You can tell there’s an election coming when everyone wants to talk about politics!

17 Apr

When your vicar uses the words “I don’t want to get political but…” in at least 2 Holy Week/Easter services, as well as at least 1 Bible study, you know that politics is something that most people are thinking about, to some degree at least.

Some people, like me, will have been paying attention to the political stories without stopping. But others will have only just switched on, now that there is just under 3 weeks to go until the General Election. And then there are those who “live” politics, that is to say either the politicians (the clue is in the name) or the political journalists (again, clue in the name!), who are now reaching fever pitch in their statements, reporting and other general political stuff.

The funny thing about this election is that it is so heavily impacted by the result of (and the resulting 5 years after) the last election. In the past it has been either about ideologies being put in front of the country, or it has been about personalities and who is fit to govern. Now, you might think that this isn’t funny at all, after all people will be judging the government of the last parliament on their performance and then voting according to whether they want more of the same or a change. But hopefully, as you read on, you will understand what I mean.

Another thing that has come to fruition, after growing during the years of both John Major and Tony Blair (and Gordon Brown, if you want to include his short time as something other than the remnants of New Labour), is a completely tribal political devotion with what can very often appear to a complete lack of engagement with the actual details of what is being said. And whilst I know that it has been on all sides, it does appear to be particularly on the side of the Left that this happens the most. But, before you decide that you don’t want to read any further, I will look to address this in detail in a bit.

The final thing I want to raise is the issue of no issues. If you have a look at the majority of the main parties (and I include all the parties represented in the debate that David Cameron took part in under that banner) there is very little between them. The one exception would be UKIP, but even they stick to some of the central themes as though they are an essential mantra to show that you are serious about getting elected. And these political themes are getting fewer and fewer as it appears that the parties simply accept the status quo rather than suggest that an alternative way forward is possible. Again, I will come to this later.

Ok, so here are my issues, in detail, with the election:

1 – I hate safe seats!

As some of you are probably well aware, I am a right of centre person, politically (I am not going to say who I will be voting for on here, even if some of what I say here may make you think it is obvious, but you are welcome to ask me if you see me and we can have a discussion on the matter). I am currently in the constituency that is represented by Lyn Brown. It is a safe Labour seat, probably one of the safest in the country. And because of this, so far, I have only received 1 interaction from any political party since parliament was dissolved (it may even have been a little while before). It was a postal flyer from the Labour party, asking me to support Lyn Brown get re-elected. I have heard nothing from any other parties, nor have I been doorstepped by any parties to ask me how I am voting. It feels like I am being completely ignored because there is no fear that Labour will lose this seat, as though Labour (and therefore Lyn Brown herself) are taking it for granted that she will be returned to Westminster. I have only had 1 contact with Lyn Brown in my nearly 4 and a half years living in the constituency, which was at my own initiation when I tried to seek her support in trying to raise funds for our church community charity through being sponsored to cut my hair. All that happened was 1 tweet (and maybe she sent it around in an e-mail once, not that I have seen anything to suggest this to be the case), after I was told that she would be delighted to support me. Not that I am seeking to embarrass her into donating, but she didn’t donate either, despite receiving the web address for online donations. So it feels almost as though this constituency means nothing to any of the candidates. Lyn Brown expects to get voted in and the rest don’t expect to get many votes and so aren’t wanting to put much effort into trying to increase their votes. And so the local constituents (such as myself) are left pretty much disjointed from the political process, even though it is all that the various news channels and programmes seem to want to talk about. Safe seats mean that people are possibly more inclined to disengage with the process, rather than become involved. Personally I would love any of the candidates to come knocking so that I could invite them in and ask them questions about their party’s policies and so on, but sadly I don’t see this happening any time soon.

2 – This election is nothing to do with party politics and everything to do with who did what, politically speaking, and who might do what in the event of a hung parliament!

