A problem identified 19 years ago
At the 2001 General Election, an MP called Graham Allen comfortably retained his seat of Nottingham North. A few weeks after the Election, on 22nd June, Allen opened a debate in the House of Commons. He expressed alarm at the low turnout at the polls. He despaired at a lack of public engagement.
“The bald figures are quite frightening: the overall turnout was down nationally to 59.5 per cent, while in my constituency the turnout was a shocking 46 per cent.”
Allen suspected that Britons no longer felt very engaged in politics. He was certainly not wrong. The artificiality put people off. The ludicrous, obvious theatricality. The formal mud-slinging. Politics were an alien world, in which inhabitants not only tolerated stiff politeness and childish namecalling, but expected them side-by-side.
Allen went on to add; –
“We shall come to rue the fact that political activists are disparaged, often by the media, because those people are the very life-blood of our democracy. We should encourage people from all parties who play their part in public life by engaging in political activity locally. We must ensure that they feel that what they are doing is important. Our democracy is not a given; it is a fragile flower.“
Hague saw it too
Interestingly, the outgoing Leader of the Opposition of the time, William Hague, had similar sentiments to share just two days earlier. Speaking during the First Day of Parliament, Hague referred to; –
“the lowest turnout at a general election since 1918, with the number of voters staying at home exceeding the number who turned out to vote for the winning party. Elections to this place should be the cornerstone of democratic accountability in our country... [but] the blunt truth is that people increasingly see politics and Parliament as remote from their lives… Why should any of this be surprising when many Governments… have taken every opportunity to sideline, marginalise and bypass Parliament, with the consequence that its standing and reputation are lower than at any time in living memory? We face an urgent task to reform Parliament, to make it relevant to the people whom it is supposed to serve and to place it once again at the centre of our national life. Without a strong Parliament, democratic accountability in Britain ceases to exist.
When Hague later demanded that,
“We need the Government to be honest and straightforward about what they are trying to achieve, about where they succeed and about where they fail,”
he was being a prospective hypocrite. His own penchant for two-faced lying in later years as Foreign Secretary demonstrated that. But on the subject of grass-roots-engagement, much as it pains me to agree with a tedious cynic like William Hague, he was not wrong.
What do MPs expect after recent years?
This issue of politicians displaying contempt-for-public and contempt-for-Parliament has not gone away. In fact, it is more pressing than ever. Just consider what Boris Johnson did within a few weeks of becoming Prime Minister last year. He tried to prorogue Parliament for an unprecedented length of time so that it could not cross-examine, or have a say on, Brexit legislation before the date of British departure from the European Union. This triggered a constitutional crisis of a type not seen in the UK since before the Second World War. Johnson did it purely to avoid accountability, thus demonstrating contempt for the purpose of Parliament. In other words, he was trying to “sideline, marginalise, bypass Parliament.”
The Labour Party have certainly behaved no better. Tony Blair, responding to Allen’s and Hague’s exhortations, chose to start a completely unnecessary war in Iraq in 2003. This was in spite of an estimated 2 million people marching in London to protest against it. How do MPs expect the public to feel engaged when politicians can just ignore literally millions like that?
Not even the Labour MPs who railed pompously in defence of Parliamentary privilege last year have a good attitude to public engagement and representation. Consider, while a Labour MP wanted to engage and mobilise the public politically, what happened when Labour MPs witnessed engagement and mobilisation?
That very definitely happened between Autumn 2015 and Summer 2017. When Jeremy Corbyn, somewhat reluctantly, got onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015, there was a huge surge in membership of the party. In 2014, the membership was around 190,000. By the end of 2015, it had more than doubled to at least 388,000, and was continuing to climb. Yes! At last! The grass roots were engaging in politics again!
