Why Britain’s main Parties are committing slow suicide

Peter Jukes noted on Twitter yesterday that a famous commentator on Westminster is ‘bored by the election’. Justifiably, Jukes asked whether the columnist should bear any of the blame. If you watch the coverage on Sky – even more so on the BBC News channel – you can see why the author of fine books about the hacking scandal thinks it’s a chicken and egg thing. I don’t watch TV election news any more, because of this sort of mularkey:

Interviewee: …and so you see, we must pay more attention to what’s going on in ClubMed, bec…

Anchor: ….I’m sorry Mr Twizzlestick, we’re going to have to cut you short there because the Prime Minister’s car has just arrived in Downing Street, and so we’re going over live right away….what’s the news there Perry?

Roving Reporter: ….WILL YOU FOR FUCK’S SAKE GET THAT FAT WOMAN OUT OF THE, SORRY? OH, RIGHT,…haha, well as you join us here live in Downing Street, the PM is pulling over at Number Ten after an exhausting morning with Cobra and then an analysis session with the Chancellor, so let’s watch now as he gets out of the car….

Anchor: I must say, he’s looking very fresh and up for it….

RR: Yes, absolutely, and you can see there that he’s opened the door himself and is stepping onto the pavement where he’s now waving to the crowds here….I’m just getting a little closer, good morning Prime Minister, Peregrine Fingers, BBCNews, can you tell the viewers, have you been for Number Twos yet today…?

However, I have to say that in my view, the chicken is the political system and the unreacting silent egg is the result of its unwise sexual intercourse with the corporatocracy. The ‘popularity’ of the two main Parties – and the system itself – is now winding down so quickly, in the real world it would be wound up…without the money both Parties get from interest groups and rich donors keeping it (and them) afloat.

In the early 1950s, the Conservative party had 2.8 million members, and the Labour party 1 million. But Labour could also call upon several million TUC members donating indirectly through their Union bosses. Today, the Tories have just 60,000 fully paid-up members, Labour maybe 70,000 tops…and the Trades Unions were decimated under Thatcher – a trend which (naturally) Blair didn’t reverse.

Both the Greens and Ukip are catching them up fast: the Green Party is now the fastest-growing Party in the UK, having gone from 27,500 to 42,300 in the last year alone; and of course Ukip is still doing well at 42,000. But the SNP is the biggest Party by members in the UK – at 93,000 – and the LibDEms (traditionally a Party of local activists) remain the only UK Party that has been at a fairly steady 40,000 plus since it was formed.

I have two insights to offer on these figures. The first is that the activist Parties with something new and exciting to say attract more members. Whether one agrees with their view or not, this suggests very strongly that it isn’t politics that’s boring – it’s the stranglehold of the bickering duopoly who never have anything radical as an idea on offer that people might find attractive….and the growing certainty amongst many voters that they don’t GAF about the ordinary UK citizen. To state the blindingly obvious, Ukip would never have got off the ground without that strength of feeling. (Ukip is now attracting more Labour deserters than the Conservatives).

My second observation is that, when viewed by relative Party membership, the ridiculously unrepresentative and pro-oligarchy voting system we have in Britain comes into very sharp focus indeed. It is of course a debatable issue as to whether votes cast out of habit are worth more or less than strength of feeling against injustice. It seems constitutionally obvious at first that electoral support should rule the roost. But should it? What about (a) the disenfranchisement of those who would vote ‘None of the above’ (b) the bribes available via policy and budgets to ‘buy’ votes (c) the tiny amount of thought applied to the vote by habitual supporters, and (d) last but not least, doubts about the sobriety of those who vote in General Elections?

I first raised that last point in 2010, and since then Britain has become home to an even more steadily-drinking population. While both previous administrations have been playing the tune that shows alcohol consumption per capita falling by 14% in the UK, that basis is meaningless: some people drink 1 sherry a year at Christmas, some drink five times the recommended limit every day. Binge drinking among the young has dropped hugely – but dangerously steady, more-than-healthy drinking has gone up amongst the over 50s.

The lie is given to the per capita figures by other compelling stats: in the last decade, alcohol-related primary hospital admissions have risen by 41%, and alcohol-related secondary admissions have risen by 176%. Binge drinking twice a year never killed anyone: but steady drinking kills the most: 78% of all deaths from liver disease do not involve drink-dependent abusers.

Based on the stats of those who drink at lunchtime and in the early evening on the way home, it remains a statistical near-certainty that roughly 1 in 14 voters is anything from tipsy to plastered when they enter the polling booth. That might not seem like much, but it’s 7% of the electorate; most elections since the War have been decided on a far smaller percentage than that.

