Will the 2015 general election mark a low point in national politics?


Pondering on the wider national campaigns – and the woefully poor mainstream media coverage

Because what else is there to do at 2am than write a politics blogpost and drink port to slay the insomnia demons?

Simon Saggers of The Green Party at the South Cambs hustings at Homerton College. 20 April 2015
Simon Saggers of The Green Party (standing) at the South Cambs hustings at Homerton College. 20 April 2015

I was at the South Cambridgeshire hustings – the third Parliamentary constituency that I’ve covered in this election campaign. As with Cambridge, this constituency has got a relatively strong line-up compared to other parts of the country – though you may disagree. Have a look at the hustings video playlist here & decide for yourselves.

There’s a lot of fear out there…& it’s being whipped up by the print media

The headlines are as hysterical as the lack of hope & vision from the party the media moguls are backing. I remember at the time of ‘Cleggmania’ in 2010 how the print media went after Nick Clegg. It was incessant, continuous and constant. With Ed Miliband, it’s been like this but perhaps for longer. Interestingly, it could be that the print media overplayed their hand by trying to convince the public that Ed Miliband was worse than he is. Thus come the more extended TV broadcasts, what the public see vs what the print media has told them don’t necessarily match – hence slightly increased popularity ratings.

One of the things I often heard in student circles during my university days was how crises would inevitably lead to left-wing governments. History has repeatedly told us this is not the case. What we’ve seen is a polarisation with some parts of the population heading towards UKIP and others towards The Greens. What we don’t yet know is what the distribution will be in this election. I don’t think it’ll be anywhere near as uniform as implied by the opinion polls. When the dust settles after the general and local elections, we’ll get a sense of where the spikes in support for those two parties are. I expect Cambridgeshire will be one of those counties that will show rising support for both the Greens & UKIP that is higher than the national average, but spread across opposite parts of the county (Cambridgeshire): Greens in the south, UKIP in the north.

The collapse of the Lib Dems generally also means we don’t really know where that support has moved to. For me, turnout at elections between the this & the last general election is too low to make solid predictions.

The strengths (& weaknesses) of individual candidates

In the three constituencies I’ve covered, turnout at hustings & debates has been very high. Even the candidates have been pleasantly surprised to find packed community centres & church halls. Given the low standing of party politics and of political leaders, and given the rise of all things online, I wonder to what extent the calibre of candidates will make or break party prospects in individual seats?

I quite like this post by Fraser Nelson in the Spectator about how Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP has broken all of the post-1995 rules of electioneering. It reminds me of Labour’s strategy for this general election of not trying to outspend their Conservative opponents but trying to out-campaign them. Four million conversations in four months to be precise. All well and good if you’ve got the passionate, knowledgeable & competent campaigners to do it. But I’ve seen one or two comical examples online where campaigners have knocked on doors and haven’t been able to answer some of the basic questions put to activists. In this era not just of social media, but digital video too…exactly.

Having worked as a civil servant for ministers of three different parties, I’m one of the least tribal of people out there given my interest in all things politics, public policy & current affairs. When you’ve been in a career that involves picking holes in other people’s arguments, or trying to fill the holes that others are picking in yours, it’s very difficult to gloss over the gaps & pretend everything will be fine. Hence why I’m very interested in the calibre of the individual standing for election. In particular I’m interested in how independent of the party whip they will be. Hence why the Cambridge human rights hustings (which I filmed here) were interesting because Labour’s Daniel Zeichner broke from the party line to say that he was in favour of abolishing the UK’s nuclear deterrent.

“When you talk about independent-minded politicians, what examples did you have in mind?”

For the Conservatives, I’m thinking of Robert Halfon, Dr Sarah Wollaston and Rory Stewart. Obviously Julian Huppert stands out for the Liberal Democrats – as does Andrew George. For Labour, I’ve always been a fan of Dr Stella Creasy – as well as of the ‘awkward squad’ of the likes of John McDonnell and friends.

“So…why will it be a low point in national politics?”

