JOHN ELSOM member of the British Liberal party

John Elsom

The 12% Solution General Election in the United Kingdom

For those who were following the opinion polls, the actual result of the General Election in the United Kingdom came as no surprise. New Labour retained their majority, the Conservatives made very few gains and only the Liberal Democrats could claim to have advanced from their previous position. They won eight extra seats, lost two and increased their majorities in their most marginal constituencies. Their leader, Charles Kennedy, is widely agreed to have had a good election, as some generals are thought to have a "good war", but came no closer to holding the balance of power between other two parties, the aim of all British Liberal leaders since Jo Grimond in the 1960s. Grimond, a thoughtful patrician, despised such calculations.

But one aspect of the poll did come as a shock. Less than 60% of the electorate voted, the lowest response in British electoral history and 12% lower than the 1997 General Election, which was lower than that in 1992, a record of decline. Less than a quarter of the electorate voted for New Labour, which has a 167-seat majority in the House of Commons. Somebody apparently had been going around the country "stirring up apathy", to borrow a phrase from Mrs. Thatcher's Home Secretary, William Whitelaw. The explanations for this low turn-out covered the full spectrum of political opinion. Pro-New Labour commentators argued along the lines that the public were too contented to vote, that Blair's inclusive policies had reduced social tribalism and the urge to vote, and that the result anyway was a foregone conclusion. Fewer people voted because fewer thought it necessary to do so.

Those less friendly to the government came to gloomier conclusions. "It may be," wrote Kennedy in The Times (June 20, 2001), "that Labour would prefer to win on a 60% turnout than lose on an 80% turnout." This seems very likely, but the New Labour campaign managers feared the apathy and thought that it might damage their chances. They did their best to combat it as only they knew how, by presenting a return of a Tory government as a disaster movie and by including a former Spice Girl, Geri Halliwell, in their TV commercials. Some potential voters may have been deterred by these desperate campaign tactics - too much smear and spinning, too many scare stories - but the political leaders were so effectively grilled on television that the rhetorical fat and waste product melted from their bones. No voter could complain of not being kept informed.

The personal casualty of the campaign was the Conservative leader, William Hague, who resigned before the full result was known. To be a serious contender for power and an effective opposition, the Conservative party needed to win at least fifty seats. They failed to do so and there will now be an interlude in Tory campaigning while they choose a new leader and puzzle out where they went wrong. Some commentators blame their election strategy for the low turnout as well for losing. They chose to fight the election on right-wing concerns such as tax cuts, the loss of sovereignty to the European Union and the threat from bogus asylum seekers. The received wisdom is now that they should have campaigned on domestic issues, such as the poor state of affairs in schools, hospitals and social services, the primitive transport system and similar issues, which are supposed to touch the electorate more directly.

But I do not think that this would have made any difference. The decline in turn-out has continued for three elections. Although the slump was remarkably steep in 2001, it did not go against the trend, but with it. In the context of voting patterns throughout the British Isles, the less than 60% turnout for the 2001 general election might even seem to be creditable. The percentage was higher than for local, regional and European elections. A lower percentage in the Republic of Ireland voted against the Nice Treaty in their referendum. Voting levels in the UK are patchy. In some constituencies, such as Northern Ireland, they can be high and offset the trends elsewhere where levels (low already) are sinking. The conclusion must be drawn that for about a third of the British electorate, voting is something that they can do without.

Nor can it be blamed. Voting is the tip of this particular iceberg. The real authority of the democratic process lies beneath the surface. The British "first-past-the-post" electoral system, where the candidate with most votes on the first ballot is elected without transferable votes or a second ballot, may be unfair to minority parties; but it does have some strengths. The elected Member of Parliament is supposed to represent the constituency as a whole rather than the party. Nearly every winner says so in his/her acceptance speech. The ties between the member and his/her constituency are supposed to be strong. Each constituency is split up into wards which are represented by ward chairmen on the constituency's central committee. The ward chairmen organise the campaigning in their districts, which may be no bigger than two or three streets. This entails door-to-door canvassing, house meetings, "surgeries" (where the MP listens to local problems and solves them if s/he can) and (at election time) "hustings", where all the candidates meet and debate their points of view in public. They arrange the leafleting, mailing, the telling at polling stations and the transport for those who need help to get to the polls.

Ward chairmen are unpaid and elected to their unenviable tasks by local residents, who may also have other and perhaps better things to do in the evenings. Why should they bother? Are they mad or just addicted to campaigning for its own sake? Perhaps, but my impression is that most of them want to contribute in a small way to the better government of the country. They hope that their work will bring them some small influence, expressed through the local selection of the parliamentary candidate or by lobbying during the party conference seasons. In all three main parties, the constituencies had the right to put forward motions to be debated at party conferences, which (if adopted) would form sections in the manifestos. Party leaders might be horrified by some of their proposals, but were usually expected to acknowledge the wishes of the conference majority. On one famous occassion, in 1960, the Labour party leader, Hugh Gaitskell, pledged to "fight and fight again to save the party we love" after the party conference had voted for unilateral nuclear disarmament. He did not suppress the opposition. He argued as forcibly as he could against the unilateralist stance.

