Monday, June 08, 2009

Can Scotland's experience help defeat Fascists?

The blood-curdling advance of the Fascist BNP in the Euro elections will make every reasonable person feel extremely uneasy. My joy at hearing that George Lyon was going to be Scotland's newest MEP was quickly tinged with horror that he would be accompanied by a Fascist from Yorkshire. Waking up this morning to see that Nick Griffin had in fact taken the last seat in the north west region filled me with anger. It's not even as though more people voted for them this time round. Their total vote actually stayed around the same but the collapse in the Labour vote in those regions helped elect them.

Then I got to thinking about why this had happened, and wondering what we could do about it. Up here in Scotland, neither the fascist BNP, nor UKIP got close to taking a seat, in fact, the BNP only got 2.5% of the vote with UKIP struggling to get just over 5%,and I wondered whether there was anything in the way we do politics up here that could help defeat them in other parts of the UK.

Now to give them their due, Labour saw this coming but they dealt with it in entirely the wrong way. Their entire Euro campaign seemed to be based solely on the message "if you don't vote for us, you'll let the BNP in". It's fine to warn, but you also have to offer something positive, too, and there was nothing remotely attractive about Labour's campaign and the ideas it offered for the future.

Liberal Democrats know from our experience of fighting the BNP on the ground that they can be beaten with strong, local, grassroots campaigns. If you offer people the chance to make their views known, give them the feeling that they will be listened to and keep them informed and involved in the democratic process, the extremist parties can be kept back.

Then I got to thinking about why this had happened, and wondering what we could do about it. Up here in Scotland, neither the fascist BNP, nor UKIP got close to taking a seat and I wondered whether there was anything in the way we do politics up here that could help defeat them in other parts of the UK.

I was fizzing mad to see William Hague use their election to argue against PR for Westminster. We need to burst that bubble quickly because, to be blunt, he is talking absolute nonsense - it's a cynical, dishonest misrepresentation of the truth. We have 3 different proportional systems for all elections except Westminster in Scotland and we don't have either the BNP or UKIP elected (although there is a UKIP councillor who defected from the Tories in Fife). Interestingly, James Graham said on Twitter this morning that if the Euro elections had been held by STV and not this ridiculous closed list system, there would be no BNP and the Greens (who seem to like closed list systems) would have an extra seat.

I'm not for a minute suggesting that Scots are fantastically satisfied with their Governments, but could it be that there is less anger and more empowerment up here? Could the way we do politics be healthier? Note I don't say healthy, but it's all relative. The devolved parliament and STV-elected local Councils encourage both co-operation between parties and engagement with the electorate. The Scottish Parliament also has a much more robust committee system with more powers that Westminster and these committees regularly consult and involve ordinary people in their deliberations. It's also much easier for deeply unpopular government initiatives to be defeated. The SNP have had to look again at their plans to ban under 21s from buying alcohol, to privatise Scotland's forests and even had to compromise when it came to getting their budget through. The system encourages a more consensual approach and it gives the opposition parties real power. Even in the days of the Labour/Lib Dem coalition, the Government had to modify some proposals in the face of actual or likely defeat and even the Socialists who at the time only had 2 MSPs were able instigate the abolishing of poinding (the sale of personal goods to pay debt) in 2001.

The fact that that Government was a coalition meant that we ended up with much stronger freedom of information legislation - which in turn meant that Holyrood had its own expenses issues a few years ago, leading to tighter new rules then.

In Westminster, the opposition has no such chance to properly hold the Government to account. The electoral system for all my political life has delivered huge majorities to one party or another, which is then faced by an opposition that spends so long ripping itself apart in defeat and taking over a decade to build themselves up again. Commons defeats, or the need for Governments to rethink unpopular legislation, are relatively rare. The recent defeat of the Goverment over the Gurkhas led by Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats was a rare event. Perhaps it is the inflexibility and remoteness of both Westminster and local government south of the border and its electoral system that caused the deep sense of alienation that many people feel from mainstream politics.

I'm aware that what I'm going to suggest is controversial and I don't do so lightly, but I wonder if it's time that we as political parties, all of us, stopped pussyfooting around and actually debated these people. Labour and the media gave them heaps of publicity, and credibility, and dismissed them as nasty, but didn't pin them down on the issues. Is it time that we started referring to them by what they are, as racists and fascists? I have never been comfortable with the principle of no platform - the idea that you don't give publicity or credibility to an extremist party - because it allows their ideas to flourish, unchecked, behind closed doors. Is it time to actually debate these people and forensically dissect their bile? In recent weeks they've had unchecked publicity which may have led people to think that they were a legitimate vehicle for a protest vote.