In my experience, most activist wonks are not among those I’d choose to have lunch with, but even so, with more new ideas and more real choice, more people would vote if they thought their Party stood a chance. FPTP voting systems discourage that view…and thus support oligarchies. I think, as I get older, that there is a far better case for other criteria beyond votes alone going into the mix we call ‘representation’: given that most of us aren’t represented at all in contemporary British politics, this idea is far more likely to do good than harm.

Perhaps I digress: whether they like it or not, Westminster MPs are less and less popular, trusted or exciting than they used to be. Another dimension for judgement is PMQs. Here, the research offers a startlingly obvious clue.

Qualitative research shows that many people assume the PMQs bunfight is how Parliament works all the time. When told that it isn’t, they’re usually either sceptical or amazed: “Why in God’s name would they want to show off their worst side on live television?” A spin doctor’s response to that would be “The ratings darling, the ratings…it’s good television”, but that really isn’t any kind of answer: it would be be an odd client that approved a 30-second TV commercial showing his brand to be largely unfit for purpose.

In a quantitative audit last year, only 5% disagreed with the statement ‘there is too much Party political point-scoring instead of answering the question’. 67% of respondents thought the Prime Minister evasive at PMQs. A third of all those interviewed said PMQs actively put them off politics, and three times as many (48%) thought MPs behaved unprofessionally during the sessions. Seven out of eight people disagreed with the statement that PMQs ‘made them proud’ of Parliament.

While these findings don’t surprise me one jot, they are nevertheless a dataset of which our legislators should be ashamed. But that’s the thing with MPs: their behaviour in the Chamber is shameful, and their corrupt misuse of power for their own ends shameless. It is therefore piddling in a force 9 gale to expect anything good whatsoever to emerge from “shaming them”

For the record, just to conclude, contacts in the advertising business tell me that ‘regular’ weekly ratings for PMQs almost never exceed 3% of the population.

That said, somebody should be giving the Conservative Party thorough analyses of these data – rather than the sloppy preparation one has come to expect from both Camerlot and the Ed Miller Band – because they do not look encouraging at all when it comes to the Party’s future.

Conservative Party membership is massively skewed to the 60+ age group. But while 54% of all Brits claim to have viewed some part of PMQs in the last year, the figure amongst 18-24 year olds is a mere 35%. In my youth, it would’ve been the other way round. Baroness Thatcher’s theory that depoliticising the young was “a good thing” may turn out to have been a bad idea…even for the Tories. The Conservative Party is now the fastest-declining political Party in the UK. So it is perhaps not surprising that, the less representative it became – and the least likely to attract the money of ordinary citizens – the more it has come to depend upon cuddling up to the dubious devotees of neoliberal social theory and Bourse economics. As the bankrobber said when asked by the Judge why he robbed banks, “Because that’s where the money is, your Honour”.

The Future for the Labour Party has an equal potential to be bleak. If Scotland does secede from the Union, Labour will instantly lose 41 seats. But if the SNP’s high ratings in relation to the May elections are anything to go by, they’ll lose thirty of them anyway. Power in what might one day soon be England – or no power at all once the Scots leave (and their Westminster MPs cease to exist). That isn’t so much a rock and a hard place as a dead-end and a cul-de-sac.

I see a number of potential horrors in these and other scenarios. In particular:

* The more the large UK Parties bleed to death in terms of support, the bigger the temptation will be (as global fiscal and economic collapse approaches) to declare some kind of spurious state of emergency sufficient to hide their lack of democratic mandate….backed up by force: be it water cannon or an EU army.

* Equally – if and when all things eurozone unravel – the more Ukip’s influence will grow. The Conservative Party has already been hijacked by the fundamentalists like Hunt, Hammond, May, Gove and David: a deal with Ukip might perhaps airlift us out of an EU disaster…only to land on Planet Boris. And on that world, neither the Rule of Law or equality before it are a consideration.

There is but one element of the 2015 British General Election about which one can now be sure: confusion. This will be the result because:

1. Effectively, the two major Parties are like banks being bailed out: they can continue ad nauseam with their own minority bubble agendas, with nothing to fear.

2. Half the population won’t vote. As to why, see 1. above.

3. Britain as a Kingdom is not united, and Europe is not a Union in any meaningful sense.

4. Apathy on a wide scale has broken out, because young voters especially are cynical about the chances for real change.

5. ‘Professional politician’ is an Orwellian term that has come to mean ‘amateurism fuelled by inexperience of mainstream real life’.

6. There is far too much bent money swilling around inside the political process.

7. There is far too little emphasis in our education system on being an active member of the community with the discernment to question received truths.

Yesterday at The Slog: Why the future is no guide to the past