Tag Archives: european elections

BNP voters come in two flavours: scum and idiots

The one thing that has been worse than the BNP winning two seats in the European Parliament today has been the endless hand-wringing and excuses made on behalf of the electorate by mainstream politicians. Last night, the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour were queueing up to come up with excuses for why so many people voted BNP. It was a protest vote, they said, not a racist one. We need to listen more and learn to respond.

Bollocks. The time for a touchy-feely understanding of BNP voters is well and truly over. You could make this excuse in 2001 when the BNP vote first started to flare up in earnest (three months before 9/11 please note – remember Griffin’s ridiculous gag at the Oldham count?) but now is the time to – as Lewis Baston says (pace John Major) – “condemn a little more, understand a little less.”

If you wanted to make a protest vote on Thursday, it isn’t as if you didn’t have a wide choice. What seems to have emerged in recent years is that voters seem to have learned that voting BNP is the best way to get a reaction out of the mainstream parties. It is a form of dirty protest; the difference being that the voters are all supposedly over 18, not toddlers. And yet, like the most awful parents ever seen on Supernanny, the mainstream parties seem to fall for it every time.

Enough is enough. This has started to look like Weimar-era appeasement (note: Godwin’s law doesn’t apply when you are writing about actual neo-Nazis). Politicians have treated the electorate like children for years; we can hardly be surprised therefore that a small minority have now started acting like children. There isn’t a particular policy solution – we can hardly starve the North West and Yorkshire of resources to punish a mere 8% of voters – but we can change the language. We could start hearing mainstream political leaders openly criticise BNP voters rather than merely the party itself. Call them out; take them to task; challenge them. Make it clear that while they can ultimately vote for whoever they want in a democracy, we do not respect their decision.

Does all this sound patronising? Maybe, but then is it really more so than the self-flagelating alternative? No, not every BNP voter is a racist but at the very very best they are in deep denial about racism. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that a party which claims to not be racist yet bangs on about the indigenous white race and “racial foreigners” is simply engaging in doublespeak.

BNP literature is full of hate, spite, resentment and scapegoating. It offers simplistic, washing-powder-advert solutions to complex problems. You only vote for such things if you are already predisposed to lash out rather than really look for solutions. In that respect, I think the tone of the Hope Not Hate campaign is spot on; I just don’t see it reinforced by mainstream politicians (let alone the blundering antics of the far-left).

An extremely bad approach is the one adopted by Ian Dunt over on politics.co.uk. Apparently “there is a tiny fascist in all of us” – to the extent that nobody’s perfect, I suppose that may be true. But where does that get us? I didn’t vote BNP. Most people didn’t vote BNP. Why should we beat ourselves up about it? What will that achieve? Will our mutual hand-wringing suddenly make BNP voters see the error of their ways? I forget who came up with the idea of the “Oh Dear” factor in climate change policy – that being that the problem with talking about how dreadful climate change is that people feel disempowered and thus disengage from the whole debate. Why would we want to elevate something as eminently resolvable as the fact that minority of people vote for neo-Nazis to the same level?

I’ve helped organise several political events for schools over the years, and in particular question time debates in which a panel of MPs are asked questions by a horde of hormone-addled, smart-alec teenagers. In my experience such debates follow the following pattern: the politicians come on stage and mouth a load of platitudes about how important it is that young people get involved in politics; a series of kids ask clever-clever questions designed to “prove” that all politicians are self-serving liars; the baying mob scents blood and the politicos suddenly realise that they can’t get out of this by simply sticking to the script. At that point, something truly wonderful typically happens. At least one politician gets annoyed at their antagonists and starts to tell it like it is; explaining that the kids who are both pro-war and anti-war, both green and climate-change sceptic and both anti-racism and anti-immigration simply cannot have it both ways. Suddenly both baying mob and platitude-spouting politico connects in a way neither were expecting. The atmosphere changes completely. I’ve seen this happen on numerous occasions and the lesson for me is clear: you don’t connect with the disaffected by telling them what you think they want to hear. You can only connect by being authentic and frank with them – even disagreeing with them and challenging their prejudices.

