Two weeks from today, those who come under the designation of British will take to the polls to vote for the Members of the UK Westminster Parliament. There are exceptions to this of course, such as those who have already voted by post or by proxy, and those who won’t see the point in participating at all.
The number of people who end up lumped into the inaccurately labelled category of ‘apathetic voters’ is substantial, a phenomenon common in mature political democracies the world over. This often elicits protestations that the disengaged and disaffected should spoil their ballots rather than abstain, or that there is some sort of moral imperative to cast a ballot due to the sacrifices of those that have come before. These tired old arguments come around like the seasons, and have little discernible effect. The simple truth for many is that there is little point in taking even a symbolic stand if you don’t believe there is any real prospect of change.
This time may be different.
It can be easy to forget in amongst the laboriously prosaic campaigning, but this time we find ourselves at a genuinely exciting moment in British political history – whatever the outcome of the election may be. The old assumptions and expectations have been broken down in a way that few people would ever have predicted.
One of my earliest memories relating to the general election that didn’t just involve getting the day off school was when Tony Blair’s New Labour party were seeking to gain power from John Major’s Conservatives in 1997. The Daily Record displayed a headline that stated: ’18 Reasons We Need a Fresh Breath of Blair’, one for each year the Tories had been in power.
Back then it seemed like there might be real change afforded by voting for Labour, but of course, that seems almost laughable now. What was on offer was nothing more than the illusion of something different; a choice between two barely indistinguishable parties, cloaked in rhetoric and false promises. This was just the other side of the coin in a bleak partisan system where nothing really transformative ever took place. Nowhere else was this more keenly felt than in Scotland, where each successive election just seemed to confirm that voting had no impact upon the actual result.
Now, things seem fundamentally different. The far right has inevitably smartened up enough to present itself as a credible threat in the form of UKIP and Nigel Farage, simultaneously managing to make the Tories appear more rational, whilst also pulling them to promise more extreme action. The Lib Dems have all but completely extinguished their relevance as anything other than a party designed to prop up whoever is in power at any given time and needs a hand – the Parliamentary equivalent of a temp agency. Labour are having an existential crisis, faced with a complete meltdown in their traditionally safe heartlands… and not only do we now have televised debates, but the Greens and Plaid Cymru are represented on there as well (though why Patrick Harvie wasn’t included in Scotland is still a mystery).
Even the ever dependable First Past the Post system, so desperately lauded by the mainstream parties for its ability to produce sizeable majorities (and therefore allegedly ‘stable’ governments) has failed to achieve even that basic task. The irony of that is compounded by the fact that not only do we have a popular SNP government in Edinburgh, but that they have a majority under a proportional system designed specifically to prevent such a scenario from taking place. Ouch.
It should not be underestimated how fascinating all of this is, especially when we remember the situation that our American friends are still trapped in. However, sadly the details are at risk of being nothing more than window dressing if it doesn’t actually have the potential to produce real change for people. Whether the Greens are getting on TV a bit more often is irrelevant if it remains the case that they cannot garner enough nationwide support to be in a position to actually make an impact. For many across the UK, this is still the reality they are faced with when deciding how to vote. This is not the case for those of us in Scotland.
One of the main underlying issues around the debate over Scottish independence was a dissatisfaction with the status quo; a rejection of the helplessness of the Westminster system that favoured those already in positions of power. People were fed up of being stuck with the Hobson’s choice between red or blue – though it is extremely generous of me to imply that the Tories were ever actually really an option. For many who voted yes, there was a crushing resigned fear that the result would signify a return to the old situation, but it hasn’t. Rather than doggedly stick to supporting a single party in a system that offers no alternatives, for once we are able to vote in such a way that not only will it actually count, but in a way that could also bring about a genuine shift in politics across the UK. Hell, arguably it’s already happened.
For the first time, our ballot feels like it actually matters again, and that those in Westminster are having to sit up and take notice. You can’t tell the Scottish people that they will be better as part of the United Kingdom and then expect them to not want a seat at the head table.
Image of Tony Blair and George Bush is in the public domain.
Image of Nigel Farage from Euro Realist Newsletter used under Creative Commons licence.
Image of Nicola Sturgeon from the Scottish Government used under Creative Commons licence.
Image of ‘Scotland Place – Westminster’ by me.