For several reasons:

Diversity and calibre of candidates selected for election by local parties:

I’m not convinced the parties have systems in place to select the best candidates for the constituency. What might be best for the party and best for the constituency may not be the same person. Furthermore, given the decline in party membership over the years, the number of people responsible for the selection of candidates has fallen & fallen. You could say: “Tough – the voters get the politicians they deserve”. After all, aren’t the voters free-riding on the hard work party activists & members put in to select candidates – something they don’t get paid for? Alternatively, you could change the system towards open primaries or one where party members get to see the candidates being cross-examined by the general public in an open meeting.

A clash of political cultures between older & newer political cultures

Both Labour & the Conservatives have become used to having close policy control in smaller units of very well networked & connected people. Whether it was Osborne & Cameron as protege’s of Michael Howard or Ed Miliband and Ed Balls under Gordon Brown, you get the sense that control of policy is somewhere far away from that of the grassroots membership. I’m still not convinced a critical mass of the last Parliament understood the new way of doing politics – and the impact of the internet & social media on accountability. I’m not convinced that all of the incumbents in safe seats will get it either.

New political blood needs time, support & mentoring before being ready to stand for election

As many of the candidates will have already been selected prior to the much-needed surge in publicity around getting involved in politics & democracy, the 2015 elections will be too early.

One of the questions I’ve put to politicians in & around Cambridge is about what their new activists are like. In particular are there any that stand out as being potential ‘non-paper candidates’ in the 2016 local council elections we’ll have in Cambridgeshire next year. For the Green Party in Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire, their combined membership is now up to around 700 people so they tell me. Can they transfer that sharp rise in membership into effective campaigns & bring through high calibre candidates to take the place of some of their non-campaigning candidates?

The same goes for the other parties. How many of their new activists are potential new candidate material? I’ve met one or two from the other parties & have thought to myself: “Yep – that person’s got huge potential; is the party mentoring them with 2016 in mind?”

It’s also one of the reasons I’m trying to feature as many women as possible in my election documentary. I don’t want to have to be the person that turns up to meetings & complains about the lack of diversity on panels and boards again & again. Rather than seeing a weird bloke in his 30s who carries a dragon around with him urging people to take an interest in politics, it’s better if the invitation comes from people who are similar to the audience I want to target. My aim is to get people to think/feel: “Yes! They are the sort of people I want to work with, campaign with, socialise with and help make a difference to my community with!” The reality with most council meetings, you don’t get that feeling. Can we bring in a new generation of community activists to get involved in local democracy to change this?

Well…there’s no harm in trying!


One thought on “Will the 2015 general election mark a low point in national politics?

  1. I’d like to think there is a lovely new politics around the corner where social media will help make both people engage and make informed decisions …. but I simply don’t believe it will happen. Current events and the low ebb of UK politics seem to be proving it: –

    – Mass engagement in Scotland (post the indy referendum) hasn’t resulted in informed decision making. Instead it has lead to a nationalist insurgency based on some very dodgy economics (see oil price).

    – The inevitable (but depressing) consequence of this nationalist insurgency in Scotland is the Tory party in England using Labour difficulties (and likely need for SNP votes to get through any tax and spending polices) to imply a reverse takeover (essentially stoking up English nationalism to pull in their core English votes).

    – Meanwhile another big story has been the rise of anti-immigrant anti-EU UKIP (and some swivel eyed Tories) who are pedding an economic myth about an independent UK (ie one outside the EU) to all too receptive a rather receptive public.

    – Finally to top it all the Green have managed to split the left vote (not typically that hard to do) with a platform that is slightly more economically illiterate than UKIPs but (to its credit) with a nice middle class caring ethos behind it.

    All of this is the inevitable result of “engagement”. Most people don’t have time to look at the issues in any level of depth and simple solution and simple memes are always the most appealing to a time and fact starved population.

    If politics is to move beyond this low ebb then we actually need to move away from this mass engagement model to towards a more selective engagement where politicians are more seen as agenda setting (based on people priorities). If peoples top priorities are leaving the EU or breaking up the country then that’s fine…. if its jobs and wealth then we really need to find ways to stop these snake oil salespeople fooling the public.

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