Ultimately, there are just two types of BNP voter: scum and idiots. The scum we can comfortably leave to one side. The rest need to stop being told that their idiocy is some cunning act of tactical protest; they’ve started to believe it now. Idiocy is an eminently curable disorder, but the first step to stop being an idiot is to realise what you’re being. With that in mind, indulging BNP voters is an form of cruel and inhumane treatment.

This blog doesn’t make polling predictions, but if it did…

…they’d be pretty sucky. My roundup of polls on Wednesday turned out to be pretty flaky. I’d like to use the excuse that I was only reporting them, not endorsing them, but that’s for the birds.

First of all, turnout: Mat B correctly predicted that YouGov were probably over-estimating and he was spot on. This raises an interesting question: how can YouGov be so right on the polling figures themselves (Anthony Wells has hailed them as the closest pollsters) and yet so wrong on this statistic?

Secondly, the state of the parties in the North West. Here I’m on safer ground as I really wasn’t making a prediction and I didn’t turn out to be that wrong anyway. The Greens were quite close to beating the BNP (although technically, the “tactical” vote was to vote UKIP as they came closest to denying Griffin – the Green tactical vote message was indeed bogus as predicted by almost everyone) and the blanket media coverage of the latter compared with fact that the former were ignored was almost certainly a factor.

Does the European election result vindicate PR as I suggested? Yes it does. I’ve yet to see a council-by-council breakdown of the figures but it will almost certainly show pockets where the BNP were strong and which, under FPTP, they would have been able to target with impunity. They’ve got where they are today through their electoral success in local authorities around the country using the FPTP system to their advantage. It is disingenuous at best to suggest that if we didn’t have PR we wouldn’t now have BNP MEPs.

At the same time, it is incumbant on me to point out that if the election had been run under the STV system, the BNP probably would have been denied. 263,000 votes in the North West didn’t go to any winning candidate which would potentially have been counted if the voters had been able to rank candidates in order of preference. With the exception of the English Democrat voters, the majority of them would have gone to pretty much anyone but the BNP. And with less than one-ninth of the vote, the BNP would have needed those transfers to win. This is one of the great features of STV: it is anti-extremist but works by including more people into the process rather than less.

Regardless, it is clear that the public (at least the ones who voted) are starting to enjoy the flexibility that PR gives them. Almost exactly 2 in every 5 voters supported a party which is not represented in the House of Commons. It would be nice if in 2014 we didn’t have quite so many vanity projects running at once (Jury Team, Libertas, the Socialist Labour Party, NO2EU and the Christian Party all seemed to be living examples of what happens when you mix excessive quantities of self-importance and money together) but fundamentally there is no going back to bad old days of zero choice and foregone conclusions in European elections. What’s more, the appetite for genuinely competitive elections can only increase.

Ironically, the biggest losers in this election would have been Labour if it had been fought under FPTP. They’d have been wiped out (more precisely, their last vestiges would have been eliminated following their disastrous 2004 result). The Tories meanwhile would have won a massive majority of the seats despite only enjoying the support of 1-in-4 voters. That ought to chill any true democrat to the bone.

And what about the Liberal Democrats? Well, we did pretty indifferently. On the ground the party seemed to hold its own in target Westminster seats and ignore everywhere else. This is probably fair enough. What was missing was anything like a decent air war to rally our support in the rest of the country.

The party’s internet operation was stronger than in the past and the mealy-mouthed, look-both-ways stuff about Europe seemed to be less in evidence than during the past two elections. But the campaign was not wildly pro-Europe and failed to frame the debate in any way to our advantage. Much of that couldn’t be helped because of the tsunami that was the expenses scandal; we’ll never know how the campaign would have been different if that hadn’t got in the way. But there does seem little to suggest that Clegg was preparing to articulate a clear, provocative message about the Lib Dems’ attitude towards Europe in the way that he has been very good at doing of late (e.g. his position on the recall of MPs and expenses reform).

