Are single issue parties the answer? Not exactly…

Next month’s European elections could see voters turning to small parties in record numbers, says the BBC

It’s time for the Euro elections, and England (particularly — other parts of the Union are better at this) has never quite made up its mind as to whether the Euro elections are to be taken more or less seriously than Eurovision. Single issue parties come and go. Remember the Referendum Party? The Common Good? Respect? (Whatever happened to them?) Perennial favourites are back, of course: UKIP and the Greens accounting for right-wing and left-wing, under the guise of being about something important. But our most popular single issue party, the Official Monster Raving Looney Party, seems to give Europe a miss. Maybe they don’t take Europe as seriously as the others do. This time we have some new ones — English Democrats, the Jury Team, No2EU, Fair Play Fair Trade Party, Libertas, Mebyon Kernow, Animals Count, the Alliance Party, the Pensioners party, the Roman Party, the Socialist Party of Great Britain, Socialist Labour Party, The Peace Party, Wai D, Yes 2 Europe, and the Christian Peoples Alliance.

That’s an awful lot of parties.

For a few years, we took a stand at the Greenbelt Festival with the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. Generally speaking, we were there in a tent with about 100-200 organisations represented, all trying to have some impact through politics. They ranged from major charities through to one man bands. A few of them eyed us with suspicion, while others told us how hard it was to get the major parties to take them seriously. In some cases, they both eyed us with suspicion and told us the major parties wouldn’t take them seriously.

There are basically three kinds of single issue politics. One is temporary but important. One is well-meaning but fairly useless. One is dangerous and dishonest.

Joanna Lumley’s campaign for the Gurkhas is the most recent in a long line of highly focused campaigns on a single issue which attract cross-party support, achieve their goal, and then disappear. Lumley is not looking to form a Gurkha’s party, or to propel herself into parliament by this means. She identified an injustice which meant a lot to her (her father had fought alongside the Gurkhas), and invested her profile and talents working with the legitimate owners of the issue — the Gurkhas themselves. This is the first kind of single issue politics, and it plays an important role in British society. But, very, very rarely does such a cause form a party and stand at elections. Its strength is that it can work with the existing politicians for something which is evidently right.

Fair Play Fair Trade, Animals Count and the Peace Party are examples of the second kind. They raise a legitimate social issue. But, in fact, their involvement in the election does nothing to take their agenda forward. At best, they achieve nothing. At worst, they switch off the people who actually do get elected from doing anything about it. At the 2001 General Election, for example, I, as a very green first-time candidate, attended a meeting about asylum seeker rights — something about which I care passionately, though it’s not a popular issue with most people. It didn’t take long to realise that everyone else present was from one of the extremist parties, and the meeting had been organised to demonstrate that only they cared about asylum seekers. They did their best to make me welcome, but they didn’t conceal very successfully that the only reason they had invited me (and others, who did not attend) was in order to be able to say ‘we invited the main parties, but they weren’t interested’.

Then there are the parties that put forward a single issue, but are actually about something entirely different. I grew up believing that the Green party was a party of environmentalists. It was only when I started meeting them that I discovered they (at least in Britain) are actually an extreme socialist party that attracts attention and votes by flying the Green flag, but are closed to any form of environmentalism which does not tally with their underlying philosophy. If you want to save the planet, join Friends of the Earth instead. A number of the ‘save the NHS’ parties are run by people who had no previous contact with the NHS, except as patients, until they decided that the closure of a local hospital was an ideal issue on which to sell their party. Some of these are more honest than others. I believe that the Greens do care about the environment. On the other hand, every piece of literature I’ve ever seen from the BNP attempts to present a single issue, such as law and order, as their real concern. You have to read a long way down many of their pieces before you discover what they are really about.

Single issue campaigns are part of the warp and woof of British democracy. Single issue parties are the electoral equivalent of dithering: when it’s too hard to choose, perhaps because of a crisis of the kind we have seen over MP expenses, many people opt for them because they feel they have a duty to vote, and want to vote for something else, anything else.

But when these single issue parties have been elected, as with UKIP and the Greens at the last Euro elections, and as with the BNP and Respect on some councils, and, for George Galloway, in parliament, their record is depressing. Aside from going on Big Brother, it’s very hard to spot anything that Galloway has actually done since being elected as a Respect MP. UKIP lost their party leader swiftly, and lost another MEP to a benefits-fraud conviction, and have probably the worst voting record of any party in any European country. The Greens have not engaged in any positive dialogue which has generated any change that would not have happened if they had not been there. Although the BNP have failed to secure seats in any of our parliaments, their European cousins, Vlaams Blok in Belgium and LPF in the Netherlands, actually gained enough seats to form governments. But their governments quickly collapsed, because they lacked the consensus to put into practice their underlying racist policies, and they had no other policies on which to base an administration.

Hand wringing is all very well. No one can deny that many of our mainstream politicians have let us down badly, not just over the last couple of weeks, but over the five, ten or twenty years since they were first elected. But, like it or not, real politicians in real parties are in it for the long haul, and when all the bluster of scandal and election are over, they sit down together and work out — often across party boundaries — how to get the best deal for the public who elected them. They certainly don’t always get it right. But their record is infinitely better than the hand wringing or single-cynicism parties that surface especially at Euro elections.

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