It seems fitting to be writing something in the lead up to the 2017 election, because my political awakening began thirty years ago during the 1987 general election. My primary school teacher organised a mini-election, and I was one of the candidates. The other kids were focused on issues like school or general kid stuff, while I took it quite seriously and seem to remember coming up with a manifesto that was broadly of a social democratic nature. I remember being glued to the TV that year to watch the election results, a tradition I still continue with today – but now I’m old enough to stay up late enough to watch all the results!
My family has never been particularly political, but I come from a background that consists of a mix of working class Labour and working class Conservative. I think that mix helped me to gain a broader view of different political views, and gave a good foundation that lead me to my current outlook. Because my family has a history of working at the local car factory, I was introduced to the concept of unions at an early age, although not necessarily in a positive way – with more interest in power and greed, than a genuine interest in protecting and supporting workers.
The first election I voted in was the 1997 election, the one that ushered in “New” Labour and Tony Blair. I was finishing off university at the time. It’s funny that many people state how much different things looked back then and how no one guessed what would happen, but our university’s Labour party was actively campaigning for people not to vote Labour. They didn’t trust Blair, and they predicted that Labour would ditch free higher education, introduce tuition fees, and remove assisted places that allowed poorer students to attend private schools. Essentially, they made education two tier: one for the rich, one for the poor. Amazing how many people I know think tuition fees were a Coalition idea!
I don’t really remember which party I voted for. I think it was the Liberal Democrats, but might have been the Conservatives. To be honest, my decision was really down to the local candidate rather than any specific party manifesto, which highlights a problem with our election system in the UK: what are we voting for?
Strictly speaking, you’re voting for your representative in Parliament – not a party, not a prime minister, but a representative (although that representative usually belongs to a party). Most people I speak to have no idea who their MP is, because they voted for a party or they voted for a prime minister. The party with the most representatives becomes the government, but they might not have the most number of votes. In addition, first past the post was really only a reasonable system when there were two parties.
In multi-party politics, the system breaks down rapidly and you have a Parliament that doesn’t represent the voters. It’s lead to distrust of the system and voter apathy, because most seats are safe ones where your vote probably won’t count. It leads to government claiming a clear and democratic mandate, even when only a quarter of voters agreed with them. It means things like the SNP gaining almost every seat in Scotland but only half the votes, or UKIP being the third largest party in the UK (12.7% of votes) but gaining 1/650th of the seats. The system is geared up for a monopoly by two parties. So yeah, I’m in favour of voting reform – but Labour and the Conservatives are never going to change something which benefits them greatly. Indeed, the Conservatives are banking on this heavily in the coming election to increase their majority.
Anyway, I digress. Until last year I was definitely a floating voter: I would weigh up the pros and cons of the parties and the local candidates, and make a considered decision. Yes, I’m one of the few who do that! I would always vote, and always came up with a decision that didn’t rely on tactical voting. No matter how bad the voting system is, I wanted to say I voted the way I wanted to – not the way imposed by an unfair system. My vote might not directly influence the election, but electoral analysis would hopefully highlight how ridiculous the system is. And the good news is that as elections become less and less representative, the tide of public opinion is changing.
So what happened last year? Well, actually the initial shift in my stance wasn’t down to a certain referendum. It was actually the IP Bill, or “Snooper’s Charter”. Despite all the publicity, most of the general public had no idea about what it involved, or that it was even happening. That’s okay, because most MPs had no idea either. Corbyn and the Labour party were so enraged about the draconian approach of the bill… that they voted for it. Go figure. I’m convinced Corbyn has made a secret pact with the Conservatives given how much he seems to back them (three-line whip on a hard Brexit anyone?).
The Lords, with some notable exceptions, had a bit more of a clue as to what was going on and why it was bad – but then again, that’s one of the many reasons the government want to get rid of them. Too much long-term scrutiny! This would’ve blocked things… except Labour peers decided to back the bill at the last minute, despite saying they disagreed with it.
After the IP Bill, I considered taking a look at joining a political party. Even though the Liberal Democrats seemed to be the only ones actively fighting the legislation, in both the Commons and Lords, I looked at the Pirate Party first as a natural choice. However, much as I agree with their views on privacy and civil liberties, there were many deal breakers in other aspects of their manifesto. There’s also the issue that the UK party is unlikely to achieve any electoral impact in the near future. I put the issue to one side, until the EU referendum result.