Some argued that what the party should have done is come out all guns blazing in calling for the UK to adopt the Euro as soon as possible. I’m a little ambivalent about the Euro (I’m not anti the Euro per se but I was sceptical of unbridled monetarism before it was fashionable and wonder how big the EU budget would have to be to ensure the Euro doesn’t unduly disadvantage whole swathes of its regions), but I can at least see the logic behind it. A core 30% of the UK population is consistently pro-EU and yet no party will engage with them for fear of alienating the other 70% who are either anti or (mostly) utterly indifferent. FPTP makes it difficult for us to engage with this constituency; PR makes it crucial if we are ever to break through this glass ceiling that we seem to be bouncing against.

Fundamentally, if no-one else is prepared to talk up the EU we are truly doomed. The UK cannot afford to leave the EU yet seems to be slowly arguing itself into a corner. Sooner or later this is going to come to a crunch; the quicker the Lib Dems find their voice on this issue the more manageable this situation will be in the longer term.

Ultimately though, we only ceded a little bit of popular support in this election in the most extraordinary of circumstances. It is hard to be too critical of the Lib Dem campaign when even the Tory, UKIP and Labour campaigns were being drowned out at the same time. Somehow however, we need to find a way of articulating a popular form of European integrationism by 2014. Any ideas?

Europe, turnout, the BNP, the Greens and fair votes

I’ve just got back from an hour’s stint on LBC talking about Yurp. Myself and fellow guest Hugo Brady from the Centre of European Reform were both under the impression we were there to discuss how the European Parliament works and the elections themselves. Instead we found ourselves being asked to mount a full frontal defence of the EU itself, covering everything from the CAP to auditing budgets. Not an easy task when you aren’t prepared (and as a non-expert of the subject I probably wouldn’t have gone on on that basis, but there you go).

For the record, incidently, I would quite happily scrap the Common Agricultural Policy. It’s appalling. If you do think that however, and you actually care about people unfairly affected by it in developing countries (as one of the callers purported to do), then the single worst thing you could do is pull out of the EU and allow the opponents of reform to have it entirely their own way. I don’t like a lot of UK policies and want UK political reform, but if you heard me calling for us to pull out of the UK on that basis you would consider me to be an utter loon.

What I didn’t get a chance to discuss were the poll findings that Vote Match/Unlock Democracy unveiled yesterday suggesting that tomorrow’s turnout could be an all time high for the European Elections. 50% in our YouGov survey said they were definitely going to vote (another 11% gave an ‘8’ or ‘9’ incidentally), which YouGov advise suggests a nominal turnout of 43-45%. That’s pretty unprecedented.

It is clear that the reason for this potentially (and comparatively) high turnout is not a hard fought contest about the European Parliament itself (if only) but MPs’ expenses and the subsequent meltdown of the UK Parliament. In short, the public are out to give the political classes a bloody nose. But it is also interesting to note both the generational and gender differences. Simply put, younger voters will be turning out in much fewer numbers and are not doing so because they simply don’t know what the elections are about. Older voters are, unsurprisingly, most likely to turn out. But it is the middle-aged voters who are most likely to abstain because of the expenses scandal itself. Women are likely to turn out in comparative numbers to men but their reason for not doing so again has more to do with not knowing enough about the elections than it has to do with scandal.

YouGov have also done an eve of poll for the Telegraph, suggesting that Labour may be pushed into third or even fourth place. As Anthony Wells has been chronicling, the polls are all over the place at the moment – the pollsters’ rules-of-thumb assumptions which they use to weight their data appear to have been blown wide open by the collapse in Labour support. We live in unprecedented times and it remains to be seen which pollster emerges with the most credit.

Nonetheless Anthony makes a good fist of an argument that YouGov are likely to be more accurate than most and for all their critics they have tended to be quite accurate. Either way, it looks terrible for Labour, with the Tory and Lib Dem levels of support staying at around their 2004 levels. The Greens look like their vote will be up while UKIP could either be significantly up or a bit down.

