I was surprised that Scotland voted to retain the Union. I was also very relieved because as a Labour voter in England, I knew that losing 40-50 seats in Scotland would be a monumental hindrance to overcome. Conversely had I lived in Scotland, I would happily have voted to give independence a chance. Apart from anything else, the prospect of having Tory rule banished forever was too big a prize to turn down.
The figures from Scotland were remarkable with some local authorities recording turnouts in excess of 90%. The unprecedented numbers led to optimism across Britain that the 2015 General Election may benefit from a re-engagement of the electorate with politicians in this country. Could a Caledonian wind of change inspire more than 70% of the British electorate to vote for the first time since it slipped below the threshold in 2001?
It’s a romantic theory, although unfortunately a simple explanation for the exceptionally high numbers of people engaged in the Scottish Referendum comes down to two factors. The first is that the Referendum itself was a unique opportunity, a “once in a generation” event, the result would be life-changing without the prospect of reversing the outcome in a few years’ time. The second because the Referendum by its very nature offered a very clear choice: either for or against independence. It was a polarising question: Yes or No. There was no “maybe” on the ballot paper.
The trouble with the British political landscape is that it does not offer that choice. The origins of “consensus politics” can probably be traced back to the “Limehouse Declaration” of 1981 and the subsequent repositioning of the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock in the mid-1980s. Tony Blair may have removed clause IV, but it was the tenure of Kinnock which laid the foundations for someone like Blair to lead the party a decade later.
The result is a political debate which largely takes place on the right of the political spectrum. It’s why issues like immigration never stray far from the heart of the national debate. It explains how attacking the most vulnerable in society is widely perceived as acceptable, sometimes even popular with public opinion. It is also why issues like social justice and creating a fairer society has slipped so dangerously down the agenda.
So when Labour’s shadow Chancellor Ed Balls announced there would be a freeze on child benefits under an incoming Labour Government, there was frustration from grassroots Labour activists, but no real surprise. As my boss at work described, the British electorate are not so much offered an alternative vision of how to run the country, but a question of how they wish to be harmed: death by firing squad or a thousand cuts.
It is a dramatic analogy perhaps although it does reinforce the need for an alternative vision of how to lead the country through the second half of this decade. The obsession with pandering to the right while sacrificing ethical socialism requires an urgent re-think if we are not to repeat the mistakes of the past and offer the electorate the same bland choice which has been on the table for over thirty years.
One area where there was potential for clear daylight to be placed between the parties came in the form of the recent parliamentary debate on military intervention in Iraq. A Conservative Government took this country into the first Gulf War in 1991, a Labour Government returned the compliment in 2003 and now a coalition of Liberal Democrats and Tories have led the way to ensure that for the third time in 23 years, British forces will once again be engaged in conflict in Iraq.
Labour seized the opportunity for yet more consensus by rallying behind the Government’s case for military intervention and helped to secure an emphatic mandate for war resulting in just 43 MP’s voting against the motion. 24 of the rebels were from the Labour Party and read like a roll call of some of the finest MP’s who currently serve as Parliamentarians.
People like Jeremy Corbyn, the MP for Islington north and long-time friend of the Chagossian quest for justice. There was Dennis Skinner, the “Beast of Bolsover”, a moral conscience and thorn in the side of a leadership which has lost its sense of navigation. Diane Abbott, another supporter of the Chagossian cause and representative for the constituency of my birth. And then there is Graham Allen,MP for where I live now, somebody who I’ve not always said complimentary things about previously but someone I am now looking at in a different light.
Why did they vote against British military involvement? Well largely for the same reasons that I opposed the push for war as well. The British record for involvement in military escapades in the middle-east has been one disaster after another since Suez. The latest enemy is ISIS (or ISIL or IS), a group whose very existence can be directly linked to a decision by Washington to arm and train rebel fighters fighting in Syria once a coalition including the UK fell at the final hurdle just over a year ago.
The similarities with Afghanistan and the emergence of the Taliban illustrate an all too familiar picture in the middle-east, as the rise and fall of one Saddam Hussein explicitly demonstrated. Driven from power a decade ago, he was once on very friendly terms with London and Washington who supported him during his eight year long war with Iran. Indeed one has to question just how vociferous the British Government’s push for war in 1991 would have been had Farzad Bazoft not been so callously executed on trumped-up spying charges just under a year earlier.
If Bernie Grant had been alive, I’d like to think he would’ve voted against the intervention too. The generation of children who (like me) were born under the Tory tyrant's eleven year Premiership are sometimes referred to as “Thatcher’s Children”, a phrase I loathe. I take huge pride in the fact that I lived in Tottenham for every year of Bernie’s tenure as the MP. We are “Bernie’s Children”: a generation inspired by his brand of socialist principles, desire for social justice, providing a voice for the disenfranchised and marginalised while espousing the complete opposite of Thatcherite values.
Bernie Grant passed away fourteen years ago, but wherever he is now, I’m sure he gave a nod of approval to the 24 Labour MPs who voted against military action in Iraq. That select band of rebel backbenchers represents the fading heartbeat of a party which has been insulted with all sorts of derogatory terms in the immediate aftermath of the Scottish Referendum. I am always at pains to stress that while the party leadership may frustrate me endlessly, the party itself still has many good MPs and even more activists who share core Labour values.
The key that unlocks the potential to increase voter participation lies within that group of Labour MPs. That their influence is so marginal is tragic and is the real reason there will be no noticeable spike in the number of people voting in May. The momentum created by the example set in Scotland will fade away before the Christmas decorations are up on Oxford Street. An opportunity for change is smothered by a cartel promoting consensus, cruelly crushing all of the new found hope and optimism.