Such public rows could give the impression that the leadership was not in charge of the rank-and-file. This might be electorally damaging. A telling social history could be written about the way in which the party hierarchies came to control the annual conferences without seeming to infringe any member's democratic rights. The Conservatives were the first to do so. They vetted the motions and speakers, and confined the most troublesome topics to fringe debates, away from the TV cameras. The old Liberals were very unruly. They kept jumping up and down with points of order, and tried to replace sub-clauses to sub-clauses which had already been re-worded to near extinction, and gave the impression of having more barrack-room lawyers than soldiers.

But the Labour party conferences in the early 1980s were the worst of all. The party was split about almost everything. The rows were venomous. The loony Left was opposed to the pompous Right, sharing nothing but antipathy. Their leader, Michael Foot, was elected to be a referee and conciliator between them, and saw his party split between its Trotskyist and Social Democratic wings. If Tony Blair and the New Labour party hands at Millbank seem to be control freaks, we should reflect upon the chaos from which the party was dragged.

But this outbreak of discipline came at a price. Blair's advisers, Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle, wrote about the tactics in their book, The Blair Revolution, published before the 1997 election. Blair should appeal to ordinary Labour party voters over the heads of the party activists. The chairmen and other party workers in the constituencies were the ones who made trouble. Nor were they representative of the public at large. A much better impression of what the public really wanted could be gained from opinion polls, focus groups and the social sciences. Party conferences were not the right places to debate matters of policy. They should be designed for television cameras. The party hierarchy should decide on the policies in private and present them to the conference, to a standing ovation which could be timed. Press leaflets could be handed out with the substance of the policy and the length of the applause.

In September 1999, I watched a New Labour party conference in my hotel room in St. Petersburg. I saw rows of smiling apparatchiks, applauding one platform speech after another. It was exactly like the boring television which I can remember from the old days of the Soviet Union, the same fiddled statistics, the same platitudes and the same references to the "People" in such phrases as the "People's" Opera House (more often known as the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) and the "People's" Princess (Princess Diana). New Labour has followed the Soviet habit of borrowing the entire nation for their commercials.

Nor do the comparisons end there. The New Labour party machine imposes Blairite candidates against the wishes of the local constituency parties. There have been many rows, but only brave party workers are prepared to stand up against Millbank. They would not be sent to labour camps, but their chances of advancement, their places in the queue for state funding and their influence within the party would all be at stake. The New Labour machine dominates the agenda at conferences. The presentation of a policy initiative takes precedence over the discussions which led up to it, as if the public should be protected from the signs of disagreement. Even the announcement of the date of the election was made by Tony Blair in a school hall, in front of a stained glass church window, for the better photo-call opportunities.

It is widely assumed that elections are won and lost on TV. The days of canvassing, house meetings and hustings are over. Party workers wave banners and stuff leaflets into letterboxes. That is what they are for. They are not expected to take part in the debates which used to begin on the doorstep and end in the House of Commons. Nor are the constituency associations expected to put forward resolutions. The messy democratic process which used to be the inspiration and the despair of good liberals everywhere has been slowly dismantled. It has been replaced by party management, operating in ways favoured by management gurus everywhere. Professional market research has replaced canvassing and local house meetings. Policies are placed in the hands of special advisers. Parliamentary candidates are marketed as role models for their communities and suitable representatives of their party.

Meanwhile, on the streets there were race riots in Oldham, where the far-right British National Party polled exceptionally well. In Belfast, sectarian violence has broken out again and the Northern Ireland Peace Process is on the verge of collapse. The more extreme parties have polled well at the expense of the moderate ones. In parts of the countriside, the stench from the slaughter and burning of animals after the outbreak of the foot-and-mouth epidemic lingers in the air. It is purely cynical to suggest that the low turnout at the General Election was due to customer satisfaction. Nobody in Britain is satisfied with this state of affairs. Nor are we too apathetic to vote. But we may not want to endorse a suspicious-looking product. The democratic process has changed. Its roots in the British way of life have been damaged. Some say that our democracy has become more American, others more French, while most agree that if Britain is to be an effective member of the European Union, some sovereignty of parliament will have to give way to the demands of the bureaucrats from Brussels.

Perhaps all is for the best in the best of all possible world. Perhaps. If so, why do the words of Brecht keep ringing in my ears, "The bitch is on heat again" ?

June 22, 2001.



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