In praise of our small democracy
I don’t know the fine details that distinguish The Socialist Party of Great Britain, Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Equality Party; I don’t know what motivates the Apolitical Democrats or why a fringe party is called Mainstream.
But I do know that there are over 130 political parties contesting the election this year. That’s more than any other country in any election in Europe. The vast majority of these are fielding between 1 and 4 candidates and will not receive the required eighth of the vote to get their deposits back. Ranging from the clue-is-in-the-name Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol and Reduce VAT in Sport to the cultish sounding Al-Zebabist Nation of Ooog party and the #badumtish Birthday Party, they are easy to mock. Indeed the incarnation of brunchtime pugnacity Andrew Neil has been doing just that in Daily Politics’ series of interviews with representatives of the smaller parties. Through a masterclass in glasses-tilting condescension Neil repeatedly asks his interviewees why they bother.
Yes, the Parliamentary arithmetic is incontrovertible. But I think it’s important to stand up for this proud British tradition of smaller party eccentricity. Here’s why on election day they have my (sympathetic) vote:
They’re at the heart of our democracy
Our politics didn’t begin with the installation of a parliamentary system centred on two large parties. It started with grassroot protest movements in the seventeenth century. The civil war tore down monarchical and theological institutions and opened up radical crevices in which disenfranchised communities and maverick thinkers conceptualised new ways of structuring society. Groups like the Levellers, the Diggers and the Ranters (from whom all Littlejohns are descended) wrote pamphlets, set up alternative communities and attracted a national following. They were marginal- but still threatened the established order to merit suppression by Cromwell’s forces. The constitutional democracy that followed was designed to pacify the groundswell of interregnum radicalism and exclude the protest groups.
They are quintessentially British
In refreshing contrast to the hierarchies of Westminster politics, the UK boasts the easiest system for registering political parties in the world. Where in Germany you require the handwritten signatures of at least 200 people eligible to vote in the constituency, in the UK you just need a party name, an address, a leader and a treasurer. Of course if we had a proportional voting system and the smaller parties had more of a chance of wielding power this process would become more restrictive. As it stands, the existence on the ballot paper of the likes of (if you’re lucky) The Beer, Baccy and Scratchings Party is a way of venting frustration at the political system without actually coming close to threatening it. Indeed, there is a certain pleasure to be derived from the thought that David Cameron will be sharing a platform in Witney Methodist church with the candidate from Give Me Back Elmo (one of whose manifesto promises is to twin Witney with Houston, Texas).
Social media matters
This election boasts the largest number of standing candidates in a decade. According to the Electoral Commission there are 40 more parties competing than in 2005 and nearly 20 more than in 2010. This says something about the extent to which many feel disenchated by the offers of mainstream politics. The digital revolution of the past decade has provided the opportunity to channel those grievances. Parties such as Digital Democracy and Rebooting Democracy offer not so much ideologies as interfaces. Their manifestos are crowdsourced, their campaigning is entirely digital and financed through sites like Kickstarter. Where the image of the smaller party candidate used to be the monster raving looney and the Hyde Park millenarian some of these candidates are tech savvy professionals. Big parties, pay attention!
And who doesn't love a comeback story…
To the delight of many a Palmerstonian The Whigs are getting back together -after 147 years no less! They’re fielding 4 candidates and hoping to ride on the back of past achievements such as the abolition of slavery and being the only party to have a canonical view of history named after them. Let’s just hope they aren’t still banging on about deporting Catholics.