It may have escaped your attention, but there is a general election coming up. It’s been kept very quiet in the media, there’s been hardly a whisper of it in the news and there’s been very little electioneering from any of the main parties. However, on May 6 we are going to be asked to go to our local church hall, school or community centre and put a little cross in a box to decide who will be in charge for the next 5 years.
This is important stuff. Democracy is at the heart of our whole western political belief system. People have fought and died to give us all the right to vote: much is rightly made of the suffragette movement which gave women the right to vote in 1928, but up until the end of the nineteenth century most men were excluded from voting too, it was only landed gentry that got any say in the running of the country.
I know all of this, but still I find it hard to care. I feel guilty about it and I try to take an interest, but I can’t help it: I just find the whole electoral process very confusing and too dull to make the effort to work it out.
My confusion comes from the sheer number of elections that seem to be held. Okay, on May 6th it is a general election; I get that. But what about all of the local and borough elections that go on? They seem to happen with monotonous regularity, generally seem to involve different people and I’m never clear who actually has responsibility for what. How are they not just tripping over each other all of the time?
As elections approach I increasingly find my doormat loaded with red, blue and orange flyers full of tales of earnest people who are suddenly very keen to chat with me about my views. These leaflets are full of stories of their good works and/or horror stories about what their rivals are up to. And here comes my main bug bear and source for disenfranchisement: I live in Brockworth, a suburb of Gloucester. I consider myself to be a Gloucester man and I am deeply interested in the city where I was born and have lived my whole life. However, when it comes to elections I have to vote as part of Tewkesbury Borough Council. To vote for things that concern me in Gloucester I would need to move house by about 200 yards to the west.
These leaflets are therefore full of issues affecting Tewkesbury: a very nice little town, but one I hardly ever visit and have very little interest in. TBC also sweeps up a rag-tag collection of other apparently random boroughs from across Gloucestershire. If I lived in, or even near to, the relevant areas I may be extremely anxious about my prospective MP’s stance on flood defences for Tewkesbury, home building in Uckington or the state of the waste site at Stoke Orchard, but even if I could bring myself to take an interest in these no doubt important issues, how relevant are they to a general election?
Surely what I should be interested in here are the Government’s views on crime, taxation, monetary policy, immigration and our relationships with Europe and the US; whether we are going to be forced to buy more banks or close down all of the schools and hospitals; how we are going to defend our country, which other countries we are going to defend or pick fights with and how are we going to manage and equip our forces to do this; and a whole raft of other big picture issues.
And so we come to the final problem, which is best summed up by a quote from Tony Benn: “There are millions of people in Britain who are uneasy with the choice offered between two parties who agree on so much and argue so poorly on the alternatives.”
In the old days it was easy: the decision between Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock was unlikely to have you sitting on the fence. Both the policies and personalities were radically opposed. The move of politics into the centre has largely seen the removal of the loony left and fascist right as viable political options, which must be a good thing. But it has also seen the removal of anything that feels like passion and genuine belief. Party leaders are bland and appear careful to say not what they strongly believe in, but what they think the electorate are likely to vote for. It all results in a situation where I find myself agreeing with both parties on different issues. In short, what I would like is to vote on policies individually in a sort of multiple choice pick and mix.
Hopefully, by the time May 6th arrives I will have come to some kind of decision and I will be there in the little booth in the community centre putting my cross against my chosen candidate, but I suspect my heart won’t really be in it.