Don’t believe me? Just look at what has happened to the Lib-Dem vote and what people say about them! It is all about “They sided with the Tories”, “How could you, we thought you would side with Labour” and “You screwed the students!”, rather than looking both at what they have accomplished in government (because almost certainly there have been policies put in place that would not have happened under a Conservative majority) and what they say they want to see happen in the future. People are saying that the Lib-Dems lied in the past (i.e. the things that they said in the run up to 2010) and so why should they be trusted now. Labour have even tried to twist the knife, suggesting that the only way that they would accept the Lib-Dems in a coalition would be if Nick Clegg were to stand down as leader, echoing suggestions that this was what he said about Gordon Brown if they were to have supported Labour in a coalition in 2010. They didn’t say this because it was the right way to approach the matter, Labour said it because they wanted to get back at Clegg for what is perceived by many in the Labour top ranks (many of them supportive of Brown) as a slight that led to Gordon Brown leaving more or less in ignominy and before he should have 5 years ago. It doesn’t matter that the Lib-Dems were much the smaller party (therefore unlikely to get a huge amount of their policies through), nor that Labour were not the largest party in Westminster (thus making Clegg’s statement that he would look to deal with the largest party in the event of a hung parliament forced to start talks with the Conservatives, simply as a matter of honour), nor that the idea of a “progressive rainbow coalition” was completely unworkable (as in like herding cats!). All people seem to want to do is either declare “We will not help the Tories back into Number 10” or “Don’t let them help the Tories back into Number 10”, rather than actually deal with the issues of policy. And the real killer is that because this has been rammed down so many throats for so long there are many who now follow this mentality and don’t engage with reality, only the false bitterness of the past.

3 – There are a lot of arguments, but very little real substance behind them!

The arguments are there for all to see, declaring who will give the NHS the most money, who will be nicest/harshest to immigrants, who will be firm with the EU, who will support industry, who will create jobs, who will support education, and so on. But there is so little substance behind these arguments that it is almost meaningless. For example, all parties have declared that the NHS is a top priority for financial support if they were to be in power. They all say how the other parties are not fully costed in their pledges and they all say that theirs IS costed. But none that I have seen have been able to actually point to this being the case. Even when people do try they end up talking in such a way as to be completely incomprehensible to most of the electorate, either by going into too much detail or by appearing to pick “facts” out of thin air. Now, I will agree that there are some areas where there are very clear differences that can be explained fairly easily. UKIP, for example, are very clear in their intentions towards Britain’s place in the EU. However, as soon as this is brought up we get into the area of immigration and this then leads into a slanging match about who is being the more racist when certain parties suggest being “firm” with immigrants and immigration (not that this is possible due to the EU treaties that protect the freedom of movement of citizens of member states) and it becomes, in the end, a case of who can come across as the more appealing to the people watching as they seek to reprimand UKIP for their point of view. And here lies a huge issue for politics at the moment. You are perfectly ok to be a political party that espouses the accepted ideals within the ever smaller “mainstream” range of views, but as soon as you express a view that does not sit within them then woe betide you. With immigration it means that unless you are welcoming of immigrants and value their contributions you will be shouted down at any and every opportunity, rather than being allowed to express a point of view and then have the argument in a civil and productive manner. Even some of the most civil people (seemingly at least) become unbearable “liberal fascists” when an issue like this comes up. The NHS is another one, for woe betide you if you were to suggest that another way of doing things might be better! The same goes for education as well. Suggest something as a genuine alternative (as opposed to a rehashing of the current system) and you are not allowed to talk except under fear of verbal, and sometimes even physical, assault. Just look at how Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage were been treated last month! It’s not as though this election is the first time that it has happened (remember John Prescott‘s “engagement” with the public?), but it does seem that it is happening a heck of a lot more now than it ever has done in recent times. And I think that this refusal to engage with a voice that is significantly different has stifled political discourse. Ever since Labour and the Conservatives decided to “fight over the middle ground” to win votes, rather than make an ideological stand for things that they believe in, we have had a lot less to choose from and a lot less chances to talk about anything else. And to top it all off, the people who are in the positions of power are the ones that pretty much encourage the negative reactions to different ideologies. For example, as soon as UKIP mention immigration (I use this as an example as it is probably the most covered issue and one that I have looked into the most) everyone kicks up a fuss about them being racist. Whether it is BBC programming (ever seen Mock The Week and Have I Got News For You or listened to The Now Show?), on other channels or on the internet, it is a regular refrain of equating UKIP and Nigel Farage with the Nazis and Hitler, rather than listening to what is being said. If they actually read and listened to what UKIP say on the subject, they would know that UKIP said that 30 million Bulgarians and Romanians COULD come over to the UK. Not that they would, but that they could. And, when they became fully fledged members of the EU, complete with freedom of movement, that was correct. The fact that they didn’t doesn’t make UKIP incorrect, but from what you hear about it, particularly in “comedy”, you’d think that this was a glaringly obvious “fact”. They would also know that UKIP are not against immigration, but are in favour of being able to control it, something that freedom of movement prevents. They are also not looking to kick out any and every immigrant, despite what comedians and many politicians and reporters would have you believe. They have said that they would seek to remove those who are not a positive influence upon the UK, which is surely nothing like the comedy line that they are seeking to return Britain to an Anglo-Saxon nation. Of course, it gets laughs, and this means that it will be repeated again and again, to the point that many of the general public will repeat it as fact, even though it is nothing of the kind! If only people would actually read and listen, rather than reacting based on misinformation! (And I mean this about all areas, not just the UKIP-immigration issue!)

