Voting sucks

It's not the process of voting that sucks. It's the choices presented. A bit like in the E2 user polls, when you see a range of options in front of you, but none of them reflects your real opinion. At least here on E2 we can opt for None of the above.

Besides, it's not as if the user polls on E2 matter. Voting in a general election does matter though--or it should. Short of becoming actively involved in party politics, it's one of the most important political acts available to enfranchised citizens.

And that's the trouble. Party politics. If one party proposes it, then the other will oppose it, irrespective of the subject. George Orwell had it right. The purpose of war is not winning or losing. It's to keep the conflict going and to encourage hatred of the other side and discourage political criticism. That's the way it's going in politics. All issues become polarised into black or white: Republican or Democrat. There is no longer any room for shades of grey; for nuance; for a consensual attitude.

It wasn't always thus. My first general election vote was cast in 1979, the day we Brits voted Margaret Thatcher into power.I suspect I may have voted Conservative, but I don't really remember. In any case, the Constituency I voted in returned a solid Labour majority.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I now view the Thatcher years as a disaster for British society. Many Americans still revere the woman as a strong Western Leader. A foil to Ronald Reagan's brilliance, but here in the UK, we see her as the prime minister who destroyed British instinct for the collective good and encouraged personal greed. We see her as the originator of single-party divisive politics. her legacy is that the party in opposition has to disagree with the party in power, and vice versa. No matter what the policy in hand, except, possibly war, the parties are almost guaranteed to take polarised positions.

Before Thatcher, there was more consensus in British politics.

To her credit, however, she moved Britain forward from an industrialised, manufacturing economy to more of a service and knowledge-based society. Today, as Germany and France and the US struggle with the restructuring of their high-cost economies, Britain enjoys relatively low unemployment, and a relatively stable economy. There are other factors, of course, but in breaking the unions and destroying the miners, Thatcher laid the foundations for the continued economic growth that Britain currently enjoys. Nevertheless, it is my conviction that Thatcher's legacy has led to a gradual destruction of British society.

Noung says: Obviously I disagree with most of this, but I have to take issue with you bemoaning the downfall of the pre-Thatcher consensus: it was a consensus that had the IMF worrying Britain would soon be a Third World country.

You say you recognize that she helped the economy, but surely the only way for her to do that was to smash the ridiculous post-war collectivist consensus. There's a hugely convincing argument for seeing the collectivist period of British history as the exception in a norm of centuries of individualism. In this interpretation, Thatcher returned us to "normal".

To a US-based observer, the UK elections are quaint affairs. They appear surprisingly honest, by the standards of the great US political behemoths. If you are a disgruntled asylum seeker, you can attend a rally organised on behalf of Michael Howard, and heckle him and have a conversation with him, and you can be sure the encounter will appear on all the national news channels, as a member of the public discomfits the leader of the opposition. If you are a nurse with a grievance against the health service, then you can talk to the Prime Minister personally, again under the eyes of national TV.

In the US, I am told, such trouble makers would be ejected from the political rally before they even thought about their grievance.

Still today, elections are not won solely by the richest candidate. The TV channels must, by law, give each party air time, according to the likely result. This means that one day the Labour party (currently in power) will have a five-minute slot in prime time, and the next it might be the green party, or the ultra-right wing nationalist party.

We still have those great British eccentrics, theMonster Raving Loony Party, no longer led, alas, by the Screaming Lord Sutch. It continues to be relatively straightforward to become a candidate in a UK election. You have to put up a modest deposit (around $1000) which will be returned if you get a sensible share of the local vote. The deposit is meant to deter more frivolous candidates. Win less than 5 percent of the vote, and kiss that deposit goodbye.

Post-war British politics has evolved to cater for many different parties, whereas US politics might claim to be multi-party, but in reality no-one outside the two main Republican and Democrat parties has any chance of becoming President. One of my great passions against Thatcher was that she brought the UK system closer to the exclusive US two-party system. In more recent years, Blair has taken us further towards a Presidential system. The two strongest UK prime ministers of recent times have both moved the UK toward polarised and partisan politics we see in the USA.

I do not know if my disillusionment with the UK electoral system comes as a result of age, or as a sign of the times, or as something else. My feeling is that I am a small part of a wider malaise that regards the UK political system as somehow worse than it was ten or twenty years ago.

Take Tony Blair. When he was elected in 1997, the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief. On the morning he came to power, I walked to work with a spring in my step and a grin as wide as the river Thames. I was far from alone in that emotional response.

In the mornings I listen to Radio 4. The Today show is my news digest. Back in the mid-90s I had become used to Conservative politicians evading questions and dodging and obfuscating. Even, on not-so-rare occasions, lying. The day after Labour got in, there was a complete reversal. The new ministers gave straight answers to straight questions. "Will you do XYZ?" "Yes." Or perhaps, "no". No hint of obfuscation or fence-sitting there. No harking back to the old days of conservative evasion. Thank the Lord!

Today, after eight years in power, Tony and his cronies are just as bad as the Conservatives ever were. In my heart of hearts, I believe politicians do not have much freedom in the broad sweep of economic and legislative policy. They are more constrained than we might imagine by revenues and taxes and the realities of political life. But that doesn't stop me resenting the way they hide behind generalities and avoid telling the whole truth using weasel words to mislead Parliament and the public.

