I’ve been reading the Rothermere Press’ reasonable, balanced interview with the reasonable, balanced BNP parish council by-election candidate Donna Bailey. If liberty ever dies in this country, it will go out not with a bang, but a whimper; a death by a thousand cuts. And it will be nice, ordinary people like Donna Bailey who will be wielding the knife.
The thing about this article which most struck me was this section:
Simon Birnstingl believes that real disenchantment with Westminster politics has brought the village to this point.
He says many locals are so far removed from the political process – and Westminster politicians so illinformed about what is actually happening in places like this – that parties like the BNP are being allowed to make themselves acceptable.
“There are real issues that are not being addressed, and people are just switching off. I think it is horrific that a lot of people just shrug when you say BNP. They honestly don’t care.”
It’s not that I would take issue with any of that; I’ve said as much myself before. But there is another dimension which doesn’t get talked about anything like as much as it should. That is, that the decline of politics is not simply a Westminster-versus-the-rest-of-us phenomenon but is happening in every town, village and suburb in the country.
Upper Beeding has apparently not had an election since 1974; I believe this. A couple of months ago I did a very nerdy thing and calculated how many candidates stood for the all-out parish council elections in East Sussex last year. I don’t have the figures in front of me but the average number of candidates for each vacancy came to less than 1.1, despite a number of parishes where it was quite competitive. In Wiltshire last year, a BNP candidate was elected unopposed.
Why do so few people stand for parish and community councils? There are lots of factors, but the main ones in my experience are an unholy alliance between a profoundly undemocratic electoral system and a profoundly undemocratic culture that regards elections as vulgar. Villages have a tendency to be ruled over by hegemonies. Political parties in all but name, they dominate by perpetuating the myth that they are above such things. The worst examples of nepotism and venality can be found but somehow this gets justified as a natural feature of village life. It works because the passive majority simply cannot imagine anything else.
It also works because the electoral system makes it almost impossible to break hegemonic power. Anyone who has ever fought an election in a multi-member ward understands this: if you’re serious about winning you have to field a full slate. Otherewise, for example if you field one candidate in a three member ward, for every single vote you get you are guaranteed two votes against you. You might succeed in splitting the vote (the Green Party did this trick in Barnet in 2006 and handed the Tories at least one councillor on a plate), but you make it more difficult to get elected yourself. While this may be a problem in three member primary council wards, many parish councils elect blocs of 10 or even 20. So long as the hegemony enjoys the plurality, its place is secured (I can only laugh hollowly when I read the Tory democratic reform ginger group Direct Democracy support FPTP multi-member constituencies as a way of promoting “choice” and “competition”). In most cases people just don’t bother.
The other side of the coin is that where the hegemony for whatever reason doesn’t manage to get a full slate (they have to die some time…), virtually anyone can slip through the net. That is what Donna Bailey tried to do and Michael Simpkins achieved.
A system like STV which works against hegemonies whether they call themselves political parties, residents associations or even just colleagues would not stop the BNP from gaining elected representatives; far from it. Whether we like it or not, the minority that support the BNP have a right to representation as much as the rest of us (so long as they accept that both they and their political leaders are pariahs). What it would do however is stop them from sneaking into office by the backdoor. It would stop them from being able to acquire hegemonies of their own. And it would stop them from being able to bleat on about how they are discriminated against and instead put the focus on delivery. It is at that point that the BNP invariably fail.
What applies to the BNP applies to everyone else too. The dead weight being carried by parish and community councils across the country is palpable. The clear white light of competition could only do them good.