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Thursday, 23 January 2014

Blunkett vs Brand

In the keynote address at the first Good Society Lecture of 2014 held by The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) David Blunkett argued that the "rantings" of comedians like Russell Brand are dangerous as they may deter young people from voting. How right is he? Is this really the thing that discourages us from voting or is it the politicians themselves?

According to Brand politicians are "untrustworthy and irrelevant." He claims "I'm angry because for me it's real. This is what I come from.... There is going to be a revolution." So says the multi millionaire with a house in California, but even his inquisitor Jeremy Paxman thinks he has a point, describing the political choice in this country as "unappetising" and adding "It won't be a bombshell if very large numbers of the electorate simply don't bother to vote. People are sick of the tawdry pretences."

Blunkett claims that Brand risks "undermining democracy" by encouraging people not to vote, but is he really that influential or does the solution lie elsewhere? I have some alternative ideas as to why people might stay away from the ballot box but first a few facts: In the last 50 years voter turnout in the UK has fallen from 77.1% to 65.1% although this is an improvement on the low of 59.4% in 2001. This compares unfavourably to 79.5% in France and a European average of around 70%. So why don't more of us exercise this most important of democratic rights?

For most people there may seem little point. In 2010 there was a 5.6% swing from labour, one of its worst ever results, but only 118 of the 532 contested seats changed hands i.e. the people living in less than a quarter of all constituencies actually determined the result. The elected MP had a winning majority of less than 6% in just 111 seats. I experience this myself as I live within a very safe Conservative seat. Even in the days of the large Labour majority my local politician won by over 4,000 votes so does my vote matter? If I don't want to vote Conservative should I tactically vote for UKIP despite my abhorrence for their political viewpoint? Unappetising indeed.

This is something that is unlikely to change for at least a generation. The two largest political parties will not support electoral reform, not because they don't think it would be more democratic, but because it is not in their interests, and if I start on the issue of an unelected second chamber then it will be me ranting!

Politician fatigue. The expenses scandal - claims for duck houses, clearing moats and tuning pianos amongst other things - showed politicians to be the amoral, self-interested, profiteering low lifes that most of them are. Their routine defence? They didn't do anything outside the rules. Well, maybe not, but surely they can see that didn't make it right? Don't think this has stopped either. Figures show that MP's claimed a total of £98m in 2012/13 a big increase on the £95.4m in 2008/09. "Snouts" and "troughs" spring to mind.

More soundbite than substance. The immediacy of social media, particularly Twitter, make the snappy one liner more important than ever before. So important in fact that it may be difficult for a politician to be successful without mastering this aspect of their performance. Is this at the expense of there actually being something behind the rhetoric? Watching PM questions I suspect so.

The rise of the career politician. Speaking personally I want to feel that our politicians have lived and worked in the real world before being elected. I'm very uncomfortable with the number who have never worked away from the political arena as "Special Advisers". In it together? I think not.

"Lies, damned lies, and statistics." Mark Twain had it right. Why can't they give a straight answer to a question or express a personal opinion? Instead they quote statistics at each other or fall back on claiming that however bad things look, they would look worse if the other party was running things. Tiresome. This might explain why Boris Johnson is so popular. He may seem ridiculous on occasion but at least he actually says something and lets you know what he thinks.

Is it symptomatic of a lack of engagement in society in general? I'm not sure "the good old days" ever actually existed but are we now less likely than before to see ourselves as part of a larger society or community? Would we break up a fight or check on elderly neighbours? No doubt opinions vary.

Technology. Why can't we vote on-line? We already do so many things on the internet that depend on establishing our identity, such as banking or completing tax returns. Why can't we add voting? I've no idea if this would improve the turnout or not, but surely it couldn't hurt?

Whatever the reason, however pointless it may seem, I would argue that the opportunity to vote is both a right and a social responsibility and irrespective of political persuasion would urge everybody to have their say in who governs our country. Even if they do vote for the Monster Raving Loony Party!

Written by Mike Gamble: Director JEM Retail Consultants

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