An outbreak of anti-election fever
'We are left with a raging national debate over when the general election should be, while the small matter of what that election is actually going to be about passes almost without comment.'
It is obvious why Tory party leader William Hague wants prime minister Tony Blair to rule out a May general election in the UK. The more interesting question is, why do so many others agree with him?
Hague is like a condemned man sitting on death row in the USA, spinning out the appeals process in the desperate hope that, if he can postpone his execution for long enough, he might just get a last-minute reprieve from on high. But for once, he appears to have public opinion on his side. In a Guardian/ICM poll on 22 March 2001, 52 percent of voters said that the election should be postponed during the foot-and-mouth crisis, while 40 percent favoured going ahead.
There is no practical reason for postponing elections because of the foot-and-mouth outbreak. Talk of rural voters being ‘disenfranchised’ is nonsense. Nobody canvasses door-to-door for votes in the countryside anyway (or, increasingly, in the towns), postal votes are now available to all, and the idea of politicians’ campaign buses and helicopters spreading foot-and-mouth around the country is bizarre.
There must be something more behind the swing against a May election. But Hague should not get too excited. The same polls that reveal people want the election postponed also show that New Labour is still well ahead in the contest between the parties. Public support for postponing the election reflects a mood that is not so much anti-Labour as anti-politics.
The message is: ‘This is no time to be playing politics when there are real problems to be dealt with.’ It seems no longer to occur to many people that politics might have anything to do with solving society’s problems. This is not simply, as the Tories sometimes imply, about the countryside feeling isolated from the urban values of Blair’s Britain; after all, the overwhelming majority of disaffected British voters live in urban areas. It reflects a more general feeling that what now passes for politics in Westminster and Whitehall does not touch people’s everyday lives – a feeling that can be detected as strongly in London as in the Lake District.
The Tories are so desperate to find a popular cause that they are prepared to encourage these sentiments, as if somehow they could remain immune from the anti-political backlash. Yet even New Labour has given credence to the idea that politics is irrelevant. Right at the start of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, agriculture minister Nick Brown complained to the Tories that being forced to come to the House of Commons to debate the crisis was a waste of ministerial time.
This week, Tony Blair told the House of Commons that local elections set for May should go ahead – not for reasons of politics or democracy, you understand, but as a PR exercise to help persuade tourists that Britain remains open for business. (I wonder who could have given them the idea that the entire country was in quarantine?)
We are left with a raging national debate over when the general election should be, while the small matter of what that election is actually going to be about passes almost without comment. Voters are being treated as sheep, who can be herded into polling booths without argument whenever the politicians decide that it is time. The government may soon find, however, that corralling people into voting in an election they cannot see the point of proves considerably more difficult than rounding up the beasts of the field for a cull.
Does any of this matter? After all, holding an election in May or any other month is not a matter of principle, and those of us outside the party machines need shed no tears over the public losing patience with the Blairs and Hagues. But there are bigger issues at stake here.
The loss of faith in politics, the current criticisms of everything ‘modern’ from intensified farming to supermarkets, and the way that large areas of national life can effectively be paralysed by an animal disease, are all symptoms of a broader problem. Many people no longer believe in our capacity to control events and change things for the better. It is this fatalistic mood that needs to be challenged, regardless of when the election is held. Otherwise, things can only get worse in Blair’s second term.
In the meantime, a practical proposal. Since UK politicians seem so keen to Americanise politics over here, perhaps they could import the US system of fixed general election dates, which are not subject to the government’s whim and can only be postponed in times of war. Then again, they are already treating foot-and-mouth like a foreign military invasion.
Read more on the Foot-and-mouth issue
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