Mark Fox is Chief Executive of the Business Services Association and a former Parliamentary Candidate. He writes here in a personal capacity.
Across the United Kingdom, nearly 4,000 candidates are standing for election to the House of Commons in the 650 constituencies that cover every corner of the country. Amidst all the weariness and cynicism about politicians and politics this is a remarkable moment in the life of our country – and one we should celebrate.
Ours is a great and stable democracy. It is a system which delivers governments who can implement and administer their policies – and can them be removed from office and a new government installed. Our system ensures that no one group or clique can seize power and then keep hold of it indefinitely. And our effective system of democracy should not be confused with or tainted by the behaviour of individual politicians, or the cynicism of those commenting on the process.
Our nightly news and newspaper headlines are dominated with the big parties pounding away at each other with promises, attacks, pleas and argument. Political commentary is laced with phrases such as the ‘air war’, the ‘ground war’, ‘LTTs’ (lines to take), messaging, signals (and signalling). We are told tht such and such a leader is doing this because they want to signal that or send a particular message. Often it seems, and it is the case, the politicians and the journalists and commentators are simply talking to each other about what they are interested in and what they are doing.
Too often politicians and the media conspire to exclude the voters from the debate.
We need to hold on to the fact that it’s our General Election, not theirs. It is our government that is being elected, and not the one that has the cosiest relationship with this or that reporter or commentator. It is our vote that counts, and determines the future course of the country. It is a genuinely exciting moment in the life of our country.
Every day candidates – most of whom have almost no chance of actually being elected – are out canvassing, leaflet dropping, participating in hustings, knocking on doors and making their case, working hard to make the case for the causes and policies they believe in.
To reach this point, each parliamentary candidate will have had to gather at least ten signatures from supporters in the constituency concerned, and put down a deposit of £500. From that moment on, their name is certain to be on the ballot paper, and they are bound by strict election rules governing the conduct of every aspect of their campaign. To have his or her deposit returned, a candidate must poll at least five per cent of the votes cast. Many will not achieve this, and will lose their deposit as a consequence.
We should value and appreciate each candidate who stands, whatever their party or interest, regardless of whether we agree with what they are saying or not. Every candidate’s effort and commitment is a part of making this great democratic exercise work. Each one plays his part in keeping our democracy vibrant and healthy.
We have become used to the peaceful conduct of elections. Perhaps we take it too much for granted. We have become complacent. We expect a smooth transfer of power from one Parliament to the next. If there is a change of government, a Prime Minister leaves and another takes over. A new era begins. If a governing party wins a further term in office, it continues in office uninterrupted. It is what happens. It is what we do in this country. For that we should all be grateful, because it is one of those things that makes Britain a good and a safe place to live.
Under both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, the country became accustomed to extended periods of one party rule. Those two Prime Ministers appeared to dominate their era ,and they were able to achieve much of what they set out to do. Although John Major’s Premiereship is viewed now through the prism of his defeat, it is easy to forget he served nearly seven years in No 10 which, by historic standards, is a long period in office. These periods of extended one-party dominance tend to be the exceptions rather than the rule in Britain.
At this election there is much talk of no one party winning a majority of Parliamentary seats. Speculation about coalition – who can work with who, who will not work with who, ‘red lines’, demands, and deals abound. Well, we will see. The British voter will decide who wins a seat in Parliament and who can form and sustain a government. And if no party can do these things, we will sooner or later have another election.
The major parties have found it difficult to change and adapt to the changing interests of the electorate, which is why both the main parties are struggling to attract support outside of their core vote, giving rise to the success of smaller parties who have risen up to fill the gaps. But they will adapt or they will die. If there is a key message of this political era it is that the electorate expects to be heard. If ignored voters, will choose to vote for smaller parties – or not at all. An increasingly impatient electorate is looking for politicians who resonate with their interests and who work hard to win and value their support.
While politicians continue to figure all this out there will be wild talk about changing the voting system, making voting compulsory, and all sorts of other mechanistic solutions to what is actually challenge to political leadership. It is lazy and unimaginative to suggest changes to process which are designed to dodge the more serious challenge of assembling a political platform that can command a broad base of support.
In the meantime, the peaceful conduct of the democratic process in which the country is currently engaged is a beautiful and precious thing, and one we should all value and appreciate.