Responding to the BNP

Many of us reacted with dismay to the news that the BNP had won not one but two seats in the Euro elections. The irony of this happening on D-Day escaped no-one. Yet, the sun rose the next morning, and we are still here. It is time to wake up, collectively, see what has really happened, and work to set it right.

First, we must put the BNP success into context. If they were a worthwhile party with a positive contribution to make, we would no doubt be congratulating them on two seats. But they are two seats out of 69, and the BNP managed to attract just 6.2% of the national vote — less than the total of other minor parties. Even if you add the BNP vote to the UKIP vote (something which UKIP would strongly protest), 75% of the population still voted for pro-European, not anti-European parties. Looked at on its own, 93.8% of people voted against the BNP.

Second, we must understand that the BNP result is an artefact of our particular form of Euro-election system. When given the choice of systems, Britain opted for the D’Hondt system — the least proportional of all the ‘proportional’ systems on offer, and the closest available choice to the UK’s standard museum-piece first past the post system. Critics of proportional representation are bound to be saying that the BNP would not have got seats under a true first-past-the-post system. But, equally, they would have gained no seats under the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system which most believe to be the fairest and most obvious — at least to the voter. Under STV, each voter ranks the proposed candidates in order, until they have no further preference. Given the make up of the vote last week, it is fairly clear that the BNP would have picked up almost no second or third preference votes. Far from allowing the extremists in, STV would have kept them out.

Third, we must recognise that we have only ourselves to blame for this debacle. British politics has functioned on a constant diet of back-biting and sneering, both from the media, and by politicians themselves. We have lambasted each other as incompetent, destructive, and sometimes even as ‘evil’. Now that we are facing electoral success by a party that is neither democratic nor, in any ordinary sense of the word, benevolent, we need to re-calibrate our language.

I grew up in the Thatcher years, when we were inclined to refer to her party as ‘fascist’. But they were not fascist, and never would become it. The Conservative Home website has a long blog & comments denigrating the Lib-Dems, and accusing us of being ‘liars’. Lib-Dems are not liars. We tell the truth the way we see it—as we should do in a free democracy. Tories may not agree. But that does not make us liars. Everyone has been lambasting Gordon Brown. I was on a TV show on Sunday with a Conservative candidate who, before the show, accused Brown of destroying the British economy. Brown did not destroy the British economy. And, no matter how expedient it might be for us to suggest that he did, to do so plays into the hands of the real fascists.

Likewise, spurred on by the media, the public has been educated to accuse all politicians of being liars, cheats and free-loaders. Journalists may write tongue-in-cheek, but the man in the street believes it to be true. But even politicians who have been found to have cheated on expenses are only part-dishonest. I should certainly not like to see them returned to the House of Commons, and I believe that they should have cleared the air by resigning. But that does not mean that Mrs Kirkbride and Ms Blears have not been working hard for their constituents for a very long time.

Contrast this with the BNP. Just scratch a BNP leaflet or website, and you find deceit right beneath the surface. Dig deeper, and lies and violence, as well as the arbitrary suspension of the human rights of those of whom they disapprove, are written right through their rotten hearts. As a committed Christian, I find the way in which Nick Griffin profaned the name of Jesus Christ in his speech on Sunday night to be an abomination. He claims to be speaking for Christian values and a Christian country, but everything he stands for diametrically opposed to the teaching of the carpenter from Nazareth.

So where should we go from here? The BNP know exactly where they are going. They will use every opportunity to milk the European system for funds, publicity and credibility. They will demand air-time as their democratic right, even though what they will be advocating is the dismantling of democracy. Their strategy has been building up to this for years. Why else would they contest European elections, when their whole ethos is anti-European and anti-internationalist? Their smug victory was bitter enough, but the aftermath will be far worse.

Our response, then, must be equally coherent and consistent. Otherwise, they will build on this to put them in a position of even more appalling strength at the next election.
First, the forces for good in politics must reinvent and reinvigorate themselves. No matter how much they are depending on the income, Members and Ministers who have been irretrievably tarnished by the expenses scandal should go. Parliament should vote soon to create a mechanism for them to resign immediately without loss of their resettlement grants — no matter how much that might irk the public — in return for their swift exit. If this is genuinely impossible, and I do not really understand why it should be, then they should announce now that they will be standing down. We do not need public humiliation and hand wringing — that would only serve the BNP and other extremists — but we do need action.

For us, the candidates and voters for the new parliament, we must bind ourselves not only to a code of conduct in regard to our expenses, but also in regard to our use of language and our conduct of business. The bickering, jeering atmosphere of the House of Commons, since it was first put on radio and subsequently television, has done a great deal to undermine public trust. We must simply stop backbiting, stop running negative, personal campaigns, not digging up any possible piece of dirt (proven or otherwise) to vilify another individual whose only genuine crime is daring to stand for a party not our own.

Second, we need a new, albeit unwritten, contract between the media, the public, and the politicians. Newspapers are, of course, under tremendous pressure, since their means of revenue generation has been dramatically eroded with the rise of the internet. It is unsurprising that they have leapt to whatever means of pumping up sales and increasing publicity that they can find. But politics is not the same as reality TV, and the house under Big Ben is not the same as the house of Big Brother. The constant caustic attacks on everyone who dares to put their head above the parapet are burning away our national life.

