What I did on polling day

Frank Furedi, Mick Hume, Michael Fitzpatrick and others give their first impressions of a changeable and chaotic election.

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We want to vote, but…
Frank Furedi on public engagement

On my way to the polling station, I kept running into people I recognised through everyday encounters in our small town. We didn’t know very much about each other, and even less about each other’s politics, but we all shared a common predicament: we felt that there was nobody we could positively vote for. Over the past week, most of my arguments have been about which party it is necessary to keep out rather than which one to endorse.

And yet, almost everyone I talked to was keen to get stuck in and to cast his or her vote. People understood that they mustn’t waste a rare opportunity to make their voice heard, but sadly they also felt that, despite their best intentions, their vote was likely to be wasted.

What this election showed me is that there is a real appetite for public engagement; millions of people want to be thought of as responsible citizens. It is important that this potential is harnessed towards a positive purpose. For better or worse, political life is more open and fluid than at any time in recent decades. And I for one think that this is a good time to get stuck in and to ensure that there is a substantial group of open-minded, liberal-thinking upholders of individual autonomy and freedom, of future-oriented people running for office in the next election. Watch this space!

Frank Furedi is author most recently of Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating.

The election that never was
Mick Hume on why all the parties lost

It seems appropriate that an election campaign which never really happened has ended without a definite result, and that three major parties without any political vision or movement behind them have all effectively lost.

More than any other election campaign I have experienced in almost 30 years as a propagandist, this one took place within the closed world of the media. While the great and good got hysterical about those execrable televised leaders’ debates, there was no sense of a political struggle over the future in wider society. The absence of party canvassers and posters from many streets was only one symptom.

Little wonder that the election-that-never-was has ended with no result. Britain is facing a hung parliament, not because as in 1974 the country is divided between staunchly opposed political camps, but because nobody believes in anything very much and no party has any solid support. In a night of arbitrary results, Labour lost a hundred seats, the Tories lost any hope of an overall majority, and the Lib Dems lost the myth of Cleggmania.

Now they are manoeuvring to cobble together a government and get Her Unelected Majesty’s vote for prime minister, while we the electorate are reduced, as people were in those debates, to a silent audience watching it on TV. If that makes you lose the will to live, cheer up – there will surely be another General Election along pretty shortly…

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

An orgy of moralism
Michael Fitzpatrick on the politics of lapdancing

Forget about the recession, Afghanistan and Iraq, the main issues of controversy in the adjacent constituencies in which I live and work (Haringey and Wood Green, Hackney North and Stoke Newington) have been over the applications of failing local pubs to become lapdancing clubs.

These rather sad and sleazy attempts to brighten up our rather dull inner-city streets – as well as providing sorely needed employment – have provoked a furore of political agitation. We have seen the emergence of remarkable alliances among Islamic fundamentalists and evangelical Christians, old feminists and youthful community activists, old Labour and New Labour, new Cameronians and old Thatcherites, all united in a censorious and moralistic frenzy against the burlesque.

I have suggested to various passing canvassers that a radical stand on this issue might reap rich rewards at the polls. But I failed to find a single candidate deserving of a vote on this matter of libertarian principle.

Michael Fitzpatrick is a GP and author based in London.

Talking politics at the schoolgate
Jennie Bristow on policy and personality

It’s been a funny week, standing at the school gates as people trade opinions on whose policy or personality looks best this morning, and feeling rather less engaged and ‘political’ than any other mum. It can look like the election has awakened a new interest in Politics proper – yet the experience has been more like sitting in a committee meeting of a voluntary organisation speculating over the ins and outs of managing a school. Having nothing on the table other than managerial politics, it’s not surprising that this has become the meat and two veg of the discussion, but it’s left me pretty cold.

Debates about the future of our society and our role within that have become earnest but limited discussions about which specific policy proposal might be the most effectively introduced and which individual might be the best person for the job, for now. If there’s an appetite for politics, it is not going to be satisfied with playing this particular General Election game, and the big ideas for the next decade are not going to come from parliament.

Watching the polling booth chaos unfold last night, I was struck by two things. One was that, despite the energy generated around this General Election, officials had not considered that people might actually want to use their vote, and that they should be able to do so. This is so revealing of the contempt for the electorate, and the way that the process of voting is now seen by the political class as an irritating organisational headache.

But I was also struck by the disgruntled wannabe voters whom the BBC interviewed about how they had been turned away from the ballot box. The common complaint was that they had been standing in the rain for a long time; some had kept going home and returning to find the queue still there. The sense of bemusement that voting was not a painless experience for which you get a pat on the back indicates that many people take the democratic mandate rather lightly these days, and become quickly affronted if they are not given good customer service.

Jennie Bristow is a columnist for spiked and author of Standing up to Supernanny.

Style vs substance: a phoney war
Tim Black on the lack of difference

Rarely can an election have been so other than it appeared. If you watched the TV coverage, if you listened to the radio or if you read the papers, it was like encountering another country, one awash with excited chit-chat about the likely outcome or attempts to come to terms with Cleggmania. ‘Who said politics was boring?’ chirruped Today presenter John Humphrys earlier this week.