Iraq and the war

And then there is the war. A million people marched into London before Tony joined the US campaign to control the oil and depose Saddam. We told the politicians they were wrong, but they said "We know best: We know there are weapons of mass-destruction". We all know the history. They lied, or were misled or were leaned upon in the most real of realpolitik. And in the end, we were right and there were no WMDs and Halliburton and Bush and the oil magnates are getting rich off the lives of our boys and the suffering of Iraqis.

So even though I--and many others--think Blair is probably the best of a bad bunch, we cannot forgive him. When the Labour activists call and ask if they can count on my vote, I tell them no, They ask why and I tell them Iraq. They hang up, knowing there is nothing they can do or say; They have tried it all before on hundreds like me.

If we feel Blair betrayed us, then the Conservatives are even worse. Their betrayal revolved around deep dishonesty; xenophobia and the road to selfishness.I cannot see the Brits bringing the Conservatives back until they convince us that they have honestly changed their ways and their thinking, and there's no sign of that yet. Most of the same gang are still in charge and the new faces are complete wimps.

That leaves the Greens and the Lib-Dems and a few other minor parties. Above all, it means that vast numbers of voters are strongly disinclined to vote for either of the parties that have dominated British politics since the 1930s.

So why are we so disillusioned with politics? It's partly a desire to see more consensus: more true debate and less dissimulation, and partly it is because we have access to more information than any generation before us.

Knowledge is power

Back in 1597, Sir Francis Bacon said "knowledge is power" The phrase has become so over-used it is cliche. But move beyond cliche for a moment to analyse the phrase and understand what it might mean.

When religion was mixed up with political power, the priests would guard their secrets with a zealotry born of jealousy. From Ancient Egypt to modern-day shamans, priests keep their rituals and drugs secret from the population they control. In the more familiar world, It is only with the waning of political power in the Church of Rome that Vatican II was able to de-mystify the Mass. Where priests still wield political control of the population, their power is almost always shrouded in self-generated mystery.

In the Middle Ages it was reading and writing. Books carried the knowledge that brought political power. In the Renaissance, the Catholic Church sought to control scientific knowledge by torturing and imprisoning scientists such as Copernicus and Galileo, realising that impartial scientific knowledge could seriously undermine Biblical authority.

More recently, during the first half of the 20th century, governments were still able to keep a lot of information secret by controlling the media. It was only in the '60s that journalists started to seriously question their political masters. I do not think it a coincidence that public respect for politicians has declined steadily as we discover more details about their activities and peccadillos. It is an unfortunate consequence of public interest in celebrity and scandal that the negative stories usually feature prominently, while the stories about the many honest, hard-working politicians who are not corrupt and who do genuinely and professionally serve their country, are relatively rare. This too has played a role in the public's disenchantment with politicians and the political process.

Today, once the information is out, it goes onto the web and within seconds is available to millions. One person digests and summarises. Moments later, a million: a billion people can read it on the web.

Information wants to be free

The last defence--censorship and secrecy--of big government is falling as interested individuals gain the ability to publish their view of the world and gain a wide audience. E2 has its own role to play here. E2 offers intelligent, informed discussion of many of these issues taken not from a party political standpoint, but from a viewpoint that is skeptical, yet informed by both fact and morality. This is one area where E2 excels: Something--in my opinion--which no other forum on the web can match.

So the politicians are immersed in an environment where the information that informs their decisions is often available, is debated and analysed by thoughtful, intelligent individuals. All too often that analysis reveals flaws in the political decision-making process, showing that the politicians acted too fast, or through less than noble motivations.

Add to this public scrutiny a widespread impression that our leading political masters appear to be striving for more central control. As we, the educated voters, come to learn more about the world, we soon realise that politicians are limited in their power to act. Yet in the cases where they do have freedom--such as the war on Iraq--we start to think that they act not for the good of the nation, or of the electorate, but that their actions are driven by their personal need to retain power and wealth.

Oolong says: I think the tendency of 'the two main parties' to agree on most of the important issues is even more dangerous than their invidious insistence on disagreeing VERY LOUDLY and at great length about what amount to relatively trivial issues.

So how are You going to vote?

National government should be shrinking with the breaking down of international barriers, and the increasing freedom of information, yet we see politicians lining their own pockets and acting more in the interests of their own peer group, than in our interests as citizens.

As a personal decision, I am voting on local issues. In reality, my vote carries no more weight than either a pensioner on the local sink estate, or a senior figure in government. Nevertheless, I want to use my vote to tell big government that attempting to force us in to bi-partisan politics and immoral conflicts is the wrong path. Perhaps a vote for a minor party seems like a wasted vote, but any political organisation that ignores this trend toward localised politics and instead strives to build its own wealth and private empire, is out of step with the zeitgeist.

I don't foresee a way out of the established political systems at this election, but the only alternative is to take a cynical viewpoint and accuse politicians of lies and corruption, and that is a road to nihilism and anarchy. Voter turnout has been declining sharply in recent elections. I think this reflects the view that many voters cannot make a positive choice from the range presented to them, and the only negative choice is to abstain, or spoil the ballot paper or make some other negative statement. Voter turnout in this election is expected to reach new lows. Between 70 and 80 percent of the electorate turned out to vote in all elections between 1945 and 1997. The 1997 election was close to the record low at 71 percent, but the 2001 election saw that plunge to 59.3 percent. Polls prior to this election suggest that over 30 percent of first-time voters are likely to abstain.

Maybe over another ten or twenty years, we can see a way through the current apathy with respect to our elected representatives. I hope so, for the sake of democracy. Personally, I believe the way forward is to accept that most real political power in the UK has devolved to Brussels, and to move toward more local government. That, for better or worse, leaves little room for the Westminster Parliament.