Elections used to be rowdy affairs. Politicians held meetings in the street, went on walkabouts, shaking hands with unvetted passers-by, kissing babies who bawled their protest. Getting pelted with eggs was quite normal for a politician. Prime Minister Ted Heath had a pot of red paint chucked over him by a young woman in Downing Street, back then a normal London thoroughfare down which any citizen could stroll. Heckling was normal, abusive heckling an occupational hazard, and flying fists not unknown. Elections could be electric, dangerous.
The good old days? They were good, not because of incivility, or affray. The joy of a little bit of chaos is that this is how the philosophical basis of democracy was modelled to voters in the most demotic way. Democracy as debate, disagreement, robust argument. Facts were facts, without alternatives, news was news, not fake, and separate from opinion in our newspapers. In local hustings meetings, anyone could turn up and ask questions, and all candidates, from the British Union of Fascists to the Communists, could sit alongside Conservative, Labour, and Liberal rivals as of right. This is idealising the past, but not excessively. Most people, in their guts, understood that a variety of views was not only permissible, but desirable. It was how the system worked, how social solidarity was sustained.
Elections today certainly don’t feel like that. The voters are expected to be passive, except in designated sports arenas, chaired by a Dimbleby. Parties try to game the system, but it’s a rigged game, with money heaped upon one side only. Social media is not like yelling in the street, because on Twitter only your own side can hear you scream.
This feels like voting. It doesn’t feel like democracy.
The 2017 General Election has been called, so says Theresa May, so that a Tory government with a solid mandate for Brexit can show its strength in negotiations with those who are still our EU partners, and will remain neighbours in perpetuity. What contemptuous nonsense.
Britain was pretty evenly divided at the referendum, and a government with a slim majority and a fractious opposition seems like exactly the right reflection of the “will of the people”. Humility and cooperation might have better respected the vote – had the referendum vote been a democratic one.
I’m not disputing the fact that the larger portion of the electorate, 37% in total, voted the Leave the EU. It is the ‘Winner Takes It All’ mentality which needs to be challenged. That mindset is profoundly anti-democratic. It assumes that all other strands of opinion are not legitimate. It permits no space for further discussion, for nuanced thought, for people to look at how things develop, and even to change their minds.
That’s the atmosphere in which this election is taking place. Democracy? Don’t make me laugh. This is the Coronation of Queen Theresa by popular acclaim of her humble subjects. Her peers are not the likes of Angela Merkel, a wily politician, but plainly a cooperator, not a control freak. Does May really want to place herself alongside Putin and Erdogan? She held Trump’s hand. She also appears to hold his plain, partisan contempt for political opponents.
Parliament was prorogued only this week. The candidates have not yet been selected. The manifestos (at least all but the Tory one, one supposes) have yet to be written. The official campaign won’t start for a couple of weeks. And yet….
And yet this feels like an election without democracy. The winner has been chosen, the scale of the victory decided, and the front pages written. They are the masters now.