At the recent referendum count, in one, random polling station, a woman pointed her phone at some men sitting around a table, stamping and stuffing ballot papers into an empty box. “I’m filming this,” she said. One of the men glanced up, unconcerned. “And they don’t care.”
That was Turkey, where stuffing ballot boxes, imprisoning journalists, silencing political opponents, stuffing the state broadcaster with political cronies, and all the other crude methods of the autocrat were only just about enough to scrape a narrow 52%-48% result for Putin and Trump’s buddy, Erdogan. Britain is a very different place.
Our election frauds can be uncovered by diligent investigative journalism, examined by the police, and dossiers of evidence prepared by the Crown Prosecution Service. Had Madame May not called a general election, we might now be facing the prospect of a string of awkward by-elections eating in to her slim majority over the next few months. We have the rule of law.
So that means we have free and fair elections, right?
I can vote tomorrow for a metropolitan mayor. The polling station is in the community hall belonging to the local Catholic church. I don’t fear intimidation as I walk up the drive at the side of the church. The women (it’s usually women there) behind the trestle table where I pick up the ballot form won’t be monitoring me for anything other than possession of a polling card. I don’t fear spy cameras recording my voting intentions, and I fully expect my vote to be counted, and the results the next day to represent an accurate tally of votes cast. Free, and fair.
But it doesn’t feel that way. Because there are many ways to skew a system.
In tomorrow’s election, one candidate spent a million pounds on his campaign. There are strict limits on election expenses – but these only kick in once the ‘official’ campaign period has started. He spent the money in advance of that, so it doesn’t count. He was also name-checked on live TV and radio in the run up to the election almost every week, unlike any of the other candidates (on PMQs). Free, and fair.
What’s more, although I shall vote, and not for the Million Pound Man, I feel little investment in the outcome of the election. The role of Mayor carries little power to do anything. In many ways, I know that the outcome might be best for my region if Million Pound Man wins. This isn’t because he’s any good, but I know how this system works, and if Madame May and her Brexit party get their man, they will reward this area, and if they don’t, they will punish us. They’ve been punishing us ever since 2012 when the Tory-Lib Dem local coalition lost control to Labour. All the evidence is that this government treats ‘friendly’ or client local states more favourably than one’s they don’t own. Free, and fair.
Then there’s the voting system. First Past The Post (FPTP). I know the arguments in favour of it, and perhaps they had meaning in the past where we essentially had a two party system in which over 90% of voters voted for one of the two major parties. But partisan alignment has been in a steep decline for years. Most people are no longer ‘born’ into a political tribe, and stick to it for life. Instead, we vote like consumers mesmerised by brands.
It would make much more sense now to acknowledge our fickle political choices by having a proportional representation system. But when did ‘sense’ matter? FPTP suits the brand leader, entrenching their power. Free and fair.
Then there’s our whole political culture. At the moment, it is necessary to keep repeating the fact that democracy is not a “winner takes all” vote, but a wider atmosphere of mutual tolerance and respect for a wide diversity of opinions. Opposition is an honoured and honourable thing in our system – in theory. In practice, this is an age in which demurring from Madame May’s orthodoxy is monstrous insubordination which must be crushed.
For as with a plural political landscape in which the game is rigged to the benefit of the governing party, our plural media environment is also skewed to their side. The top selling newspapers are, righly, free to use their power, but one has the feeling that this is less a matter of the fearlessness of a free press, and more the capricious (and rapacious) whim of off-shore oligarchs who own newspapers. As for the state broadcaster, still the most trusted source of news for most voters, the BBC has to try to operate with a government tightly holding its purse-strings, constantly meddling with its governance, and with a Murdoch man as head of News and Current Affairs, and a former Telegraph and Evening Standard editor heading its top rated radio news programme. No wonder there’s a permanent seat for UKIP on Question Time, and Breitbart people pop up as regular pundits on political shows, as though they were somehow within the ‘normal’ political spectrum.
And all this is about the politics we can see, There is a whole, shadowy world of lobbying and influence-peddling out there. Lobbying used to be about trade organisations and the like trying to get a meeting with a minister to push their sectional interests. That’s now something harmless and innocent from another age. With a hollowed out state, the functions of the civil service are now done by private companies like Capita, Serco, and others. The consultancies like KPMG and PWC slip their people in and out of the Treasury and No.10. Ministers slide from their political jobs into ‘advisory’ roles with the businesses they once favoured. High level politics is something from which most of us are completely excluded. It’s done in Michelin-starred restaurants, super yachts, and private jets. Free, and fair.
I’m not one of the ‘metropolitan elite’, alas. Nor am I a crazed revolutionist wanting to tear down the whole rotten system. My wish, and it doesn’t seem radical to me, is to reform the system, to move from what we have now, to something more open, more transparent, and more clearly reflective of all shades of opinion, and sectional interests. Votes that count for something, politicians who tell the truth, ‘facts’ which don’t come with ‘alternatives’, and news that isn’t fake.
Free and fair. Is that really to much to ask?