Second-preference politics

The really embarrassing thing is that the clownish Ken’n’Boris show in London appears to be the best that British democracy can offer.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics UK

There are two kinds of electoral frauds to worry about in the run-up to this week’s UK local elections and London mayoral contest. One is the spread of corruption and malpractice highlighted in a big report from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. The other, more important, fraud is the attempt to persuade us that these choice-free contests between celebrities and elite factions are real democratic elections.

The Rowntree report highlights the fraudulent practices of inventing ‘ghost’ voters (by simply filling in false names on the electoral register form that comes through the door), and of effectively stealing postal votes. The rise of vote-rigging is itself a result of the government’s degradation of democracy.

In recent years, public disaffection with politics has led to a fall in voter turnout. The response of the authorities was not to give people something worth voting for, but to make voting an easier and more meaningless process, like paying the gas bill. New Labour introduced postal voting on demand, and floated other schemes such as polling booths in supermarkets, elections on Saturdays, lowering the voting age, and allowing people to vote by internet or even text. The results of this just-get-bums-on-seats attitude to democracy were predictable. In cheapening the meaning of the vote, the authorities made it easier for fraudsters to buy and sell elections. The report notes that officials’ response to these problems, highlighted by high-profile prosecutions for electoral fraud, has been marked by ‘not simply complacency but denial’.

The other electoral fraud is being covered up by a far wider attitude of denial across the political class. Democracy cannot just be about the right to put a tick in a box and fair electoral procedures. It must involve giving people a genuine political choice about how they want to see society led into the future. Such a choice is entirely absent from this week’s polls.

The contest to be London mayor is the centrepiece of these elections. Unusually for a British election, it involves a transferable system where voters are asked to express a second preference as well as a first one; in the likely event that nobody secures an outright majority of first preferences, these second-preference votes will come into play. This provides an unintended symbol of the state of the entire political system.

We are living in an age of second-preference politics. Every election appears as a choice between lesser evils, there is no real popular dynamic or enthusiasm behind any politician or party, few could name a positive reason to back a candidate, and the only real energy seems to come from media ‘anti-‘ campaigns, be it the London Evening Standard’s crusade to Get Ken or the Guardianistas’ attempt to Stop Boris.

Ken Livingstone’s early insistence that the mayoral contest was ‘not Celebrity Big Brother’ has been proved true, only in the sense that it has been even less substantial and enlightening than that TV circus. That the personalities of the candidates have been so much to the fore need not necessarily be a problem – it takes a big character to make an effective mayor of a big city. But in the bunfight between ‘Ken’n’Boris’ those personalities have become entirely detached from politics. To judge by the purple ‘VOTE FOR LONDON KEN’ posters in their windows, one might think that the activists where I live had all left Labour and joined the Ken Party.

So the big rows in the campaign have not been about politics at all, but about allegations of scandal, or the candidates’ personal lives, or attempts to establish their guilt by association with extremists of one stripe or another. It is a telling sign of the times that the less political these debates have been, the more interest and attention they appear to have attracted; the less light they throw on what a future mayor might actually do, the more heat they have generated in the media.

With more Londoners following the ups and downs of the Ken’n’Boris show, in much the same way that they might keep an eye on the mood swings in a reality TV show, it is possible that the turnout might be up this time from the pretty dismal figures in Livingstone’s first two elections – turnouts of 33.7 per cent and 35.9 per cent respectively. No doubt that would please the bums-on-seats democrats. But what would those votes really represent, in terms of a democratic choice about the future of London? Whoever wins, the elitist cliques of advisers and consultants will get in.

The worst of it is, however, that the London mayoral contest is apparently the best that UK politics has to offer today, the brightest star in the British political sky. Beyond the capital, the local elections appear to offer even more grey and gristly fare than usual, where the only reason candidates can give people to vote is in order to ‘stop the British National Party’. This, let us remember, is Gordon Brown’s first big electoral test since becoming prime minister last year. It ought to be a battle to save his authority. Yet, not for the first time in his political career, Brown has gone missing from the frontline, seemingly having given up without a fight. If he cannot work up any energy or enthusiasm for the local elections, why should anybody else? The pundits predict that the ‘best’ New Labour can hope for on Thursday is that the results will not be as terrible as the grim opinion polls predict. It speaks volumes that Brown’s one hope of success is that Livingstone might hang on to his London fiefdom, despite despising and having almost nothing in common with the leader of the Ken Party.

Against this background, David Cameron’s Conservatives are ahead in most national polls. Yet without the political vision to inspire support, there is no real impetus or solid movement behind them either – they are far short, for example, of where Tony Blair’s New Labour was during the declining years of the last Tory government. And a victory for the loose cannon that is Johnson in the mayoral election would be as mixed a blessing for Cameron as a Livingstone win would be for Brown.

It is hard to know which is more bizarre: that the man who has acted as the Miserabilist of London for the past eight years and is the ostensible Labour candidate still has a chance of winning when the party is in meltdown, or that a Tory celebrity clown is the bookies’ favourite to become mayor of our capital city. We are left with a spectacle that is more embarrassing than any Boris gaffe, a fraudulent pretence of democracy that is not good enough for London or anywhere else. The emergence of politicians-without-politics, and of PR machine parties without core support, has made the electoral system more arbitrary and fickle and hard to predict, especially in a demographically dynamic city such as London. Thus the polls have seemed to be going haywire, swinging first this way, then that. It might make things appear more superficially ‘exciting’. But it also points up the rather depressing truth that few voters really care either way – and with justification.

Under the electoral system used in London, a second-preference vote will only be counted if it is given to one of the two leading candidates. Yet recent polls suggest that Brian Paddick, the see-through Liberal Democrat candidate, could receive more second-preference votes than Johnson and Livingstone combined, while the Green candidate could get as many as either of them. A first-class democracy in the twenty-first century deserves something better than second-preference politics.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume saw in the celebrity mayor show a snapshot of contemporary politics. Manifesto Club members offered some words of advice for the London Mayor. Because of his support for the MMR vaccine, Boris Johnson gets Mike Fitzpatrick‘s backing. Brendan O’Neill labelled Ken Livingstone London’s PC Despot. Josie Appleton slammed Red Ken’s green tyranny. Neil Davenport saw some sense in Boris Johnson’s criticism of the Macpherson Inquiry. Or read more at spiked issue British Politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


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