Saturday 25 October 2014

Reasons to be Cheerful about British Political Participation

It is generally accepted as true that political participation in Britain is at depressingly low levels.
 People regularly bemoan the rise of political apathy, the disillusionment with the system, the low turnout in our general elections, the decline of political party memberships.  Rightists complain about a lack of patriotism and belief in traditional culture.  Leftists complain about the lack of the kind of activism and mass working class/student/minority group solidarity that made the 1970's such a terrible place to live. All this is taken as a sign that our society is  decadent and unconcerned, steadily declining in a thick sludge of materialism and buzzfeed articles.

And there is a certain amount of truth in all this. Over the 50 years political party membership has fallen, general election turnout has also fallen.  And there are many other things wrong with our political culture as well.  But particularly in the last very few years there are at least a few fragile signs, a few green shoots, a few straws in the wind that this might be changing.  They might just be blips in a downward trends but right now there are at least some reason to be cheerful.

The first is obvious and widely known: the Scottish referendum.  The referendum in September saw impressive levels of political interest and turnout. But people probably don't release just how unprecdented it was. At 85% the turnout was not just higher than our recent general elections, or other referendums, it was the highest turnout ever in British democratic history. It was higher than any general election turnout since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1918 and was higher than any previous referendum conducted in the UK: higher than the 84% who voted in the 1960 general election, higher than the 81% who voted in the Good Friday Agreement referendum in '98 . It was a truly remarkable achievement. It warms my conservative heart to know that even in this day and age you can at least still get people engaged through an appeal to their nationalistic paranoia. Truly some things never change.  

Lots of people were stunned by the passion (and turnout) unleashed in the Scottish referendum and bemoaned the fact that something like that couldn't happen across the rest of Britain.  But UK-wide there is at least some reason to be cheerful as well.  Yes, election turnout isn't what it used to be when your dad were a lad but it is not falling. In fact it is rising and has been for a decade. The idea of falling turnout is one of those zombie facts that lives on long after it stops being true. Turnout bottomed out in 2001 and has been rising since. Sure, it's a relatively recent trend, but it is a trend.   We go into 2015 on the back of two increases in a row and hoping to see a third.  Here's the recent history:

UK General election turnout

2001 - 59%
2005 - 61%
2010 - 65%

And there's every reason to think that we will break the 70% threshold in 2015, which would see us return to the levels generally seen since the 2nd World War, bumping around between 70-80%. Whatever you may think about UKIP, or the SNP, British politics has not been this stirred up since the 1930's.  UKIP has taken safe Conservative seats in southern England and made them charged up marginal contests.  It has taken solid northern industrial Labour heartland seats and made them marginal contests.  The SNP has taken rock-solid working-class Glaswegian one-party state seats even and put the fear of God into the Labour establishment there. The Lib Dems are desperately hanging onto their strongholds with every bone in their liberal bodies and even the Greens are popping up threatening a few seats.

Next year there will be more marginals and three-way marginals and 4-way marginals than there have ever been before; more seats where two or three or four parties will be tearing chunks out of each other and that ferocious contest should drive turnout and participation to height they have not been in decades. You may hate UKIP, or the SNP (I know I do) but the surges in their support have been driven by huge numbers of people who did not vote last time, or possibly ever before. People who have been chronically separated from the political process. And the threat of these parties will also drive supporters of more moderate parties to turn out to stop the crazies: a virtuous circle, at least as far as election turnout is concerned.  Turnout at the general election should hit 70% and hopefully even higher.              

There is also a 3rd good, very recent, reason to feel optimistic about British political life. The collapse in political party membership has been one of the emblematic pieces of evidence proving the never-ending decline of British political culture.  And since the 1950's this trend has been pretty consistent and dramatic.


Remarkably, in the most recent period even this has turned around. It may be that even political party membership has bottomed out.  Figures released in 2014 have shown increases in party membership for every single significant UK political party, apart from Labour who haven't released any figures yet.  The Conservatives, Lib Dems, UKIP, SNP, Greens, have all posted significant increases. And Labour saw a major increase between 2009-2010 and have stayed at that higher level since.  Sure, in the case of the major parties: Lib Dems, Conservatives or Labour this is against the background of historic lows. But in the most recent periods for which figures exist we have seen increases.  

Conservative 2013 - 134k
               2014 - 150k

Labour 2009 - 156k
              2010-2013 - 190k

Lib Dem 2012 - 42.5k
                 2014 - 44k

The increases have been down-right dramatic among the smaller parties.  The SNP, UKIP, the Greens (both English and Scottish) and Plaid Cymru have seen big increases, mostly since 2012, in fact mostly this year. Admittedly, here, the BNP and Respect have seen falls (Good, I hear you say) but these are swamped by far by the increases.   Minor party membership has gone from around 70,000 only a few years ago to 160,000 now. The figures are partial and scrappy, but the trend is definitely there.

UKIP   2010 - 15.5k
             2014 - 39k

Plaid 2012 - 7.6k
          2014 - 8k

BNP 2009 - 13k
          2013 - 4k     
   SNP 2010 - 16k
            2013 - 25k
            2014 - 75k

  Green (English & Scottish) 2012 - 15k
                                               2014 - 31k
Respect 2012 - 1.9k
               2014 - .2k

Unfortunately the data is poor. But we do have information for almost all for 2014 and from at least some of the last 5 years, and it shows a cumulative change from a recent low of membership across all parties from 400,000 a few years ago to around 550,000 right now, and that is a significant increase.