Yet outside this self-reflecting universe, excited chit-chat, let alone that oxymoronic beast of Cleggmania, was palpably absent. Watching the first televised leaders’ debate with my girlfriend’s dad, a redoubtable man from Dundee, brought this home to me. ‘This is crap’, he said.

Of course, the election wasn’t uninteresting, let alone insignificant. But it was more akin to watching a close football match between two teams, neither of which you support: an inconsequentiality clung to it. This wasn’t for want of the competing leaders trying to tell us how important it was to vote for them and how there were real differences.

Gordon Brown even seemed to make a virtue of his awkwardness, his inability to charm and smarm like the other two, as if that indicated his unique seriousness. But, like the smarmy, charming twosome, Brown seemed to mistake the counterpoint to style, ‘substance’, for inscrutable policy detail. The object of their policies, taken as a whole, was simply given. The necessity of cuts as The Only Way Out Of Recession, even the rightness of the war in Afghanistan, were assumed, not questioned. Debate between the parties was like watching three stereo experts argue about precise technical differences between their hi-Fis. That they were all selling hi-Fis, graphic equalisers or not, was ignored.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

The victory of the Abstention Party
Rob Lyons on turnout

There was one clear winner last night: the Abstention Party. At the time of writing, 623 of the 649 seats that were being contested had declared. The turnout was a miserable 65.1 per cent. True, that’s an improvement on 2001 (59.4 per cent) and 2005 (61.4 per cent). But this was supposedly the ultimate, close-fought election. The leaders’ debates had apparently galvanised the nation.

There were plenty of voices calling for people to vote for ‘the lesser evil’, so it wasn’t even the case that those who did vote were wildly enthused. Yet 35 per cent of those who had registered to vote decided they couldn’t even choose someone on the depressing basis of ‘anyone but the other lot’. Large sections of the electorate, both those who did not vote and those who voted with very little enthusiasm, have been effectively disenfranchised.

Of course, there were clearly problems at a number of polling stations, where people were locked out without being able to cast a ballot. But incompetent organisation cannot explain such a low turnout. The nearest recent comparison to this election was the one in 1992, when 77 per cent turned out to hand John Major’s Conservatives a small overall majority when a hung parliament had been predicted. In a roughly similar situation, 18 years later, there has been a drop of 12 percentage points in turnout. Compared to the overall electorate, the shares of the vote were, roughly: Conservatives: 25 per cent; Labour: 19 per cent; Lib Dems: 15 per cent. On that basis, the Abstention Party wins hands down. But then again, as Mick Hume pointed out on spiked this week, maybe the political class no longer cares.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

The return of civil society?
Josie Appleton on political campaigning

While this election has been the most vacuous and trivial I have ever experienced, there was also an interesting development. Many different campaign groups seemed to have the same simultaneous realisation: we need to produce our own lists. We need to cut across the party lists and produce our own lists, based on the issues we think are important.

Many groups wrote ‘questions for candidates’, testing candidates’ stance on the smoking ban, the Iraq War, growing state surveillance, social progress, or – in the case of the Manifesto Club – on our campaigns for freedom in everyday life. All these campaign groups received back a list of individuals from a variety of different parties (we had a signatory from the Party for Cornwall…).

The triviality of this election was, for me, salutary: that in the midst of recession and with the British army occupying several foreign countries, there could be such obsession with leaders’ camera manners. In my view there are nascent interest groups forming in civil society, particularly around the issue of freedom. The question of the next period is whether there can be new formal political alignments based on civic interest groups.

Waiting for the stories to come
Emily Hill on reporting the election

I should have been prowling from soirée to soirée sinking champagne and shovelling canapés, but it turns out no one really wants a Londoner’s diarist on their official guest list and I’m never any good at walking up to a clipboard Nazi and declaring ‘I’m Margaret Hodge, why the hell aren’t I on the list?’, so here I sit, in pyjamas, doing my best to pick up stories via the photosphere. So far: not much.

And I’m not sure I’ll be up for (the declaration of my favourite fantasy headline of the night) When Brown loses his Balls – if indeed the PM (ex-PM by the time you read this) will be minus a blinking minister. [Unfortunately, Balls held on to his seat. Ed.] You’ve got to love Professor David Starkey who’s just noted that Cleggmania is looking like a busted flush. ‘At least this preposterous idea that the Lib Dems represent anything different has been shot down’, yells Starkey, majestically. ‘They are the direct descendants of the Whigs. And they are as factitious as Blair.’

Regarding the queues to the polling stations, I would quite like to know what time all these voters turned up. If it was at 6pm then it’s an outrage that they couldn’t vote! Outrage! But if great waves of them wafted along at 9.45pm then… well…

And for all the talk of the spectacular turnout, the turnout in the north-east England constituency of Washington appears to be just 54 per cent – barely over half. Is 70 per cent a spectacular turnout? Perhaps it is… I’d be really interested to hear what the rest of spiked’s readers and writers think of the turnout and turn-away factor.

Emily Hill works on the Londoner’s Diary at the Evening Standard.

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