The EU referendum was always going to be a disaster, no matter who won. It was a ridiculous idea to distill something so complex and nuanced to a binary choice. Worse, there was no way to educate the public to the pros and cons in such a short period of time – especially as the bulk of the UK media has been running an active anti-EC/EU narrative for almost forty years. Likewise, we elect Eurosceptic (Europhobic?) MEPs who dutifully enjoy the gravy train, vote against everything, and fail to attend meetings that could assist… ooh, let’s say things like the British fishing industry.
I came into it as someone on the fence about the EU. I like the EEA a lot, whereas I was 50:50 about the EU, but that was mainly because it’s difficult to get accurate information in the UK about what the EU does until you go looking for it. So I took the approach that I should fact check the campaigns, which frankly were both incredibly dire. I actually started off with the civil service report into what could happen if we left the EU. I think it was written in 2013 and should’ve been more widely promoted as it was a fairly even-handed look at the pros and cons.
I then started off fact-checking the Leave campaign. It seemed like the ideal starting point as some of the things being said didn’t quite add up, or had a conspiratorial tone. And I love reading conspiracy theories, even if I don’t believe them. So that’s what I did: I took things Leave were saying and went off and researched them… and they didn’t stand up to scrutiny. Worse, it seemed that people I knew were hearing things from Leave and extrapolating: I genuinely heard people saying that Iraq and Syria were joining the EU; or that perpetual myth that supermarkets in the UK only sold straight bananas (I’ve only seen curved ones, so not sure where they shop); and we’ll ignore the £350m they implied would go to the NHS.
It was also apparent that no one knew exactly what a vote to leave would trigger. Was it just the EU, or the EEA as well? Were we voting for a Norwegian option, a Swiss option, a Liechtenstein option, or a Canadian option? Not entirely sure when Canada was part of the European community, but still. Everyone heard what they wanted to hear, which is exactly how the campaign was run and was successful (just!). Or maybe it was because none of the Eurosceptics who had spent the last 40 years overthrowing the 1975 “democratic will of the people” actually knew what they wanted to achieve either?
The result was a surprise, but not completely unexpected, and I was neither angry nor upset about it as such. What interested me was how quickly MPs who backed Leave couldn’t get away from the result fast enough: there was practically a stampede to evacuate before the last votes were counted. The backtracking commenced just as quickly. No one wanted to take responsibility for the outcome – surely this was the moment they’d spent most of the careers trying to achieve?
The anger that came was not about the result, but the lack of responsibility taken by those who brought about the decision. Did no one have a plan? Apparently not, when people in charge of Brexit are having to ask what the Customs Union is, or how the European Health Insurance Card works. Members of the public were even crowdfunding legal action, because no one could answer whether the process was being run according to UK law! The ineptitude and ignorance has been astounding, and inexcusable given how long they’ve had to prepare.
So I decided to do something about it. Not just for myself, or for the other “48%” who no longer had a voice in the decision, or for the members of the “52%” who are being taken on a “hard Brexit” journey they didn’t vote for, but for the sake of the UK. From personal experience, the “betrayed 52-ers” are the ones most opposed to Brexit now: even more than those of us labelled “traitors”, “saboteurs”, or just plain “remoaners”.
The Liberal Democrats were the only major party that got a clear response to the Leave vote sorted out early, and have remained consistent since. They are pro-EU; want a democratic vote on the final Brexit deal; they were the only significant party to oppose the IP Bill and other erosion of our civil liberties and privacy; and their vision of an open, tolerant and united Britain is one I agree with. Labour have failed dismally since Corbyn took over: they seem to make token noises about opposing the Conservatives, then go all in to back them.
I’m under no illusion that the Lib Dems are going to sweep to victory in the election, but they could replace Labour as an effective opposition. Having said that, we’ve seen conventional politics turned on its head recently. Anything can happen, especially if people who don’t normally vote were to turn up at the polls. A third of people didn’t vote in the last election: by my calculation, that’s more than voted for the Conservatives. Those voters could’ve collectively reordered the entire result: imagine if they’d all voted Lib Dem or Green.