Having had a week for the crystal ball to clear, it is apparent that there are more lessons than usual to draw from the elections for the European Parliament and for the municipal councils. They demonstrated both the fluidity of politics today and the paucity of political vision on key issues.
Time was when there was barely a chance for a candidate outside Labour or Conservative to get elected. In the general elections of 1951 and 1951 the two parties took well over 85% of the vote, on electoral turnouts also over 80%. In the 1970s the thought of an independent candidate defeating all three major parties in a large city council was almost risible. In Leeds, with ward electorates approaching an average of 18,000, we had just one, Peter Kersting, and this was assumed to be some aberrational hangover from his days as an effective populist in Pudsey.
Today that is all changed. Labour and Conservative parties command less and less of the vote between them, with the turnout at the last general election less than 60%. There are now six Independents, plus three Green party councillors, on the Leeds City Council, and independents, under a cornucopia of local names, are defeating party candidates in council after council across Britain. Where the electors have a viable alternative they are now prepared to vote for them, rather than just abstain. Mere disillusion with the political process has become an alienation that looks for ways to express itself.
Further, horror of horrors, more voters are voting for what they actually believe, whether it be British nationalism or simply its anti-European version. Given the weight of the religious, political and media assault on the BNP, few of its supporters could be aware of its true nature and what it stood for, and still it secured four seats on Bradford council. Also, with Michael Howard fighting a huge rearguard action to defend a line in the sand over Europe, there can have been few Conservatives unaware of UKIP's unilateralism, but it still polled alarmingly well and took a swathe of seats in the European Parliament.
Extremism does not appear fully fledged on the doorstep overnight, it works its wiles sinuously over a period of time, forcing its opponents to adjust to the forthright expression of its views, until it seems less extreme than it did just a few years before. People tend to forget that the German Nazi party eventually won 43% of the popular vote in 1933, before it finagled its way into power and abolished elections. For a decade before then, the mainstream German parties had trimmed their sails to the far right wind and sought to find compromise positions to combat the nationalist tide. Civil liberties were restricted and, little by little, the human rights of large sections of the public eroded, all in the name of placating spurious fears of threats to the state posed by Jews and Communists. Just substitute Muslims and asylum seekers and it begins to look somewhat familiar.
Just as liberal Germans were seduced during the 1920s and early 1930s, most British people now accept intrusions and constraints that would have been intolerable a decade ago. To take one example, for British people to accept that are spied on by CCTV cameras, over which they have no control, wherever they go in a city centre would have been inconceivable only a few years ago. One only has to imagine the dangers of the control structures that David Blunkett has implemented and is planning if they are in the greedy hands of those even further to the Right of the present Home Secretary to realise why they should be opposed. By the time Hitler became Chancellor it was too late; the pass had already been sold and the ground prepared.
The opinion poll and the focus group have been an insidious and malign influence on the British political scene. By being able to show with relative accuracy what the public wants they have tempted politicians to give it to them. Councillors and MPs are not delegates of their electors; they are their representatives, charged with decision making on their behalf for the four or five years respectively that their mandate allows them. They are empowered to give their time and their intellectual resources to analyse the problems and to focus on the solutions best able to resolve them. They do this from the standpoint of the political philosophy they espouse and on which they presented themselves to the electorate. At the end of their mandate they return to the electors to argue in favour of their actions and to persuade the voters to support them again.
This may seem a counsel of perfection, but without it the process collapses. One might as well have government by permanent opinion poll with robots, or at least political eunuchs, programmed to collect the daily results and to instruct civil servants. Healthy politics depends on parties with distinctive philosophies and not an eye to the main chance. Take the example of the Liberal Democrats. If any party was going to argue for a federal Europe and to take a passionate campaign for it on to the streets it was they who would do so. No-one else would. The principled argument rested on them. And they flunked it. The Lib Dem campaign for the European Parliament, and, to a large extent, even for the local elections, was based on its opposition to the war in Iraq.
If the mainstream parties cannot find distinctive and sustainable views of society and its needs we are in for a long uncomfortable and fragmented political future.
16 June 2004