Of course these might just be straws in the wind. We are talking about decades of trends that show signs of turning around in the last few years.  But why always be a pessimist?  It's easy to always claim things are going to hell, especially with our politics. I'd rather be optimistic.  These fragile signs could be the start, if managed properly, of a new trend that sees higher turnout, higher participation, higher party membership over the next years and decades. And that, even if it is just a possibility, is at least something to be cheerful about.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Vote Conservative Tomorrow for Europe

Tomorrow, Thuesday 22nd May, we have the 5-yearly European Elections. 

You should vote Conservative for our MEP's.

 The European Parliament is an important body that has major influence over the large proportion of our laws that originate in Europe. We need MEP's who will fight for the best deal for Britain and the best policies for the European Union as a whole.

 European Unity is a noble ideal and the European Union itself does have benefits but as it currently exists it is a deeply flawed organisation. It is too undemocratic, too bureaucratic, too distant from the people and too resistant to change. To give just some examples of culpable EU stupidity:

 1. The Common Agricultural Policy, the largest item of EU spending, tens of billions of pounds every year that is still biased towards supporting inefficient farming methods and harming 3rd world producers, rather than research in efficient farming methods and vital R&D of renewable energy and other important technologies.
 2. Due to a decades old agreement the EU parliament moves every month from Brussels to Strasbourg. This totally pointless activity costs over £100 million a year and produces many tons of totally unnecessary carbon.
 3. The Euro: sceptics warned 15 years ago that any system that used the same currency and interest rate in Athens and Berlin would lead to disaster unless the weaker economies became fundamentally more competetive first. The sceptics were 100% right,the EU cheerleaders like Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems allowed their political bias to blind them and now the people of Greece, Cyprus, Spain and Portugal are paying the price.
4. Even after the Euro crisis broke out further incompetence caused an entirely unnecessary recession in 2012 because the rich countries refused to sacrifice to help the poorer ones and the European Central Bank was negligently slow to act to stop the crisis.

 I could go on.

 The EU is also not democratically accountable enough. Unelected commissioners and the anonymous civil service wield large amounts of power too far away from any scrutiny or visibility from the people of Europe. If you dislike the unelected nature of the Monarchy or tthe House of Lords then the unelected power of the EU is far worse. This causes the kind of complacency and arrogance that leads to the mistakes like those I mentioned above.

 The EU is also constantly trying to attract more power to itself. It is natural tendency for every person to think they know best, and for every political body to think it should have more power to decide things. And this applies to the EU as well. But Brussels is for many things the worst body to be in charge because it so much more distant from voters than local councils or their national governments. Of course some decisions are best made on the EU level. But the logic of european institutions is explicitly that of 'ever closer union' and without a counterbalancing force that can only lead to power and decisions being accumulated in Brussels that have no business being there.

 The Conservatives understand all this.

They acknowledge the usefulness of the EU in some cases, and the fundamental nobility of its driving vision of european peace and co-operation, but they realise that it needs deep and significant reform, so it supports economic efficiency, political and cultural diversity and doesn't accumulate powers and take decisions that could be better taken closer to the people they effect, by national states or local councils.

 The Conservatives take a sensible middle-ground between mindless cheer-leading of Brussels and mindless fear and hostility: Sensible, intelligent, experienced, hard-working representatives who support EU measures when they benefit British and other european citizens, but who fight against complacency and for significant reform so the EU offers better value for money, fulfils its potential in terms of benefits, and who fight for greater democracy in the EU and decisions taken closer to the people. The Conservatives also recognise the deep public doubt about the EU and promise a referendum on our membership so ultimately the public can decide, 40 years after anyone in Britain last had a chance to vote on our membership of the EU, as is right in a democracy.

 But this will not be decided by our MEP's, but in parliament. Our MEP's have no say on whether there is a referendum.

 The other parties simply don't offer this.

 1.The Lib Dems are too instinctively pro-EU to properly scrutinise or reform the system. They can barely help but cheer-lead most Brussels measures regardless of content. Until 2010 Lib Dems in the European Parliament and in the House of Commons were still waxing lyrical about the wonders of the Euro and how Britain should join, just as they were 15 years ago. That would have been a disaster for Britain and the same blindness affects their decisions in the european parliament all the time.

 2.Labour have never met a government regulation, or piece of bureaucracy, or governmental power-grab, or tax-hike they didn't like. All the instincts of the modern labour party are in favour of ever-more interference and bureaucracy by 'experts' and against moving power closer to the people. They won't reform the system to make it more streamlined, efficient with money or democratic because they fundamentally don't really believe in any of those things. One only has to look at the Blair and Brown governments to know that is true.

 3. The Greens make good noises about reform but their plans are too often misguided at best and delusional at worst. Their stance is excellent on environmental issues but the EU parliament must consider many other areas and on these their ideas are generally economically illiterate and reflexively statist. To give an example, their manifesto in 2010 supported raising taxes by £170 billion a year, in other words increasing all taxes by a quarter, something that would have devastated the economy and hit all families, including poorer families with a massive tax increase.

 4. UKIP have an irrational hatred of the EU that is out of all proportion to its actual problems. They want to isolate Britain from the world, reject valuable european-wide co-operation on many issues. Even when elected their representatives have the worst record for actually turning up and fighting for Britain. And when they do they vote down every single measure, regardless of benefits to Britain out of spite just because it comes from Brussels. Nigel Farage apparently even dislikes eurovision. The party is also stuffed at the highest levels with rape apologists, racists and homophobes. A party that tells us we should be afraid of people because they are foreign has no place in Britain, and certainly not representing us for the next 5 years.

So vote Conservative tomorrow, Thursday 22nd May 2014, to give our country the best possible MEP's fighting for a better EU for Britain and everyone in Europe.