The Telegraph report that the 5% figure the YouGov poll gives the BNP suggests that they may well make the breakthrough they were hoping for in the North West. We only have the national figures to look at right now but unless the North West specific figures say something different, I’m not so sure. Based on the national swing, that puts the parties in the North West at:

Conservative: 23% (-1%, 2 MEPs)
Labour: 20% (-7%, 2 MEPs)
Lib Dem: 16% (-, 2 MEPs)
UKIP: 14% (+2%, 1 MEP)
Green: 10% (+4%, 1 MEP)
BNP: 6% (-, 0 MEPs)

Those figures come with a health warning, not to mention the fact that national swings are pretty spurious at the best of times. But it does highlight one aspect of this election which has been criminally under-reported: the resurgence of the Green Party. The psephology behind their Stop Nick Griffin campaign is entirely spurious but there is no escaping the fact that every vote for the Greens in the North West will make it harder for the BNP to get elected (where they are wrong is where they claim that a tactical Green vote is better than a vote for the Tories, Labour, Lib Dems or UKIP in this respect). And with a poll leap of the scale that every pollster appears to be reporting will result in a quite healthy haul of Green MEPs. This is a big deal – certainly a bigger deal than the possibility that the BNP might win a single seat. Yet by and large they have been ignored.

If I have one prediction to make about these elections it is that they will be a vindications of the proportional voting system. I dislike closed list systems but even closed list-PR is better than closed list-FPTP.

Would we be looking at such a dramatic result if we still used FPTP for the European Elections? In one sense, we would. The story right now would not be “will the BNP gain a seat in the North West?” but “will the BNP gain seats in East London, the Potteries, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire?” All of these areas are places where FPTP has enabled the BNP to gain a foothold – often gaining swathes of seats with remarkably small shares of the vote. The BNP would have a much easier time targeting four old-style Euro-constituencies than they have targeting a whole region. Far from making it easier for the BNP then, PR has actually made it tougher.

But overall, it would have lead to business-as-usual. PR has given the public a means of punishing the political class (which as a whole, completely deserves it). Without PR, we would be looking at a repeat of 1989 where the Greens got 15% of the vote and not a single seat. Now maybe it is time the Greens (and UKIP) got their act together and learned to target but the electorate shouldn’t have to wait for them to get their tactics right in order to express its displeasure (and targeting is at best a necessary evil in any case).

Face the facts: under FPTP, we would not now be looking at as high a turnout and the main parties would be sitting pretty. The public would have no outlet to vent their frustration. That would have been a dangerously unhealthy state of affairs.

It is certainly frustrating that the last thing this election is being decided upon is what it is osensibly about – the future direction of the European Union. But if what we get in exchange is the first real opportunity for the public to fully express itself in a UK-wide election, that is a price worth paying. Now: let’s replace it with an open list system or STV so it can be even better!

Jury Team – the verdict

As I mentioned yesterday, I spent this morning at the launch of Jury Team. You can read my livetweeting of the event here.

There are a few points I’d like to emphasise:

Firstly, it is now clear that Jury Team is not another Your Party. It’s strength is the simplicity of the concept. In essence, anyone can put themselves forward as long as they sign a statement declaring that they will not discriminate against people on the basis of sex, race, age, sexual orientation, religion, etc. and sign up to the “Nolan principles.” I will credit them with the fact that this is a very simple organising principle and is likely to ensure they at least clear the first hurdle. What happens after that however, will be at least interesting.

Secondly, for an organisation that has launched itself as in favour of transparency and against sleaze, they have left themselves extremely wide open. The relatively lax vetting system (compared to the average political party) will mean that it should be quite simple for a crook to get on their books and not be exposed until after they have accepted their seats. More fundamentally – and the one thing I found absolutely gobsmacking – is that they are not imposing any transparency or capping rules on individuals putting themselves up for selection at all. The election campaign itself will of course have to abide by the PPERA 2000 and relevant subsequent acts, but if you want to get to the top of the Eurocandidate list, you can spend as much as you like and accept money from anyone you like.