I am not suggesting that our papers and broadcasters should become anodyne, saccharine, mouthing platitudes for the sake of the ill-educated. But the duty to hold government to account must be balanced with a duty to contextualise, to explain, and, above all, to propose workable alternatives.

Third, we need to redefine our national project. Since the 1980s, the direction of Great Britain has been — almost without a voice of dissent — maximised prosperity, at the expense of all other things. Anybody speaking out against greater prosperity would have been seen as a lunatic.

I am not, of course, extolling the virtues of poverty. I’ve been poor, and I’ve been rich, and I know which one I would pick any day of the week. But prosperity at all costs has placed an intolerable burden on government to deliver what is not in its gift. We relentlessly relaxed rules on lending, reduced supervision of the financial sector, made it ever easier for people to borrow and enter bankruptcy, and we made every possible arrangement to encourage people in the belief that you are what you own, and your only worth is financial worth.

The personal tragedy of Gordon Brown is that he was remarkably adept at stoking up the prosperity when the world was in boom, so that Britain was one of the greatest long term beneficiaries of the decade of plenty. And he has been — at least as far as international commentators are concerned — remarkably good at stitching together coalitions to limit the damage of the recession. But the public have no patience for this. The public want ongoing, endless prosperity, of the kind they have got used to. Even if the rest of the world was collapsing while Britain endured a mild slump, the public would still be calling for Brown’s blood, because we as a nation, and he, while chancellor, have programmed ourselves to see the success of a government solely in economic terms.

I do not intend to dwell on wasted opportunities. We are where we are. But unless we define our national programme in other terms — call it social capital, if you are on the left, or call it community spirit, if you are on the right, or call it spiritual renewal, if you are from a faith background — then we will inevitably and periodically return in each economic cycle to a point where the electorate believe the government has entirely failed them, see no prospect of better from the other mainstream parties, and are willing to entertain the claims of those who are quick to point the finger at scapegoats, and quick to advocate a simple ‘make sense’ plan, which (in fact) will not result in the return of the prosperity that the public seeks, and will further destroy the threads that hold the fabric of society together.

It is time for those of us who believe in a radically different agenda from that put forward by the BNP to begin long term, effective and altruistic political action.

Time to stand up and be counted.

Who now can claim that the Daily Telegraph helped democracy?

On the anniversary of D-Day, for the first time in British history, a far-right party with the fascist heritage of Hitler and Mussolini has won parliamentary seats from the British electorate — not one, but two. We can point to the economy, we can point to disillusionment with 12 years of Labour, we can point to the long established media xenophobia when it comes to European elections, but everyone must now admit that this is above all a result of the Daily Telegraph’s intensive campaign over the last month and a half to discredit mainstream politics in this country, using to the maximum the exclusive access it (allegedly) bought to a story which was, morally speaking, the property of another journalist, and, legally speaking, the property of the taxpayer.

As I said on BBC yesterday, I absolutely believe that the story should have come out, and I absolutely believe that MPs who have committed fraud should go to prison, while MPs who have organised their expenses in such a way as to game for a profit at the expense of the tax payer should resign from the House.

I also believe that this crisis has been handled badly. If the Speaker had had any sense, he would have released all the information about all the expenses the day that the story broke.

And yet, and yet. By milking the expenses scandal to the uttermost, and ensuring that it and it alone controlled the news to maximum effect, the Daily Telegraph has wiped out a generation’s already faltering confidence in its elected representatives. The Telegraph may argue that it has not tarred every politician with the same brush, but the result of its revelations is that all politicians are tarred. Go onto the streets of any town or city in the UK wearing a rosette of any of the major parties, and you will quickly hear people say ‘You’re all the same’. The Telegraph will certainly argue that it did not intend to mislead the public. But the result is that the public were misled. The Telegraph may argue that it did exactly what was necessary for a free press to survive. But the reality is that it did the opposite: in this story, at least, which has dominated the news agenda in the run up to the elections, we have seen not a free press, but a monopolistic press.

The result — and I do not remotely wish to claim that this was the Telegraph’s intention, although I would strongly argue that they should have foreseen it — is that fascism is once more on the rise in Britain, electorally stronger than at any time in British history.

Who now can claim that the Daily Telegraph, in so doing, has helped democracy?

We keep up relentless pressure on Tories in Stratford on Avon

The Tories may be celebrating in many places. But in Stratford on Avon they must be — for the second year in a row — wringing their hands and wondering how things could continue to go so badly wrong. Although they picked up Alcester in the County Council elections — agonisingly, for us, winning by 5%, which was less than the votes taken out by the Green party choosing to stand — they lost Studley, which includes rural areas such as Mappleborough Green, as well as handing over both of the Stratford South seats. We also held on to Stratford Avenue & New Town and Bidford-on-Avon: a net gain of two seats to the Lib-Dems, and a net loss to the Tories of two, for a total swing of four seats.

