Dogging or votes? We need change for political engagement

More people are dogging than are members of political parties: what a comment on modern politics

More people are dogging than are members of political parties: what a comment on modern politics

Margret Thatcher is reported as having said that her greatest achievement was Tony Blair when New Labour strode out of the centre waters of British politics, with their feet firmly on the Right side of the bank. Despite a large array of poisonous policies, the effects of which are still being felt more than two decades on, Tony Blair might well be the most devastating legacy Thatcher left us – not just devastating for the Left but for politics as a whole.

Perhaps the one good thing to come of Mr Farage, beyond a dazzling array of fruitcakes and looneys and perhaps the most PR-illiterate officials British politics has ever seen, has been to make politics interesting again. This may sound trivial, but it’s not- quite the reverse.

It strikes at the heart of one of the core principles of our political system and the growing problem of disengagement. The point of party politics is to offer variety. It is democracy in name only if people are not given real alternatives to choose between.

Both voter turn out and party membership has been in decline since their peak in 1950. Early post-war Britain saw party memberships soar as behemoths of democratic socialism such as the NHS and welfare services were born, provoking a real ideological battle across the political spectrum.

This lies at the heart of everything that is wrong with British politics, and why we are increasingly seeing people turn away from formal political processes. Ideology is dead, with sterile and passionless economic management rising from its grave in Westminster.

One of the causes of this is privatisation. Colin Hay in his book Why We Hate Politics (2007) discusses the varying levels of ‘depolitizization’- how the more you privatize and remove obligation from the public, governmental sphere of scrutiny, the less there is that can be debated formally. This serves to limit the power and scope of formal politics, and has also encouraged that infamous shift to the right in British politics, eternally enshrined in the kraken emerging from the depths of Thatcherism known as ‘New’ Labour.

Hay also discusses how the rationalising of election strategy has contributed to the ideological vacuum that is now Westminster. When political parties vying for votes in an election is treated like businesses fighting for market share, something seemingly innocent but actually disastrous happens: a ‘median’ voter is created, in which the ‘centre ground’ of British politics is realigned with and is subsequently fought tooth and nail over by the main parties.

This not only assumes that the sole purpose of a political party is to collect votes (rather than give the electorate competing visions for a progressive future) but it also ignores the above mentioned point of having political parties in the first place: if everyone is fighting over the middle ground, and increasingly the range of where party policy can meander is limited thanks to privatisation, political parties begin to look increasingly similar.

The electorate realise this and begin to feel that their vote doesn’t matter because ‘they’re all the same’.

In the short term it allows people to be swayed by the beer swigging of Farage and the buffoonery of Boris. It allows dangerous and calculating individuals a penchant on public affection, with the bizarre situation arising that the next Prime Minister could get into Downing Street simply because he’s good at making a prat of himself on a zipline.

It should be ideology and policy that dominates political discourse, not demagogues and personality. Whilst the occasional ‘character’ on the political scene is refreshing, it really shouldn’t be what decides an election. But with alternate policies so sparse, what else are voters going to focus on?

In the long term, however, it’s effects are far more disastrous – a stale and dry politics that fails to summon even the smallest of interests in the average citizen, where people are more likely to regularly go ‘dogging’ than join a political party, and we are lumbered with the first coalition government since WW2.

You can feel the tension and dissatisfaction that this state of affairs has brought about. It enthuses Scottish voters when considering their decision on September 18th. It lies behind the surge in popularity that fringe parties such as UKIP and the Greens are enjoying. But mostly it is turning people off from politics, making Westminster ever more distant from people’s lives. And perhaps the main parties are ok with that – one of them will still get in no matter how few vote.

Our hope lies in the rise of parties such as the Greens, offering a real alternative, progressive set of policies, rising from the grave of ideology not as economic zombies but like a phoenix of old, cast in the vitality that British politics once used to have.

The electorate are deeply dissatisfied with the offerings from the main political parties- change, and therefore hope, is in the air.

Bradley Allsop is a blogger, chair of Northampton Young Greens and a student conducting his dissertation on political engagement.