The implications of this is potentially huge. It means that their candidate selection process is open to the highest bidder. And it won’t even be too hard to fix by the look of things. At the moment, the most activity is currently happening in their South East selection. At the time of writing there are four candidates, the most popular of which has twelve votes. The scope for abuse is huge and the best they can hope for is that either they get ignored (which will kill the concept stone dead) or that the various mobilising forces effectively cancel each other out.

Indeed, there is a grey area as to whether this situation is already covered by legislation or not. Does a putative parliamentary candidate, for example, count as a regulated donee for instance? I would have thought they were – and in any case would be suspicious of any candidate who didn’t abide by that minimal level of transparency. But is Jury Team highlighting this to their putative candidates?

Thirdly, while the puffery about “people before party” was all well and good at the start of the launch, by the end it had started to look dangerously like groupthink. The people on stage really did seem to think there was something magical in calling yourself an “independent” which instantly connected you to the mind of the millions of people you presume to represent. By contrast, anyone with a party label was incapable of working in the national interest. I won’t seek to repeat why this is such a nonsense again here, but there was something about it that was vaguely sinister – a communitarian notion that somehow legitimate differences of interest didn’t exist in society and that anyone who didn’t agree with this was divisive and a threat to be neutralised.

This was made quite explicit by Tony Eggington, the Mayor of Mansfield. He boldly announced that two of the reforms he had advocated were the reduction of councillors (= less scrutiny for him) and turning the “divisive” multi-member wards into single member ones. As I observed yesterday, one of the things you might expect to come out of an Independents movement would be electoral reform. Not a bit of it – what was being advocated this morning was something that resembled a paean to the the Rotten Borough. In his presentation, Sir Paul Judge talked wistfully about the era before political parties, ignoring the fact that they arose because of an extension of the franchise. This doesn’t ultimately surprise me – I’ve witnessed a similar disdain for democracy and a robust, vibrant, noisy political system from independents on numerous occasions in the past.

Fundamentally, I welcome the rise of the Independents movement. It’s time we had this debate. Let’s make it easier for them still, by introducing open lists or better still the single transferable vote. After today however I am more convinced than ever that at its heart is an anti-democratic notion of communitarianism which is ultimately a threat to progress and a free and open society. Let’s face it down in the ballot box.

In defence of whips

Here we go again. Andreas Whittam-Smith has written an eye-wateringly hyperbolic piece about Jury Team, which is launching tomorrow. I plan to be at their launch and it remains to be seen how exactly they intend to organise, but when people use stock phrases like “harness the power of the internet” I tend to assume they are going to fail before they begin. Apparently we are to regard Sir Paul Judge as the UK’s Barack Obama. The anti-sleaze champion who is to turn this all around needs money, lots of it, something which he would have had £200,000 more of had he not failed in his bid to sue the Guardian for libel over the Asil Nadir affair in the mid-nineties. Apparently the old adage about he who without sin throwing the first stone, doesn’t apply if you call yourself an independent.

All of this smacks of déjà vu all over again for me, in two ways. First of all, there is the fact that the media was falling over themselves five years ago to big up YourParty, which was apparently going to set the political stage on fire. I even commssioned an article from them, which now appears to be the only online record of their strategy. Talk about history repeating as tragedy and then farce – at least they were dotcom millionaires as opposed to former Tory director generals.

But secondly, there is my experience of student and parish council politics. Seemingly very different spheres, both these battlegrounds have one thing in common: to call yourself an independent is worth real votes. For years, most of the places at the NUS top table were reserved for Labour Party membership card-carrying “independents” who would denounce Labour on the conference stage and then do the party’s bidding behind closed doors. Point this fact out to their supporters and they preferred to ignore that fact, finding the lie much easier to deal with.