Tories are probably right now at their long-term peak of popularity. It does not bode well for them to be losing held seats in Stratford during what is otherwise their most successful county council result in generations.

My congratulations go to Peter Balaam, Kate Rolfe, Ron Cockings and Martin Barry for their new titles of County Councillor, and to Peter Barnes for his successful re-election. My deepest sympathies go to Nina Knapman, whose hard work for so many people should have been rewarded in Alcester.

The Stratford on Avon constituency results, along with a net no-change for us across the rest of Warwickshire, gave the Lib-Dems 12 seats on the county council, thereby pushing Labour into third place, and making us the official opposition.

At the time of writing, Lib-Dems are predicted to have picked up 28% of the vote nationally: a high water mark for us.

We progress.

Nonetheless, tomorrow we must vote on the issues

Tonight is pre-election night. Tomorrow, county and Euro elections.

Which means not one person who has been implicated in MP expenses is standing. To be sure, MEPs have been questioned about their expenses in the past, most notably UKIP, whose value to the taxpayer in terms of cost for work done is lamentable.

Westminster must be reformed, but tomorrow’s vote will not have a direct bearing on it. We could, of course, vote to send a message, but, for once, it appears that all the major parties have got the message already — though, what they intend to do about it varies from the disingenous to the radical.

So, what are the issues for the European elections?

By number of parties standing, you would think the main issue is Europe — in or out. But it isn’t. Not one of the major parties suggests we should leave the European Union. UKIP may see itself as a major party on this issue, but, after a full term with members in the EU parliament, UKIP has yet to be able to show a single change to the European system which it can call its own. A vote for UKIP is, in every sense, a wasted vote.

The reason that the serious parties all agree on our membership of the EU is that, notwithstanding any number of pictures of Winston Churchill and British Bulldogs (now more commonly used for selling insurance), Britain needs to be at the head of an effective, negotiating Europe. No matter what we would love to believe, the USA, Russia, India, China, and the federations of South America and of Africa are much too big for us to negotiate with as a single player. Worse, climate change is much, much too big for us to deal with alone. And worse still, international crime has now successfully organised itself to slip by any single-government policing programme.

Of course, the serious parties disagree seriously on how we should be involved in Europe. To me, it seems clear that there is only one logically consistent position. If we accept at all that we should be in the EU, then we should be fully participating just as much as France and Germany. Otherwise, we will be second-class members paying the full membership fee. This means full co-operation on crime, a genuine collaboration to rebuild our economies, and a concerted approach to climate change. Pollution, drug and people trafficking, and the credit crunch are three things that will not stop at the white cliffs of Dover.

Various gradations of ‘not-really taking part’ seem to me to be more about being seen by the electorate to be just Euro-sceptic enough to vote for. But they will do us as a nation no good in the long run, nor in the short, as we have bitterly seen in the last years.

So what about the ‘consistent’ position not of Euro-scepticism, but of total Euro-phobia? I spent a bit of last Thursday handing out leaflets while the BBC filmed me as background material to vox-pops. It didn’t take long for us to spot which two people were (more or less) walking up and down, lingering, in order to get their chance on camera. And, of course, they launched a tirade against Europe, the Commission, MEPs, MPs expenses, etc, etc.

If you want to get really angry about something, Europe is always a good choice — after all, it’s not going to come round to your house later saying “what was all that about, then?”, nor is it likely to be on the committee of any club you might subsequently want to join. Europe is, in some ways, tailor-made for the English eccentric who wants to have a jolly good rant, and then get back to raking up the leaves or making cakes for a jumble sale.

But, in reality, the Euro-phobic parties do not go any further than that in terms of their real policies. Euro-phobia is just another manifestation of xenophobia. And, like xenophobia, the real problem is where you draw the line about who is ‘foreign’. In its extreme form, American survivalists end up drawing a line around themselves and their immediate family, and declaring cold-war on the rest of the world.

Neither UKIP nor any of the other fringe parties has ever put forward any kind of a credible process by which Britain could leave the EU, nor have they ever put forward figures that any independent commentator would accept about how much it would cost the British economy to do so. This is not simply because there is no credible process. It is because anyone who works to acquire sufficient knowledge to put together such a process learns quickly that the programme itself is nonsensical.

I used to know a lovely old lady who had (as anyone would confirm) a heart of complete gold. Occasionally, though, she would talk about Europe. “They should never have built the Channel Tunnel”, she used to tell me. “That was really the end of Britain as an island.” She never quite explained what the exact implications of the channel tunnel were. I’m not sure if she felt that European-ness — perhaps a fondness for olives, French bread and espresso coffee — would come wafting through the tunnel like a ground mist. I don’t think she knew herself. But I feel that her fears were of exactly the same kind as the Euro-phobic parties: ill-defined, unfaced, impossible to pin down to any specific threat that could be managed or mitigated.

Such is the way of fear. Fear, as we have seen too often in the 20th century, is the worst of all guides at the ballot box. Closely followed by fury.

Tomorrow, we must put aside both fear and fury, and face the issues. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to each other.

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