4 – Issues!

Why does politics nearly always have to resort to slanging off? Give a politician a platform and very quickly it is no longer about what they plan on doing and all about how the others are a waste of space! Sometimes this is merited, the state of the UK finances after the last Labour government springs to mind, but I would much rather hear about how you plan on making things different. David Cameron has proven himself to be a master of avoiding answering difficult questions, much to the annoyance of many, but Ed Miliband has shown himself to be little better as all he has wanted to do is say “It’s the nasty party again” and various other attempts to put the Conservatives down, rather than suggesting ways to make things better. When challenged on this he has often said “It’s not my position to answer questions at Prime Minister’s Questions” but surely, for someone who declares to be for “the new politics”, a much better way to do things (and one that someone with such a low personal rating would surely do well with) would be to suggest serious ways to do things better. And who knows, maybe Cameron and Clegg et al might have listened and done what was suggested, thus potentially making things better for the nation. But, it would appear that political point scoring is much more rewarding than making the nation a better place for it’s inhabitants. So a pox on all 3 “major” party houses on this!

 

Ok, so having moaned about pretty much everything I started saying I would (I feel like I may have missed something out, but if so then I blame the drugs I am taking for my back at the moment!), so how about what we might want to be looking for in our MPs and what might we want to ask about if we have the chance to engage with candidates?

Well, unsurprisingly given who I am, my thoughts come from a Christian perspective. That doesn’t mean that all Christians will agree with them, but I want to be clear that my conclusions are formed from a logical progression from Biblical principles.

1 – Whatever else, how the government does thing should be both affordable and sustainable

This may seem obvious to some, but it definitely isn’t to a lot of people, particularly politicians! All you have to do is look at Labour’s promises in 2010, the Conservative promises of this election, or pretty much any other party’s manifesto to see that there appears to be a thought process that includes the ideas that money simply appears out of thin air and that getting into bigger and bigger debt is not a problem. To use a computer game/app as an example of how things SHOULD be done, let me talk about Sim City. For those that don’t know, the idea of the game is to build your city as big as possible. The problem is that you can only expand certain aspects in certain ways. So your storage facility for materials (which you are able to create for free, just over time) can be increased in size, but you need certain materials to do this. You also have a limited amount of space to build your city at first, but can increase that space (within game limitations), again by spending certain resources. Each time you build something it either costs materials (particularly increasing your residential areas) or in-game money (Simoleans). Therefore the setting of the game is that if you want to need to take your time, craft your materials and await for certain other materials to “drop” (this means repeating a particular action that has an irregular rate of producing said materials) in order to progress in the game. The only way that you are able to progress quicker than this is to spend real life money on things in the game to make them happen faster. The problem is that if you want these things to continue to happen quickly you will end up spending more and more real money, when actually, if you just waited and played the game properly, you would get to the same position in the end and not spend as much money. If you don’t have the money (either Simoleans or real money) then you can’t get things and have to wait to raise the [in-game] money to build something. To return to politics now, a lot of politicians seem to think that you can continue to spend the equivalent of real life money (as related to the game) to get stuff done quicker, thus building up a debt, without then thinking of how they are going to pay down said debt. This means that we end up spending millions and billions of tax payers money on paying off debt, rather than on actual stuff like doctors, teachers and so on. This has been the idea behind that much despised word, austerity. You reduce how much the government is spending and pay off the debt owed, so that you can then start spending just on things for the country, rather than to the countries that we owe money to (and remember that all we seem to be paying off at the moment is the interest on the debt, rather than the debt itself, so it’s not like the cuts that have been moaned about over the last 5 years have actually done what they were supposed to do)! The Bible talks about being responsible with what we have, so surely a key aspect of policy for any government, for a Christian, would be to be financially responsible. That way, when we are financially stable and self-sufficient, we are able to be sure about how much money we actually have to spend and be able to accurately say where the money will go.

