There’s a saying that politics is show business for ugly people. I never expected that to become a literal truth.
All politics at the moment seems to be ugly. It’s easy enough to trace the threads, some long, snaking way back deep into the last century, others short, knotty and definitely of recent vintage, which have led us here. But what to do about it? That is the question.
I’m a democrat. That is to say, I believe that democracy is essential – it is fundamental to any rights and freedoms we may enjoy. But democracy is not merely a philosophical idea. To work, it needs to be translated into a system and a culture.
Unlike most countries, Britain didn’t create a democratic system by a process of planning. Our ‘unwritten’ constitution has emerged over time as a set of often reluctant responses to changing social and economic circumstances. No rational process would produce an hereditary Head of State, a vast, unelected second chamber, and a voting system for the main chamber which effectively means that elections turn on the votes of very small numbers of the least political engaged swing voters in a tiny number of constituencies. Nor would a rational process have vested so much power in one tier of government, draining power away from any countervailing force of local democracy. To put it bluntly, our system is a stinking mess.
As for our political culture, it has been mutating in unpleasant and unhealthy ways for some time. It was just about tolerable to have a first-past-the-post election system and a two party duopoly when there were mass parties and high levels of political engagement. Now we are fractured, suspicious, openly cynical about the political motives of our opponents, and often lacking in reliable information upon which to base our opinions and choices. We have forgotten that a defining feature of democracy is that it isn’t ‘dictatorship of the majority’, but includes explicit safeguards for minority rights and opinions.
That’s why it has been so easy for a lazy, ill-informed Prime Minister to accede to demands for referendums. Cameron used them much as PMs in the past used Royal Commissions – to kick an irritating issue into the long grass. This time, alas, the ball came back to hit him full-force smack between the eyes. He’d forgotten that plebiscites are a favoured tool of authoritarian governments to confer a veneer of legitimacy on their rule. But unlike authoritarian leaders, Cameron didn’t have the option of stuffing the ballot boxes to ensure the outcome he wanted.
And so we are here. Within a few short weeks we have had an MP assassinated outside her local public library; a referendum campaign which initially bemused people, because it seemed to be irrelevant to most non-Conservatives (I include UKIP in the Conservative ranks); the rampant arrival of post-truth electoral politics on our shores, as both sides went beyond ‘facts’, with one side resorting to blatant lies; and to top it all, we have unapologetic and sometimes violent racism emerging from the shadows. And as a Brexiter said of all this on Any Questions – “Suck it up”.
I have no intention of “sucking it up”. It is poison, and I have no death wish.
So what can be done?
Forget the opposition parties. Tim Farron has said some of what needed to be said by the Leader of the Opposition, but his MPs would all fit into a generously sized family car, so we’re in ‘fine words butter no parsnips’ territory, as John Major might say. The SNP looks pretty grown-up, but they are nationalists with no interest in the larger part of our island. And Labour. Poor, sorry, abject, useless Labour.
The party has lots of members. More than all the other parties put together. So what? We have a parliamentary democracy, and the Parliamentary Labour Party is the Official Opposition in name only. The PLP bears a lot of the blame. The leadership bears more, because that is the role and purpose of leadership.
Let’s just take one issue. It is one close to my heart. The Coalition, and then the Tory government have hacked away at a core element of a free and democratic society – access to the law. Last week there was a vote on further increasing fees to use Employment Tribunals. ETs are a vital safeguard of our rights in the workplace. Since their ‘reforms’ there has been a drop of 80% in those using the tribunals. That’s a massive attack on workers’ rights. And what did Corbyn’s leadership first say on the issue? To abstain in the vote on fees. Abstain? I want to put my head in my hands and crawl under the table in embarrassment. If the Labour leadership can’t even call it right on something so basic, no wonder it has eff all to say about the huge problem of Brexit.
So its down to the rest of us to try to fashion some opposition politics for ourselves. We, ourselves, have to find ways to pressure the government, to be noisy, questioning, difficult, but rational, constructive and above all, honest in holding Theresa May and her party to account.
It’s a big job, and this is a rolling crisis. But it is where we are. We have to stop the ugly people.