Election 2005: we do have a choice
...but it's not about which party to vote for.
After he finally told us what everybody already knew – that the UK General Election would be on 5 May – prime minister Tony Blair assured his opponents in parliament that, ‘It is a big choice, and I can’t wait till the public make it’.
The reality, of course, is that there is so little meaningful choice on offer in this election that many members of the public have already made the choice to ignore the campaign and not to bother voting. It is as if the election campaign were taking place in a parallel place – Mediaworld, perhaps – where it hardly touches the everyday lives of those whom it is supposed to be addressing.
Blair’s claim about there being a ‘big choice’ between New Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats is a prime example of how the concept of political choice has been cheapened and trivialised. The choice we are being offered is essentially of the small and insignificant sort that consumers face in the supermarket, between differently branded packages of the same bland product.
The Tories gave the game away a little while ago when they claimed to be offering the electorate ‘Ronseal politics’, named after the wood preservative product which, as the adverts claim, ‘does exactly what it says on the tin (see Who would choose ‘Ronseal politics’?, by Mick Hume). What was once the party of Nation and Empire is now reduced to touting itself as the political equivalent of a tin of varnish. Little wonder that the self-appointed consumer watchdog Which? (formerly the Consumers’ Association) has just announced plans to start rating government ministers and departments in performance league tables, as they do with washing machines or cars. One report of this development wryly observed that, back in 1957, the first issue of Which? magazine ‘included an assessment of cake mixes’. Such are the depths to which notions of political choice and democratic accountability have sunk.
Many voters (indeed more than will vote for any party) are set to conclude that such choices are not worth the bother. It is hard to blame them for that. The trouble is that, in the process, the very idea of making political choices, of attempting to determine our own future, is being denigrated. This disengagement might not pose an immediate problem for a political elite which can carry on regardless; sullen resentment is not the same thing as revolution, after all. But it is a big problem for any of us concerned about engaging people in a debate about changing society.
There is a pressing need to establish that making political choices – and acting on them – can mean something very different from the empty spectacle of the current UK election campaign, or of the recent US presidential poll. The entire development of human society, from the caves to something approaching civilisation, can in one sense be seen as a momentous struggle for greater choice. Progress has been about creating the material and social conditions in which people are able to exercise more control and have more freedom.
The decisive moments of modern history have involved people making big choices about the sort of society they want to live in – or, at least, about the sort of society they don’t want to live in. The English Revolution of the seventeenth century, the American and French Revolutions of the eighteenth century, the Russian Revolution of the twentieth, the fall of the Berlin Wall and other political and social crises of modern times were all about historic choices. Are you for the King or the People, for order or freedom, for Left or Right – and are you prepared to fight for it? These were the sort of choices that meant something, and that moved people. They highlight the banality of the petty choices on offer in elections today. But they also suggest that it doesn’t have to be that way.
This is not about being nostalgic, or fantasising about somehow re-running history. The question for today is: how do we go about putting real political choices about the future on the agenda for debate? It is not a matter simply of sitting around dreaming up some ideas, some sort of a ‘vision thing’ that can inspire people out of the blue. The best brains in the mainstream political parties have all tried that, and look what they have come up with. It is always worth reminding ourselves that New Labour’s self-made visionary offerings include the Millennium Dome and the plans for regional assemblies. A similar fate awaits any attempt to invent a new vision for society among the members of a political clique over a café latte.
No, what is needed in the first place is a more basic case for political choice. The problem today is not just that the parties do not offer any real choices. It is that the very idea of people making meaningful decisions about their destiny is derided. Indeed, alongside the constant prattle about expanding consumer choice, the overriding message today is that we already have ‘too many’ choices about how we live, ‘too much’ freedom to do, say eat or drink what we want to, and that ‘too much’ wealth is being produced, to the detriment of the environment and the planet. This widespread misanthropic attitude to the benefits of human advancement makes it all-but impossible for anybody to offer a proper future-oriented choice about how society could develop further. This is the deep-seated prejudice that needs to be tackled before we can talk about specific choices in a way that means anything.
In a world where people are seen primarily as vulnerable victims rather than self-determining agents, and where the only thing capable of bringing people together appears to be mourning a death, there can be no significant choices beyond questions such as how many more police, therapists and health-and-safety inspectors do we need to employ. In a world where it is assumed that the future is an increasingly dangerous place against which we must protect ourselves, there can be no real choice beyond how far we hold back development, and how high we build the precautionary walls around our global gated community.
The historic undermining of any notion of human self-determination has brought us to the dead-end of Ronseal politics and Mr Blair’s pathetic version of a ‘big choice’. Nothing that happens in this election campaign is likely even to address that problem, never mind resolve it. Those of us who want to see genuine choices about the future of society put back on the agenda for debate can use the election campaign to challenge the assumptions behind this desperate state of affairs, but we need to be looking way beyond 5 May.
That was why spiked organised our conference, Whose Choice Is It Anyway?, in London last month. It is why we aim to get involved in some post-election initiatives around these themes. Whatever you choose to do on election day, take sides with the movement for human self-determination.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
spiked-issue: Election 2005
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