Today is a general election in the UK after five years of coalition between Conservative and Lib Dems offering neo-liberal austerity in the wake of the financial crisis. The Conservatives offer much of the same for the future - neo-liberal orthodoxy in which inequality grows and public expenditure shrinks, with - and this is perhaps the most shameful aspect - the share of that public expenditure funded by the rich also shrinking. The Labour election offer is essentially to function as Tory-lite, but with the big and important difference that Labour would not hold a referendum on UK membership of the EU, and the lesser difference that it would borrow outside spending limits to support development in infrastructure. The Liberal Democrats offer to moderate both these parties through what they hope will be a continuing role in coalition.
One eve of voting opinion poll show the two largest parties tied on 35%, with the Lib Dems on 9%, the UK Independence Party on 11%, the Greens on 3%, and others on 7%. That 7% includes the Scottish Nationalist party, forecast to virtually wipe out Labour in Scotland. This diminution in the share of the two major parties at the expense of smaller parties is one feature of the election; this redistribution would have been greater if the UK hadn't voted against electoral reform in a referendum in 2011 by a majority of more than two to one. One of the main arguments cited in that referendum in favour of the existing 'first past the post' system was that it produced stable majority governments, albeit at the price of not closely representing the national share of the vote won by each party. Paradoxically, if the opinion polls are right, the result of today's election will deliver neither strong majority government nor a close correspondence between number of votes and number of seats.
A second feature of the election has been the way it has been conducted. Party leaders have been so isolated from everyone except their own activist supporters for it to be characterised by the media as an 'air war', remote from the 'ground war' of trying to persuade individual voters on the doorstep (British elections don't use the telephone or internet much yet). At times it has been hard to know whether the leaders are real, rather than holograms beamed from their party's central office. Indeed, the hologram theory was all but confirmed in the case of David Cameron who named another football club as the one he supported rather than the one he has claimed to be a fan of in the past. Arguably no real British male forgets what football club he supports under any circumstances - is his whole personality a public relations construct? In any case it has not been considered strong enough for his party managers to risk him in direct debate with David Miliband.
The hermetic separation between politicians and their publics is a function of the modern political career, which takes the aspiring politician straight into the junior ranks of the political tribe without exposure to the ideas, experiences or perspectives of ordinary working life. Politics has become a kind of serial total institution in which everything is framed through the party perspective. When, as has happened recently with social democratic parties like Labour, they are in addition no longer connected to the wider social movements which spawned and sustained them, and unanchored by ideological references, the social insulation is nearly complete; the interests of the group can be projected onto those of the nation. Party interest and national interest become seen as identical, and national security protects both. Naturally this security extends to separating the political elite still further from the citizens.
There are real problems of accountability here, especially when the unity of the party is sustained not only by competition with immediate political rivals but by reference to some 'other' - a dangerous state, a dangerous ideology, a nascent super-state, immigrants, the deficit; especially if, as in current circumstances in the UK, the terms of political competition at the top of the political pyramid are confined to outbidding others in dealing with this threat. The political elite, which starts with separating itself from the people, ends up by spying on them. A machinery of national security springs up whose rationale is framed in terms which sustains continuous growth in its operations and precludes it being publicly accountable, other than to other political parties whose legitimacy is sustained by participation in the same competitive political game.
I believe that all these processes exist, and together reinforce each other in chipping away at our basic freedoms and our ability to challenge the prevailing political world view. At another level, some pragmatic part of me is feeling guilty that I chose to oppose them by voting Green today. I believe in most of what the Greens advocate: class sizes of 20, abolition of university tuition fees, doubling of the science budget, a strong belief in the open society, sharply progressive taxation in support of social welfare and of course a fast track towards environmental sustainability. These would be enormous gains for Britain so far beyond Labour's "me too" timidity that it is hard to believe that they will ever deliver them. But of course there is no chance of the Greens, forecast to have between 1-3 members of the new parliament, can deliver them, and there are a number of constituencies in the last parliament where the number of people voting Green was greater than the eventual Conservative majority over Labour. My constituency, Hampstead and Kilburn, could be one of them this time, and my vote will not just have been "wasted", but weakened Labour's capacity to deliver the smaller but significant changes in policy I described in the first paragraph.
I will be unhappy if this happens. But I will console myself that the more fundamental changes the Green party stand for are quite beyond the range of an ideologically exhausted Labour party, and take refuge in hope for change in the long term, or rather hope that long term change will come in time.