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.

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