Some BNP voters, their core support are undeniably racist thugs and use the party a sa vehicle for pushing their hate filled agenda. Then you have the angry and alienated, who may be living in terrible housing, unemployed or poor and who see inaccurate reports in the Sun or the Daily Mail using language like "bogus asylum seekers" as if there are no legitimate ones. How many times have you seen a headline like that? The tabloids have been known to whip up hysterical frenzies against particular groups of people, from single mothers to people who have come to live in this country from abroad, making it sound as if they are some sort of drain on our resources. At times, they have been helped by mainly Tory politicians in their scapegoating of people. This is complete nonsense and should not go unchallenged any more because it turns people into prey for the likes of these extremist parties. The mainstream political parties should all be ensuring that this stuff is rebutted. You can't stop a free press saying that stuff, but you can make sure that their innuendo is challenged. They should also be trying to reconnect with those angry and alienated people while leaving them in no doubt about what the BNP are and what they stand for.

I guess we have to get this, horrid though it is, into perspective. We are only talking about a couple of MEPs and councillors across the country who in the end of the day don't have much political power and everyone in decent politics needs to make sure that they heed the wake up call that this has given. Otherwise you could find some rich racist thug bankrolling them to the extent that they start making further progress. The fact that they were elected now is an indictment of the failure of politicians to engage and deal with people's concerns. It's a consequence of people feeling powerless and angry and further makes the case for urgent, radical political reform. Others might want to take lessons from the Liberal Democrat experience in Burnley where they joined battle against the BNP and last night topped the poll there.

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Will said...

One other point on Hague claiming that PR lets the BNP in - FPTP let them in in Padiham on Thursday as well, so IMO it's not voting systems that let them in, but voters. It's time opponents of PR stopped beating the rest of us with the BNP stick and realised that...

Alec said...

Interesting blog.

Alan Cochrane had an argument against seeing the Scottish system with too much pride. As for changing any system with an eye to frustrating the BNP, I could see them then arguing that this was being done simply to change the goal-posts. The problem was, last Thursday only 1/3 voted and supporters of minority parties such as the BNP or UKIP are likely to be more motivated. The resolve this, greater participation should be encouraged and thus reduce their showing to the low proportion that it is.

Alec said...

>> Others might want to take lessons from the Liberal Democrat experience in Burnley where they have joined the battle wtih the BNP and last night topped the poll there.

Whoopsie, just noticed this. Shurely you mean the battle *against* the BNP? Unless this was a repeat of LibDem majority-controlled rural councils in which overtly anti-Traveller/Roma lines were taken.

Unknown said...

Spot on, Will.

Alec, greater engagement should lead to greater participation. I also don't think that you ever should change a system to defeat any particular party, but there are maybe some elements of what we do up here that might help to empower people and increase engagement south of the border.

And thanks for pointing out the with - I have changed it. I hope my intention was clear from the context.

Alec said...

Aye, I did, Caron. :)

As for whichever voting system to use - one question always in my mind is, why should this be the most important consideration? There is much disconnect with the Euro elections, but that voting in national elections often hover around 50% suggests that many of the big battles - franchize, health care, equal rights - have been won.

My concern about PR is that it may not grant representation to a certain percentage of the population, but grant representation to a group which has had the gumption and organization to arrange a percentage of the vote. One of the direst threats to social cohesion just now is of communalising the populations (does to referring to them as "communities", which should be inimacble to any Liberal following Lockean principles of individual soverignty).

So, whilst voting is damn useful, it shouldn't be seen as the highest aspiration, and that writing to one's MP is thought a killer-act. I'd like to see sort of civic spirit return in which social projects are started.

Unknown said...

Agree with you on community involvement - and there's a lot of excellent work going on in that field.

Re voting system, I think a proportional system is vital to properly reflect people's views. Ok, it may occasionally elect people whose views are extreme, but it's better than first past the post which, if you live in a seat which is safe for a party, you are unlikely ever to be contacted by your elected representatives.

Increasing engagement and turnout, and having people believe their vote means something is good and is part of the process of getting people involved. STV for local elections is great in that it's swept away some really awful socialit republics and challenged the Labour Party's assumption that it was put on this earth to rule and has the right to do so.


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