Is UK politics broken?
It certainly feels like it is. British people have been through a lot since 2015, when David Cameron won a general election having promised a referendum on leaving the European Union to placate the Europhobes in his party and counter the rise of UKIP. Since then, we have had the Brexit vote, a string of terrorist attacks, a general election leading to a hung parliament, and now the Grenfell Tower fire, a terrible fire that destroyed a block of social housing, causing many deaths (58 at time of writing).
As we do in the UK, we are keeping calm and carrying on, but it is becoming clear that something bigger is wrong, and somehow all of this is connected. Increasingly people are complaining about their voices not being heard. It was the message in the Brexit vote, it is what the victims of the Grenfell Fire are saying, and it is a the complaint from the last election, where the outcome does not reflect what people voted for.
Brexit showed that the country is far more divided than we had thought. It revealed a wide gulf between North and South, Town and Country, rich and poor, educated and uneducated; a gulf far bigger and more damaging than many had understood, a gap between those whom the establishment addresses and those it ignores. The outcome of the vote could be seen as an expression of that gulf more than it was about the intricacies of EU membership. It was an expression of mass dissatisfaction with the establishment, of people who felt they were being ignored by Westminster.
The terrorist attacks have shone a light on the radicalisation of young men who were born in the UK, or grew up in the country, but have become isolated and disconnected from society, and consequently vulnerable to the likes of ISIL.
The outcome of the recent general election is a pact between the Conservatives and a tiny Christian extremist party that almost nobody voted for. This does not reflect the mood of the country or the way people voted. A government elected by a minority of the country, in a union with a party voted for by almost nobody, are pursuing a radical agenda that the majority of the country simply didn’t vote for. That is the way our electoral system functions, but it looks increasingly like it doesn’t work.
The increased vote for Labour, the failure of UKIP, and the kicking Theresa May took are a pretty clear statement from the country that they do support the NHS and Social Care, and are against a so called ‘hard Brexit.’ Theresa May had to reverse a proposal that would have impacted the elderly and sick even before the vote, and lost votes as a result of the policy even once it was abandoned. Yet the government still has the most vocal anti-Europe Brexit campaigners in the Cabinet alongside the country’s most socially illiberal party, the DUP. That does not reflect what the country said with their votes and increasingly makes more and more people feel angry and disenfranchised.
And then the Grenfell Fire. This will no doubt unfold into one of the UK’s greatest tragedies of our time. However awful it feels now, I have no doubt that when the final death toll is confirmed, and when the public inquiry publishes its findings, it will feel worse. We will eventually know the story of all those who died, and will have affirmed our growing realisation that, to be blunt, poor people were stuffed into a building that was a death trap. As was well put in one of the reports, these are the most vulnerable people in society, essentially under the care of the State, and the State failed them. To many of us reading the news it seems incredible that the building, and many like it, had no sprinkler system, was clad in flammable materials, only had one staircase, and had rubbish blocking the fire exit. I don’t think any (or many) of us had any idea such practices existed in our country, and the residents who tried to draw attention to it were ignored by layers of bureaucrats and politicians who thought they knew better, didn’t care, or prioritised budgets over people.
Linked to all this is Jeremy Corbyn, who now owns the Labour Party for the foreseeable future, and owns a populist social agenda that the Conservatives have totally failed to grasp, and have to a great extent created through their neglect.
This populist socialism is responding to the social chasm in the country we began to realise existed after the Brexit referendum. It is countering the Thatcherite-style erosion of society brought on by the Conservatives, and by austerity measures after the last recession. It is reviving interest in voting, and giving a voice to the young. They feel let down by their parent’s generation, who enjoyed free education, good healthcare, and social mobility which the young feel was paid for on a credit card they’re now having to pay off.
Indeed Corbynism, with its echoes of the 1970s and 80s is to a great extent a response to the final fruition of Thatcherism. The people who came of age during the heady years of Thatcher’s attack on the idea of society and the role of the State, her celebration of individualism and extreme capitalism are now the adults taking these ideas into Conservative politics. Thatcher planted an acorn, it is now an oak tree. A lot of what is happening now makes more sense seen through the lens of Thatcherism. Indeed, the Grenfell fire has disturbing echoes of the Homes for Votes scandal of the late 1980s and early 1990’s in which the Conservative held Westminster Council was found guilty of gerrymandering. Part of the scandal saw the Conservative council move 100 homeless families from hostels in marginal wards into dangerous tower blocks in a safe Labour ward in an attempt to reduce the number of Labour voters in the marginal ward.
Back then, the conclusion of the public inquiry was that in order to reduce the number of Labour voters in key marginal seats, Westminster’s Conservative council had moved poor and homeless people, whom they saw as likely Labour voters, into dangerous housing in safe Labour seats. It now appears that the recent Conservative government again saw social housing as a magnet for Labour voters, and put off building adequate safe, new social housing for the same political reasons.
In the old days, political campaigning talked of ‘years of Labour / Conservative misrule,’ a phrase politicians would use in their campaigns to berate the incumbent party, and then in power to blame the previous government for the problems they were having. In this case, now, it is a true and appropriate statement. From the moment Cameron called the Brexit referendum, through to the Grenfell Fire, the connecting factor is years of misrule by the Conservatives. Stupid, ill thought through, populist decisions have led to us having a hung parliament, weak currency, weakening economy, cuts in public sector funding, and a more divided, disconnected society split over binary questions like Brexit. It now looks like decisions also led to the Grenfell fire, not just bad luck.
