UK elections: two hippos in the drawing room

Returning to London on Sunday from three weeks in the US (New York and San Francisco) where the British General Election was a barely visible blip on the media radar screen, I felt like Rip van Winkle, having almost no idea what had been going on in the election campaign while I was away apart from what I’d gleaned from occasional glances at the Guardian and Times websites. Now, having seen a good deal of coverage in the print and electronic media since Sunday, I’m depressed. Everyone I know, and plenty of people who write letters to the newspapers or air their views on chat-shows, seem tormented by the problem of how to register a passionate protest against Blair’s chicanery over Iraq and his government’s vicious attack on our basic civil liberties, without running the risk of letting Michael Howard in to No. 10: yet neither the criminal blunders over Iraq nor the wholesale destruction of our rights under cover of the soi-disant ‘war on terror’ appear to be discussed by any of the major parties in their campaigns, as if to do so would be an error of taste akin to blowing one’s nose while being presented to the Queen. These two towering issues, dwarfing such banal matters as how to finance health care and pensions, are simply treated as if they weren’t there: the twin hippopotamuses in the drawing room.

But the campaigns are not only banal: they are also deeply corrupt in the acceptance by all three major parties of the poisonous new provision for postal voting by anyone who can be inveigled into applying for a postal vote, with no longer any requirement to demonstrate need: and the harvesting of completed (and uncompleted) postal ballot forms by all three party offices for submission in bulk to the electoral registration officers. It seems that the election officials were deeply unhappy with this procedure (as well they might be!), but their proposal to require all postal ballots to be sent directly to themselves, and not via a third person, least of all via a political party, proved ‘unacceptable’ to the political parties, so the requirement was spinelessly reduced to a recommendation. The fact that mass abuse of this system has already been revealed has apparently counted for nothing. The potential for corruption and manipulation of votes on a vast scale is obvious, yet none of our major political leaders has the guts or grace to denounce it or to call for its immediate reform. The principle of the secret ballot, fought for by the Chartists and every other reformist movement for centuries, has been casually and wilfully torn up. No longer can a vulnerable 19-year-old daughter in a patriarchal family keep her vote secret from her parents, nor the employee in a small family business from his or her employer, nor husband from overbearing wife (or vice versa): in every case, the powerful can force the weak to apply for a postal vote, or use one of the forms delivered uninvited by one or more of the political parties with their campaign literature, and stand over the victim while he or she fills it in, demanding even that the stronger in the relationship actually takes the form and sends it in. And all the party leaders and many candidates are actively encouraging postal voting in preference to the genuinely secret vote cast in the invulnerable secrecy of the voting booth at the polling station. How Dickens would have laughed, or cried! The Eatanswill election is back with a vengeance. When was there last such a shabby, shoddy election?

The Labour Party’s manifesto, which one might expect to find prominently linked to the party’s website on its home page, is in fact extremely difficult to track down there, and even when found, loads in such an obscure and microscopic format as to be totally unreadable (there is an unadvertised provision for enlarging the text with a right-click, but once so enlarged, the left-hand and right-hand edges of the text disappear from the monitor screen and can’t be adjusted back). In fact, if you hunt zealously enough for it, the manifesto is also available in PDF format, which does permit the text to be manipulated to a legible size. But the content is so drab, the style so jargon-ridden and pedestrian, and 90 per cent of the subject-matter so tedious, that the whole document is still in effect unreadable (perhaps just as well for the party). What’s worse is the absence from it of any whiff of radicalism. It could all easily have been the manifesto of the Tory Party in its more moderate and humane days. Nowhere does one see evidence that this emanates from a party of the left. Indeed, its obsession with the essentially Tory ideal of ‘equality of opportunity’ (with no concern at all for equality of outcomes) is the hallmark of a party of the right. Mr Blair and his senior colleagues seem to think that a meritocracy is actually a desirable basis for a just society, instead of a jungle in which the weak and vulnerable are devoured at leisure by sabre-toothed predators.

I’m a life-long Labour supporter, but if I was unlucky enough to live and vote in a constituency where the Labour candidate was a hard-line Blairite with no record of opposition to the war or to the Blair government’s wanton destruction of our liberties, I would not in conscience be able to vote for him or her, even if abstention (or a vote for the LibDem, Green or Respect candidate) were to contribute to the risk of a Howard government. Fortunately the Labour candidate in my constituency (a) has not hitherto been an MP, so has no voting record in the Commons to object to, (b) is anyway a human rights lawyer with an impeccable record on the war and civil rights issues, (c) has been a good and effective local Councillor, and (d) happens also to be a Muslim of Asian origin, thus unlikely to lose the support of the large local Muslim Asian community despite their hostility to the war and much of the Straw-Blunkett-Clarke anti-terrorist legislation foisted on us all in our sleep. So his predecessor’s majority of more than 10,000 should be safe in his hands, and I shall vote for him (in a polling station) with a clear conscience, knowing that my vote will have no effect whatever on the national result, although fearful that my own and millions of other similar votes will be misrepresented by Blair and his clique as an endorsement of the vile things they have done.

No wonder the Tories decided to drop their original idea of plastering the walls with posters warning “Vote Blair, Get Brown”. If only!

19 April 2005

PS: Those reading this in an MS Internet Explorer browser (but not in Mozilla Firefox) may still find bits of HTML code towards the end of it, despite my efforts to expunge it. There are also some font peculiarities. Sorry about these. I hope they aren’t too distracting. BLB, 22 Apr 05