9 Responses to “Dogging or votes? We need change for political engagement”

  1. Leon Wolfeson

    Turnout among those who don’t hold right wing views will fall again. You might see that as “hope”, but I don’t agree.

    “…in which the ‘centre ground’ of British politics is realigned with…”

    There’s already a perfectly good term for that, the Overton Window

    Moreover, there’s nothing inherently wrong with coalitions, indeed they are the norm in many countries. The problem is that under FPTP, “parties” are already coalitions. So we end up with an unwieldy merger of already broad coalitions. Under PR, say…MMP…that’s far, far less true.

    I also don’t agree depriving the poor of energy and transport is progressive, but hey, left winger here.

  2. Gary Scott

    I see what you mean about the referendum. The interest is in politics itself rather than a political party. I don’t doubt a high turnout on the 18th but what about afterwards? Will Scottish politics sink back into the bog? I hope the main political parties take note. The people ARE interested but in recent years have been offered little in the way of choice. We need policies that take us forward, prevent bankers breaking the bank and get us away from Neo Liberalism and back to proper Socialism where we care for everyone and stop blaming the poor. Have the courage of our convictions instead of changing to make ourselves ‘palatable’ to a small group. How can they respect us if we change our beliefs at the drop of a hat?

  3. Bradley Allsop

    I’ve read a few interesting things that suggest whatever the results, the referendum is a game changer for Scotland, particularly as it’s looking to be a close contest. I hope that either way it brings more power to the Scottish people. As for everything else you said, completely agree. For too long we’ve been told there’s no alternative to austerity and neoliberalism- there is but too few politicians have the courage to take it

  4. Leon Wolfeson

    “proper Socialism”

    And that’s part of the issue – many people on the left are not socialist. Rather than scaring them away, let’s talk about policy. Ideology is divisive, and the Right rely on it, but it can’t stand up to policies people want.

    (I’m not a Socialist, I’m a Mutualist. And I’ve got plenty of socialists interested in things like local currencies and other work the NEF’s ( http://www.neweconomics.org/ ) done…but other socialists have said “you’re not a socialist” and blanked me out as a result!)

  5. Bradley Allsop

    That’s not a result of their having an ideology, more of them being narrow minded. By ideology I do not mean adhering to one in a dogmatic fashion, I mean having direction, values, principles, and ideas of how to implement them. Coherent policies are the result of such ideologies.

  6. Leon Wolfeson

    Well, my point is that I’m going to agree with a Socialist on *most* of his policies. But if he insists that I have to accept his ideology to have a seat at the table, oops.

    The fact is, I think you’ll find a broad consensus among most of the left on what needs to be done, but we (the left as a whole) keep getting sidetracked into ideological fights. That’s…not working out very well for us.

    (And, unfortunately, the SWP have poisoned the term “socialist” for many people who trend moderately left)

  7. Bradley Allsop

    Yes I agree. I think there’s two separate issues here- there’s not enough ideological variety in the main parties, whereas there’s too much on the Left- I think a happy medium is what we’re after. Enough variety to be able to provide alternatives and stimulate debate, but enough consensus to be able to work together. It’s also important how you approach those with alternate views, and at times the SWP isn’t great at doing that

  8. GO

    ” The point of party politics is to offer variety.It is democracy in name only if people are not given real alternatives to choose between.”

    But there’s a limit to the degree of variety that can exist in practice in a country where elections are held every five years and the government changes fairly regularly. We couldn’t ping-pong back and forth between public and private ownership of the railways and utilities, say, or between being inside and outside the EU, every five or ten years. During the period of the post-war consensus, this suited the Left pretty well, since the political landscape was very much formed by the Attlee government. Since then, it has suited the Right pretty well, since the landscape has been largely formed by the Thatcher government. Hopefully we can turn that around – but part of the reason for doing so is that we can expect any big changes to stick, for a few decades at least, as the political ‘centre ground’ moves to the left. An endless succession of governments radically reshaping the country according to a variety of genuinely different visions just isn’t practical or desirable.

  9. Jon Jones.

    Dogging or votes? Well imagine the shame. What would the neighbours say if they found out you where going out collecting votes at the weekend?

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