Beware: Anti-politics

Frederick Cowell

Image © John Kirriemuir

With two days to local elections and four days to the anniversary of an unloved event, anti-politics is everywhere. The surprise from-behind victory of George Galloway in Bradford west and UKIP’s sudden surge in the polls are both symptomatic of a rise in anti-politics. The local election result are likely to result in the expected drubbing for the governing parties but also a boost for anti-politics candidates and well placed sources have detailed Labour’s panic at the thought of by-elections later this year, in particular in Birmingham Snow Hill which they fear could be lost to another Respect insurgency.

Anti-politics is becoming a feature of UK politics – Matthew Flinders of the University of Sheffield has identified a complex tendency among the public to dislike all political parties and politicians. To an extent voters should be healthily sceptical of politics and for many years those who have cared about the environment have voted Green, those who have cared about the national identity of regions have voted SNP or Plaid Cymru and those who have cared about immigration and race have voted BNP. Both UKIP and Respect make a different appeal to voters in that they deliberately stoke and then feed off the anger of anti-politics.

The ascent of UKIP in the late 1990’s was triggered by rage at the Maastricht generation of Tories and their 2010 election slogan “sod the rest – vote UKIP”, whilst a little to naked for many voters taste’s, basically described their electoral strategy for the previous decade. On the Left, the Iraq war provided the catalyst for the Respect Party to absorb those alienated by New Labour. To be clear, UKIP and Respect are single issue parties but the issues that both parties run on, Euroscepticism and anti-imperialism< are defined by the inability of the mainstream Left and Right blocs in British politics to fully absorb these issues. Both parties also mercilessly attack government as the great diluter of principles to create a betrayal narrative out of every decision that governments make, whether they be foolhardy (invading Iraq) or pragmatic (not pulling out of the EU).  This can poison political debates during local and city elections as the supposed betrayal of the former supporters of Labour and the Tories drowns out other concerns and scrutiny of local issues. Previously the Lib Dems benefited from this but after entry into government they are no longer able to take advantage of this phenomenon. A key part of the upsurge in both UKIP’s and Respect’s support in the last year is that they, like many other anti-politics parties across Europe, offer a rhetorically appealing account of how to fix the economic woes currently facing western economies. As appealing as these messages may be many of them are ultimately unworkable, socially divisive or both, but the fury many voters feel as living standards fall generates a lucrative gig for the Nigel Farages and George Galloways of this world.

Due to coalition policy increasing the number of elections and other scheduling issues, this week in May will continue to bring elections of one sort or the other which will create a relentless peak and trough of momentum in the political year. Every year until 2015 six weeks after the budget anti-government anger will be high and people will be feeling that bit worse off – conditions ripe for anti-politics to take hold. Both UKIP and Respect have been prone to make some fairly silly judgement calls in the past making them an electoral irrelevance even when the conditions appeared favourable, yet that may be changing. In particular the 2014 elections to the European Parliament are likely to be savage and there is more focus from both parties at the forthcoming local elections. Respect, for example, are focusing on capturing Bradford City Council on Thursday.

This brings us to anniversary of the unloved event in Britain: this Sunday is the one year anniversary of the AV referendum. Unlike the first anniversary of the Royal Wedding this is unlikely to receive a commemorative glossy supplement in the Sunday papers but it was the greatest missed opportunity of British politics in modern times. Whilst the Yes campaign (remember them?) wildly oversold the merits of AV it might have offered some kind of plug to leaking ship of party politics. It would have definitely been better than the status quo when an electoral system that is designed to create a political duopoly is expected to absorb voter’s fears and anger. As a consequence of growing mainstream disengagement and the inability of electoral politics to make a decisive impact on parliament, low turnouts and occasionally targeted upsets are likely to remain the norm in elections – this Thursday being no exception.


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