Well, I’m nothing if not topical…
I wanted to write something on this more than a month ago, but my lack of net access pushed it on to the back burner until now. However, this month’s Liberator contained several articles on these things, which have brought everything back to mind.
The first thing to say is that the BNP’s success in the Euro elections was *very* easily avoidable. The fact is, the only parties that actually treated the Euro election as a serious one were the BNP, racist UKIP, and the Greens. They’re the only parties that did *any* campaigning worthy of the name.
Which is not to say that individuals in those parties didn’t do anything – they did. But I could probably name every single person in South Manchester who did any campaigning at all for the Lib Dems – I would be *shocked* if it was more than thirty in total – and what was done was remarkably half-hearted.
Now that makes sense in a party with a limited budget – you have to choose your battles – but the fact is that despite what people like Rupert Reed (who complained vociferously that the Lib Dems said in a leaflet that he couldn’t win, and then he didn’t win) think, the election wasn’t a contest between parties, but *should* have been an attempt to get out any voters at all. Something like a third of the country voted, and if the proportions of support are broadly the same throughout the population as they were among voters, any of the big three parties could have had a landslide had they got out *all* their vote (and the smaller ones could have got many more MEPs if they had). The problem was we didn’t try hard enough to get out our vote.
But also, one thing I heard time and again when calling people or door-knocking was that people weren’t going to vote at all, because of the expenses row.
Now, like a lot of people I was not actually all *that* bothered by the MPs expenses row, because compared to getting us involved in two unwinnable wars for no good reason, destroying rights that have lasted centuries , destroying the welfare state, encouraging racism for political gain, torture, the wholesale funneling of billions of pounds of public money into the hands of incompetent private contractors, mismanagement of the economy on an epic scale and the continued existence of David Blunkett, fiddling the expenses seems such a trivial crime that to complain about it would be like telling the Elephant Man his new haircut didn’t suit him.
I also didn’t think it really affected the Lib Dems in this election, because Chris Davies, the incumbent Lib Dem MEP, had a cast-iron record on fighting corruption in the European Parliament, while John Leech, the local MP in the area I was canvassing, is in the bottom 10% of MPs on expenses claims (he certainly doesn’t have an expensive car or anything like that, as I discovered when he gave a lift to four of us in his tiny car – I nearly pulled a muscle trying to get my large frame out of that confined space).
But the problem is, the expenses row had affected people more than I thought possible. Firstly, because it had been so prominent in the news that people who knew nothing of those other events knew it (and there are a *lot* of people who don’t pay any attention at all – one of the people I called thought I was calling for ‘the Social Democrats’ – a party that disbanded twenty years ago – while another said ‘Oh yes, I’ll vote for Liberal Democrats – Mr Cameron’s lot’) – and those people weren’t going to distinguish between parties. But more importantly, it knocked the will to care out of a lot of people because it *hit home*. It was something they could relate to.
Time and again I heard the same thing from people – that they didn’t begrudge legitimate expenses at all (and most people recognised the need for reasonable expenses) but that what got them was that these people who were gaming the system for all they could were in power and making it almost impossible for people at the bottom end of the income scale to claim what they were entitled to.
One poor woman, a lifelong Lib Dem, said she just couldn’t bring herself to vote at all because of the expenses row, because after her husband died, she’d been turned down for benefits. She couldn’t work, because she stayed at home to look after her disabled daughter, but the benefits office had insisted that she couldn’t get benefits because she had a partner. “I kept telling them, she’s not my partner, she’s my daughter! But they wouldn’t listen!”
People like that see a wall of bureaucracy put in place just to stop them claiming the essentials for survival from a state they’ve paid taxes to all their life, and see the people at the top able to take what they like without consequence, because pretty much everyone in Parliament comes from the upper-middle or upper classes, and have no real understanding what difference forty quid a week can make to people at the bottom. (Boris Johnson calling a quarter of a million a year “chicken feed” is an example – it’d take me nearly ten years to earn that, and I’m comfortably off). And those people voted the Tories out in 1997 because they were sleaze-ridden, corrupt, and victimising those at the bottom of society. They were told that “Things Can Only Get Better”, and are now seeing that Labour are no different at all to the Tories. If your only two options for government are identical, then giving up on voting makes sense.
And that, even more than the unnecessary deaths of millions, even more than the torture, even more than the economic collapse, is the *real* crime of the New Labour ‘project’ and this government. It’s taken away from millions of people the hope that anything could ever be any better.