate that is angered by, but not deaf to, politics is keen to listen and has an appetite for grown-up and sophisticated argument. Simple slogans don’t cut it any more: They’re so 1990s.
Third, there is no last-minute mass return to the two main parties, nor a mass abandonment of the minor parties. The Cameron policy of retreating from debates and flooding the airwaves with “fringe” groups has woken us up to the possibilities of alternatives that look grown-up and sophisticated rather than eccentric and doomed. It has reassured us that a multiparty system is not a madhouse. Threatening the electorate with a rainbow alliance of parties no longer works as a threat when that looks both credible and appealing.
Fourth, and this is important if you believe in progressive politics, Ukip has found its natural limit. Its poll numbers are simply not rising. Nigel Farage, the man obsessed with setting caps on numbers, has reached his own natural cap of support. Yes, some may find his arguments over immigration numbers and European bureaucracy appealing, but he also seems to have invigorated those who oppose his views. So, while the main parties may try to ape his “tough” stance on immigration, others feel emboldened to stand up and confidently outline the benefits that immigration has brought to this country’s culture and economy. Ukip has tried to simplify the arguments: A sophisticated electorate has asked to hear something more nuanced.
The reasons I have outlined give me some confidence that Rump Politics may not win the day. That while we’ve been abandoned as an electorate, we have grown into something hardier, something that no longer feeds off the binary views of a conventional system. But we have to come out in numbers. We have to work at it. If we want to make it absolutely clear that the British voter is sick of pat phrases, simple solutions, focused bribery and panic thinking, then we have to keep pestering and badgering, keep asking for more detailed answers.
We also have to vote confidently with our heart for whoever comes closest in our constituency to echoing what we feel. If that leads to a messy, disruptive result on May 8, then so be it. If it forces the controlling elite of Westminster leaders to see they no longer have control, then great. It could be a very British revolution: peaceful but determined, thoughtful yet unique.