In parish elections, there is a similar phenomenon. It doesn’t matter what your political agenda is, so long as you play the independent card you are at an automatic advantage. You don’t have to produce a manifesto and you do it in the certain knowledge that most of your supporters will not really be interested in the day-to-day goings on of the parish council, and so hegemonies arise of “independents” who are really only doing it for glory and low-level corruption. And then they have the cheek to lay that smear on anyone standing with a party label.

It remains to be seen how Jury Team plans to select its candidates. Whittam-Smith suggests it will be done by mobile phone primaries. Leaving aside the security implications of such a system, even in the US Congressional primaries – where the system is well established – are notable for their low participation rates. And if the party is to have no policies other than the twelve proposals it has already listed, how is this going to work with the current system for European Parliament elections? If there is a rabid rightwinger at the top of their list, am I really expected to vote for that guy in the knowledge that it might get the more reasonable person in the number two spot elected?

This example highlights the one notable thing that is absent from Jury Team’s twelve proposals, most of which are interesting: reform of the electoral system. Without reform, running an indpendents list for the Euro-elections is a nonsense, but it is also a bit of a nonsense under the first past the post system as well. Jury Team could get 20% of the votes in 2010 and not get a single MP elected; knowing that, why should people waste their time with them?

Instead of electoral reform, Jury Team propose to bring an end to the party whips. Now there is some out and out nonsense here, such as:

The only real challenge to the UK Government is now through the crossbenchers in the House of Lords who are individuals acting on the basis that they have a free vote which is not whipped by any party. The success of the Lords’ crossbenchers in enforcing better discussion of Government proposals in recent years provides very strong support in favour of allowing similar discussions and votes, unfettered by party whipping, to take place in the House of Commons. It should also be noted that the crossbenchers act as a formal group, even electing their own chair, but these structures confine themselves to administrative matters and do not direct any political policy, exactly as envisaged for the Jury Team.

Are they deliberately trying to wind me up here? It is nonsense from start to finish. The challenge in the Lords is a whipped party vote in a chamber in which no single party has overall control. The crossbenchers barely turn up enough to actually count. Indeed, if this is the model they are seeking to replicate in the House of Commons, it would be an absolute scandal. It would mean turnout amongst MPs would plummet, the government would be held to less account – not more – and yet we would continue to pay them their salary (which, under their proposal to make MPs’ pay awards independent, would mean we end up shelling out even more, as Will Howells points out).

If the party whips system did not exist, we would have to invent it. 99% of the time, the whipping system is entirely benign. It is about making sure MPs vote according to the party line so they can afford to specialise and not have to focus on the minutiae of every single debate. It is about ensuring that if an MP has to be away from the chamber at any given time, then the overall political balance in the chamber can be maintained. Occasionally, very occasionally, it can lead to strong arming and even outright violence – mainly because we have a two-party model that is rooted in the idea that the government cannot afford to ever lose a vote on the Commons floor. If we had a politically balanced House of Commons, we’d see more defeats but I doubt we’d see much more in terms of rebellions. Again, MPs are, if anything, more rebellious than Lords. Could it be that they tend to vote along the party line not because whips hold some kind of terror over them but because they perceive the system is in their long term interests?

If we didn’t have party whips, we would still have a similar system of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-mine. In place of parties would be informal relationships between individuals. The key difference will be that the conspirators will not be accountable to a common manifesto and it will be far more opaque than what we have at present. If I vote for a Labour, Tory or Lib Dem MP I have a fair idea of what I’m getting. How many people knew in 1997 that when they voted for Martin Bell they were getting an opponent of gay rights, for example?

I want Jury Team to make a real go of it, in a way that Your Party never did, not because I think it is a good idea but because I think it is a terrible one. In many respects I’d love to be proven wrong. I’d love to be sitting here, in 20 years time, as an Independent MP cringing at the thought of how I bought into all that party nonsense. But the truth is I suspect it will fizzle out within twelve months, just as all similar attempts have done so – not because of an evil hegemonic political system with an agenda to stop anyone from trying something new, but because it is a fundamentally bad idea based on an exaggerated fixation on the importance of the individual over and above the need for collective action. We will see.