None of this was inevitable or necessary, and is linked to decisions made by politicians. And much as one can blame the government, in this case the opposition must share that blame for failing to do their job, instead playing at internal politics. Any government goes astray without a strong opposition, so we have been failed across the political spectrum. It is not always the case in the UK, but in recent years politics has become too much about the lives of politicians, and not enough about the people in whose name they serve.
Theresa May’s government, already best described as beleaguered on a good day, is really up to their necks in it. Without the terrorism, which came alongside recent cuts in policing, and the Grenfell Fire, which coincided with the closure of 10 London Fire Stations due to cuts, they were already looking awful for doing deals with the DUP.
The DUP deal puts the UK’s most extreme and right wing political party, and one of the least representative groups of politicians in Parliament, as key players in the government. Theresa May promised strength and stability, avoiding a coalition of chaos, and has delivered the polar opposite; weakness, instability, and a truly chaotic coalition, yet she remains Prime Minister, at least for now. The government that has risen up from May’s disastrous election is not something the people voted for.
The last election made some clear statements about what the country feels. The election has resulted in the most diverse Parliament in our history, with record numbers of female, ethnic minority, and gay politicians. This was probably not a result of voters actively voting for diversity, but even better was a result of them not caring about race, gender, or sexuality when they voted for whomever they thought would be a good candidate. But it was a clear vote for openness and inclusivity, a signal of where the country is in terms of its attitudes to other people. That is in no way reflected in the political ideology of May’s Cabinet, or by the DUP’s presence in Downing Street.
The vote also clearly came out against ‘hard Brexit’ — leaving the EU regardless of the cost, whether or not there is a deal. That vote against hard-Brexit was also a vote against anti-immigrant sentiments that have been at the core of UKIP and the Conservative message. This has already led to the beginnings of a rebellion in a newly empowered Parliament against the small group of hard-Brexit politicians in Government, and in favour of a cross-party consensus behind a rational, open deal with Europe. Yet David Davis and Michael Gove, hard-Brexit campaigners, remain in the Cabinet.
And there was a vote in favour of the Union. Scotland is now flexing its muscles in Westminster, especially as the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, had a far better election than Theresa May. She herself is gay, principled, and pragmatic and is demanding a voice in the Brexit negotiations, which neither her party nor her country voted for in any significant number.
People feeling ignored, attacks on social care, social isolation, and fractured societies all came to a head with the Grenfell Fire, which killed poor people living in one of the country’s most deprived areas, which sits within one of the most affluent parts of London. How the government reacted, and how the people reacted seems to have become a metaphor for the state of British politics.
By the time Theresa May had offered £5m of government money to the victims of the Grenfell Fire, to pay for clothing and supplies, the public had already donated over £5m on the JustGiving website, and had delivered so many clothes and other supplies to the area that volunteers had to ask people to stop bringing anything more. The people had already solved the problem in the time it took the Government to announce that they would address it. On TV the locals were highlighting how this support was crossing religious, race, and social divides. It just seems to show the disconnect between the Government and the people, and the extent to which May’s government in particular is following rather than leading.
The election, the terrorist attacks, and the Grenfell Fire have shown that, left to our own devices, the British will pull together and support each other. The Conservatives are wrong to suggest we don’t like immigrants, that we are scared of Muslims, that we don’t want to pay from our pockets to support those in need. The message of the response to Grenfell is that we embrace social diversity, multi-culturalism, social care, and generosity. We want police and firemen, we want well-funded hospitals. We want everyone, even the poorest in society, to live in buildings that are safe. We are blind to the colour of each others’ skin, to where people were born, and to whom they pray to in a way that is just not reflected at all by Theresa May and the DUP.
The populism of the Conservatives, in part a result of their countering the populist UKIP and Nigel Farage, has inevitably created a populist counter movement led by Jeremy Corbyn. Neither are good for the country, and neither are being realistic or honest about the mess we are in. The economy is not in good shape, we are as a country becoming poorer — inflation is going up, wages down, and our currency has weakened. Both are saying what they think their voters want to hear at a time when we also need to be told things as they are, and given pills that are not sugar coated.
Talk is again turning to proportional representation. Of an electorate of 47 million, 13,669,883 voted Conservative and 292,316 voted DUP, yet they now together aim to hold all the power. This is why minority parties, and many voters, call for proportional representation, and why governments of the two big parties avoid it. The argument is stronger than ever that our electoral system simply doesn’t work. Most votes changed nothing — 90% of people voting saw their constituency remain as it was before. And despite a loud voice in favour of tolerance and openness, the most extremely closed, archaic, political party, the DUP, is walking through the doors of Downing Street holding the balance of power, despite nobody in England, Wales, or Scotland voting for them. Clearly that is a failure of the political system.
If this government does not start to take responsibility for the damage they have caused, and if they do not confront these wider failures of the political system, they risk a new movement growing into a storm. Theresa May as Prime Minister, ruling alongside the DUP, pulling us out of Europe as our economy dwindles may just cause the perfect storm. At some point the popular discontent will erupt into something, though as yet it is not clear what.