The recent council elections across the UK this week have seen radical change imposed on the local political landscape, and the real prospect of change nationally in a general election. Labour took a predicted drubbing and lost many council seats, in general being picked up by Conservatives and to a lesser degree, the Liberals.
There was little surprise in these results; Labour has been in power centrally for 11 years and is suffering from the voter fatigue that so often brings to a close the political lives of long-term incumbents. A series of well publicized gaffs, most recently the 10p tax rate fiasco, were also prominently in voters’ minds. And Gordon Brown’s personal credibility and integrity has been called into question repeatedly since he came to office in his ‘coronation’ succession to Tony Blair. His fumbling of the on/off general election call last year still resonates with a public who are less than won over by his grim persona.
So there was a mood in the land for change last Thursday, and it was signalled loud and clear to Labour. It had been said before the vote, and was proved to be true, that Labour were about to lose these elections, rather than the Tories winning them. The protest vote was overwhelmingly used as a rebuke to a government seen as, at best, ineffectual in the face of impending difficult economic and social times.
It is understandable that this would happen, and I don’t necessarily think it is a bad thing. I do regret, thought, that the tendency towards using the protest vote may have had some undesirable consequences. Sure, it will have made our masters in Westminster sit up and take notice. But when people vote for parties instead of candidates, particularly in local government, they may not always get what they want. On Thursday hundreds of council seats changed hands as voters put a cross in a box against a party name, often (I suspect) without even noting the name of the candidate they were voting for; not knowing whether that individual was likely to represent them as they would like; not even knowing whether that individual held views or beliefs alien or akin to their own.
And that leads me to the most disturbing aspect of protest voting - when votes are cast for fundamentally unfit candidates and parties as a means to ‘wake up’ the government. Chief amongst these are those that stand for the British National Party, the BNP.
The UK has seen unprecedented levels of immigration over recent years, most notably from the new accession countries to the European Union – the former eastern bloc states. There is a broad range of opinion amongst the British public about immigration, and it is an issue whose prominence will not diminish rapidly. People, in general, do not like change. They do not like imposition, they detest being told what to do and they abhor the feeling that they are the victims of queue-jumping. British people today seem especially intolerant and indignant when they perceive themselves to be at the sharp end of such iniquities, and there are elements amongst us who are only too quick to lay the blame at the door of immigrants. If those immigrants are a different colour or speak a different language, they stand out more and can more readily be blamed. Sadly there are many who are lured into hatred and resentment of those different to themselves because they can most easily be identified.
Now I am not saying that immigration is not a problem, as I have commented on it more broadly in previous posts. I, personally, have a disposition against religious piety and that counts equally against Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, Wikkas, Druids, Jedis and anyone else who believes they can preach their version of morality to me, so I cannot be prejudiced against one without logically being prejudiced against them all!
I do recognize that there must be something wrong in a society where there are 5 white kids in a school of 500 black kids. But only in the way that I see it as unhealthy to have only 5 black kids in a school of 500 whites. An imbalance is generally undesirable, and most of us are happier when different communities integrate rather than polarize. Taking it down to a personal level, most people are more relaxed. While we so often hear the call for immigrants to go home, when we look to our friends and colleagues and count amongst them just the sort of people whom the extremists would expel, where do our convictions lie? At an individual level most of us know or come into contact with people of other ethnicities regularly and are happy to live side by side with them. But while there is a broad tolerance of cultural diversity, when people feel imposed on or their rights are being encroached upon, that they are being forced along a road they don’t want to go, then they start to listen to, and give undue credence to, extremists like the BNP.
The BNP really is a despicable organization. They were born of the National Front, that vile group of bigots and fascists that sprang to prominence in the 1960s and were most active in the 70s and 80s. As the millennium approached the NF applied a thin veneer of respectability and the BNP arose. But this outfit still panders to the worst intolerance and jingoism in our society. It openly displays its racism, is home to holocaust deniers and anti-semites, homophobes and hate-mongers. It lists amongst its policies the right to bear arms and enforce ‘repatriation’ of non-whites. While it publicly disavows racism it is nevertheless a focal point for white supremacists.
If you actively want to put such people into positions of power, you have a right in law to vote that way. I pity you, but it’s your right. But please don’t make the mistake of inadvertently voting for such a group when you really mean to vote against someone else. Protest votes have a noble history, and can produce real, positive change. But we should not give the oxygen of publicity or the quasi-respectability of holding even minor political office to extremists. That is not the way that Britain became Great, nor will it be the means by which it recovers its greatness.
There are genuine concerns to be addressed in today’s society. Immigration is an issue, social division along religious lines another. But we do not advance our society by rewinding the clock and applying the lowbrow policies of racists. We should be brave enough, as should our middle ground politicians, to talk about the problems and to come up with civilized solutions. And we should not allow political correctness to get in the way any more than we should allow extreme right-wingers to ply their views.
Mainstream parties please note.