Engagement greeted with animosity
The response of the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and the staff at Labour HQ? Absolute, unremitting contempt and derision for the newcomers. Rebellions and media briefings against a leader with the biggest mandate in party history. Generalised smears against hundreds of thousands of people. Theatrical displays of hostility. Repeated purges to force out anyone suspected of left-leaning sympathies, often on doubtful pretexts. The Labour Party’s Third Civil War began before the revived Left even had a chance. The notorious, theatrical ‘Chicken Coup’ ensued, with Corbyn only nine months into his stewardship. To his credit, Allen opposed the coup, but when it failed, the right wing just continued attacking and smearing. Anything Corbyn did met with public ridicule, even when it was no different to what previous leaders had done to choruses of praise. Corbyn’s mandate meant nothing to them. They even wasted tens of thousands of pounds of member subscription fees, clearly paid by Corbyn’s backers, to pay for legal action to try and prevent Corbyn from standing for re-election.
The rebellions soon solidified into a relentless and wildly-exaggerated hysteria about ‘left-wing anti-Semitism’. This was particularly useful to the Labour Right, as it had a more plausible ring to it of altruism that previous attacks on Corbyn had lacked. Assumptions that Corbyn could only lead Labour to defeat had been disproved rather by the Hung Parliament of 2017. Any persistence on those grounds ignored plain facts, and so looked selfish. But anti-Semitism stories were different. Labour MPs who spoke out were ‘protecting a vulnerable minority.’ The exhaustion of years fighting the hysteria proved too much for the Labour Left. The Conservatives comfortably won the 2019 General Election.
And now look at Starmer
Corbyn’s successor, Sir Keir Starmer, has done more to alienate public engagement. While Shadow Brexit Secretary, he pushed a false version of the party’s European policy. He claimed Labour favoured a Second Referendum on leaving the EU. He slowly backed Corbyn into adopting the policy. This explicitly rejected the first Referendum result. Like Brexit or hate it, there was no real indication that the public had changed their minds about it. The mandate for it was still real. So to insist on a ‘replay’ referendum was another mid-digit raised to the public after they had engaged with politics.
It gets worse. Since taking over as Labour leader, Starmer’s conduct has been tyrannical. He won the leadership by offering the membership a program of ten promises. He has now abandoned the program. He has fanatically pursued Labour leftists. Still his pretext for more purges is fighting ‘anti-Semitism’. The likes of Rebecca Long-Bailey have been removed from the Shadow Cabinet.
On the flimsiest pretext of all, Corbyn was suspended from the Labour Party. When the party’s own National Executive Committee cleared Corbyn on recognition that there were no legal grounds for the suspension, Starmer simply withdrew the party whip from him unilaterally. In doing so, Starmer violated the terms of the very report – the EHRC investigation into Labour anti-Semitism – he claimed to be defending. He undermined the whole point of having a disciplinary process. He went against the will of the great majority of the party membership. He probably disgusted and/or frightened many members out of future engagement with the party. He ignored the wishes of most of the party to prioritise fighting a blundering and bloodthirsty Conservative Government. He ignored other forms of racism that are at least as prevalent in the party, for the sake of prioritising ‘anti-Semitism’; really just protecting the interests of Israel of course.
Starmer clearly thinks he is above the rules. He clearly wants to intimidate the ordinary members of the public among the membership. He would clearly prefer they tear up their membership cards and leave the party altogether. He clearly wants huge numbers of people to be disengaged.
And yes, similar crimes against his own party membership by Neil Kinnock in the 1980s caused similar alienation – perhaps the very alienation that Allen and Hague had detected.
Fair-weather engagement only
It seems that MPs only want public engagement and accountability before Parliament, so long as public and Parliament agree with what the MPs have already chosen.
So let us go back to the question Allen and Hague were pondering back in 2001. Why do so many ordinary people in modern Britain feel averse to engaging in politics?
It is because the party that should represent them the most – the Labour Party – is the one that most actively drives them away. And if you are an ordinary member of the public, and a right wing Labour Party are so against you, what exactly is the point of supporting them?
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