2 – Fairness for all

Before I go any further, please note that I said fairness, not equality. Not because real equality isn’t good, but because the term has become anything other than fair in today’s political landscape. As H G Wells once wrote, some people really are more equal than others! But fairness, I think, encapsulates the way that equality should work. So that means offering the same chances to those at the “bottom” of the ladder as well as those at the top (and, obviously, for those in between as well!) to be able to succeed. In some cases that might mean that those better off be asked to pay extra to help those not as well off, in other cases it is simply about opportunities being offered on merit. The Bible talks about treating people fairly (ok, so I used the term equality, but you get what I am saying), so surely a Christian should be seeking a representative who will treat people fairly. Sadly there have been more than a few examples of Christians being treated unfairly under the law in relation to expression of faith, and I would hope that whoever is in power after the election would see that as an important area, not just about the Christian faith but for people of any faith and those of none as well.

3 – Good treatment of the poor

Jesus commented that we will always have “the poor” among us but also showed how to treat them. One area that this last government has definitely done a good thing has been removing the first £10,000 anyone earns from tax, helping millions of those who were in low earning jobs to have more money to spend for their families. Something that Labour (and Gordon Brown in particular) did really good work on was gift aid, which is still seeing huge benefits for charities in what they are able to claim back from government to help their work with the less advantaged. There are many other areas, such as benefit payments and housing, where there are huge disagreements on what is the best way forwards, so I will not even try and talk to them, but I would suggest that the motives behind any policy should surely be the key to how we should respond.

4 – How to treat the rest of the world

I would look to the basic idea that comes from the parable of The Good Samaritan, the idea of doing to others as you would like them to do to you and caring for your neighbour, whoever they might be. That includes foreign financial aid where it is needed and taking refugees from areas of the world that are in need of such help, such as the situation in Syria and Iraq. We all know that we would like to be helped if we were in such a situation, so we should be looking to do the same when we are in a position to be able to.

For me, the key to all of this is that all 4 points cannot contradict themselves. This is particularly the case with point 1, because if we start to do something that is unsustainable then it means that eventually we won’t be able to afford to do it anymore. So I would encourage any conversations that you have to be focussed on these 4 points, but point 1 in particular. We all want this country to do well, both for those living here and for those we seek to be neighbours to in the rest of the world, but if we are unable to maintain them then what point is there in doing them at all? To do so means to eventually stop, which means having to treat 1 group of people less fairly than another.

 

Anyway, that’s my political pontificating done. Hopefully it has caused some thinking, maybe even some rethinking. I am guessing that some of you who have made it this far will probably not have rethought on certain things and will have less than positive comments on certain things that I have said, which is fair enough given that I am simply putting my thoughts out there in the hope of creating a conversation. All I would ask is that if you do want to actively join the discussion then please try and make your involvement worth responding to. As Brooks Atkinson said “The most fatal illusion is the settled point of view. Since life is growth and motion, a fixed point of view kills anybody who has one.” Let’s all be open-minded and deal with the details, rather than the hot air and bluster.

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