A little bit of politics…

England is currently gripped in a maelstrom of apathy as it prepares for the upcoming general election. In little over a month the nation will head to the polls and elect the government that will see us through the first half of this decade.

Well, I say a ‘nation’ will go to the polls…but really that should read ‘some of the nation’. It’s a quite depressing fact that in the past 60 years the amount of people who actually use their democratic right of voting has fallen from around 84% to 61%. It’s also unsettling to know that if one party could engage the apathetic masses they would sail into office with a considerable majority.

Why the lack of interest? Well, as ever, politics is a complicated affair, but a common excuse I’ve heard time and again from people is ‘well, there’s no one I want to vote for. They’re all the same.’ I’m sure the representatives of each party would staunchly refute this accusation but there certainly seems to be at least a measure of truth in it.

In the 1970s & 1980s politics was a different beast. In the blue corner you had Margaret Thatcher and her army of right-wing, privately educated, business orientated, Tories. In the red corner was Michael Foot & his successor Neil Kinnock, whose massed ranks included classic left-wing socialists, power hungry unions, and even a sprinkling of militant Trotskyists.  You knew where you stood with these guys. Whatever one believed the other would strongly decry. The side you picked said many things about your beliefs and social standing, and you’d be expected to defend them at a moments notice.

Even the comedy of the time reflected the impassioned nature of politics, with stars like Ben Elton and shows such as The Young Ones and Spitting Image using the subject as a centrepiece.

The problem is Labour got clever and the Conservatives got complacent. When Tony Blair finally returned power to the hands of Labour it was on a collection of policies that occupied the middle-ground. He wasn’t trying to stir up the shop-stewards in factories or the miners (mostly because both were now presumably working in supermarkets) but instead he courted the business sector to assure them that he was a safe pair of hands. He also, in a very calculated way, targeted middle-England. This great bastion of middle-class Britain has long been the ones who actually turn out to vote, and securing their support goes a long way to placing someone in 10 Downing Street.

So with Labour switching their politics to the centre and sweeping to a landslide electoral victory the Conservatives have gone the same way, and what we’re left with is people fighting over minor differences in policy rather than diametrically opposed ideologies. Now, some of this is good as it allows a more reasonable debate rather than flag waving and party tub-thumping, but what it’s also resulted in is parts of the nation who feel unrepresented…and some enterprising parties have seized their chance.

During the Thatcher reign the right-wing nationalists (or racists) used to flock to the National Front party. This anti-immigration, white-power movement was widely regarded as a pretty nasty piece of work with tattooed skinheads as its workforce. In these more enlightened times we have the British National Party, who peddle the same kind of hateful bile but package it in such a way that seems to have garnered them a toehold on British politics. With a handful of council, and two European Parliament, seats they’ve managed to find an audience who will vote for them. So why are they different to the NF?

Recent studies (as revealed by Dr Robert Ford from the University of Manchester on the excellent BBC Radio 4 show  Thinking Allowed) show that whereas the NF’s support was made up of mainly white men from the South of England in skilled-labour jobs who approved of the Thatcher government. The BNP draw their support from mainly older, less educated, less skilled, white men who live in the North (predominantly in areas of large muslim population) who have no political affiliation.

Could it be that because they see no-one in the major parties that seems interested in them, paired with a recession that’s probably taken their jobs, that they lash out? Is their lack of control over their lives causing them to point the finger of blame at those around who are different to them? And are the BNP doorknockers turning up to throw poisoned petrol on these fires of hoplesness? Has middle-ground politics actually pushed people out to the fringes and into the hands of these darker parties?

For now it remains a small blip on the political radar, but as the financial climate remains uncertain and the threat of job losses lingers will we see a rise in support for the likes of the BNP? Another, more troubling, question is whether these are just protest votes, as many claim, or is the new multi-cultural, diverse, forward looking Britain being haunted by the spectre of a larger racism problem than we really thought existed?

6 thoughts on “A little bit of politics…”

  1. An additional reason for political apathy is that the actual exercise of political power does not reflect votes cast. Look at the influence that money buys in government. And ‘Yes Minister’ + ‘Yes Prime Minister’ show the influence of civil servants. Then there are QUANGOs. But generally speaking, as long as our lives are tolerable we tolerate the status quo.

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  2. “It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it; consequently, the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning.”

    George Orwell.

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  3. Interesting article, and a good analysis of how the two major parties came to compete over the centre ground. In response to your concluding paragraph: the truth is both -and this is not merely sitting on the fence- the votes the BNP will receive at the election are protest votes as they will not receive enough to gain any kind of foot-hold towards power. There is an underlying racist problem lurking behind closed doors in certain areas of working-class northern cities.

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  4. Good article Martyn,

    It is a dilemma. I don’t know if they are protest votes. A protest vote would be Lib Deb or Ukip or some other party. I also think it is larger than just a north south divide. There are plenty of people in the south enticed by BNP (in certain areas).

    I’m sure the apathy is fueling their support though. I don’t think they’ll ever make a massive impact on our politics. They are racist and most people know that, and we are becoming more and more diverse.

    However certain people are attracted to them (or at least their ideologies). I don’t know that this will ever change – or at least not in a while (generations).

    I’m sure voter apathy has a big impact. I’m looking forward to the election but only just – you can understand why apathy reigns. As you say both the main parties are so similar. Plus the trust in politicians is at an all time low.

    Oh well, here goes a month of squabbling rather than debating policies!

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  5. Thanks David,

    I agree that the BNP will never be strong enough to mount any kind of serious challenge to the government, but the fact that they even get people voted onto councils is heartbreaking.

    Isn’t your local MP a UKIP representative? Aren’t they just the poor man’s BNP?

    From what I heard before Oona King was meant to be a hard working, popular MP. Sad to see someone like Galloway get in on emotive issues rather than ones that actually effect people’s lives more directly.

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