Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Finding the best fit: thoughts about the run up to the election

It is quite by chance that just as I sat down to pen this post, the first item on the BBC news was the ugly fracas in Glasgow which denied Jim Murphy and Eddie Izzard their democratic right to speak. The aggressive and confrontational tone of those hard left 'SNP supporters' was a significant element throughout the Referendum process, on the streets but particularly online. And, yes, they were SNP supporters today and that was the way they were going to vote. That violent element, though typical of only a small faction within the SNP, was never satisfactorily dealt with by its leaders during the Referendum. And now the viciousness has entered the national election process too. It is not helped, of course, by intemperate attacks on the SNP by our Prime Minister, as a cynical ploy to scare the English into voting for his own party.

Now I didn't mean to start this post by recalling those intimidating episodes last autumn. Like many others who found the Referendum a deeply distressing experience, I would much rather forget.  Why I have recalled them now is that there on the TV screen tonight, being waved by the thugs, was a placard inscribed with the words Red Tories. I am not sure how familiar English people are with this insulting phrase, used exclusively of the Labour Party and its supporters by the SNP.  To my knowledge, it first appeared in Scotland within a few hours of the Referendum result being announced. That day, vitriol poured from SNP supporters aimed, rather peculiarly, not at the Conservatives with their stupid announcement of 'English votes for English laws', but at the Labour Party. (I use the term 'SNP' advisedly rather than 'Yes' campaigners, for the leaders of the Green Party, led by Patrick Harvie, were dignified and courteous in their reactions to their disappointment, significantly different from their campaign collaborators.)

However, it was the re-emergence of that specific term Red Tories on my Facebook feed during this election campaign which has upset me over the last few weeks. Before its reappearance, I had decided not to comment on political affairs on FB or in this blog, so I let the first reference go and then the next. You could say that they were just examples of simplistic adolescent sloganising, though deployed by mature adults. Calling people Red Tories is psychological bullying, hardly likely to persuade them to change their stance and vote SNP. Indeed, in my case, it does precisely the opposite. I know these are just insults, but they are insults which are particularly nasty and hurtful. Not only do they smear an entire political party, the whole basis for whose existence is support for the poor and vulnerable, but, by implication, they smear all Labour voters.  The insult is particularly galling and hypocritical given the years of cooperation between the SNP and Tories during the SNP's minority administration. That cooperation, of course, has now been conveniently forgotten.

At this point, I must hasten to point out that my friends come from across the political spectrum, and vote very differently from each other. I even have friends who vote Tory. Most of my SNP friends have not hurled insults across Facebook. Like me, they have circulated articles. Sometimes I read them and sometimes I don't. I am sure they do likewise with the articles I circulate. The same, of course, goes for my Green and Lib Dem friends.

However, all this is just a rather extended introduction to what this post is really about: the whole issue of demonising those with whom we disagree. I am highly suspicious of anyone who holds to a political standpoint as if it were some kind of religious belief: a sort of 'all or nothing' approach. The flags wave, the hysteria rises, the brains stop working. Those who are not with us are against us, you know the sort of thing. Recent converts can be particularly vitriolic about those they have left behind in their previous belief group.

Life is not that simple and straightforward, however. No one political party has a monopoly over right thinking. Life is messy. Negotiation and compromise are necessary in politics, thank goodness. Distinctions between standpoints can end up being fuzzy. For most thinking people, deciding whom to vote for is about looking for the 'best fit', not undergoing a baptism ceremony. This is certainly true in my case. So here is where I stand just now.

I have to admit that I haven't spent too long mulling over the Conservative cause, although I think Ruth Davidson is potentially the best leader in Scotland, and genuine with it. The Tories' enthusiasm for reducing benefits and giving rich people an easy ride puts them beyond the pale, as far as I am concerned. I am also sick of them banging on about Labour leaving a deficit when we all now know that it was caused by a global financial crisis.

In my floating tactical way, I have quite often ended up voting Labour, particularly since I moved to the Central Belt, for at least a vote here counts. However, I do not agree at all with Labour's hard stance over immigration. It is a shameful election tactic designed to compete with the Tories' own anti-immigration stance and to woo working class voters back from UKIP. Nevertheless, I find both Ed Milliband and Jim Murphy clear and calm when explaining Labour's social and economic policies. The former has survived unacceptable levels of smear, sneer and media bias, and is clearly tougher than he has been portrayed. He has suffered from the North London geek label, a reference to his Englishness or Jewishness (depending on one's geographical location) and to his intelligence. In the UK, isn't it odd how suspicious we are of clever people? To be honest, I would much rather be governed by clever people than stupid ones. Ed Milliband is not a champagne socialist. His constituency is Doncaster, a town about which I know a good bit. No one could fail to appreciate the desperate poverty and desolation in the South Yorkshire mining towns. Jim Murphy is a West of Scotland bruiser, not particularly to my taste and with an irritating manner of speaking, but he does the business with the SNP. Not many would laugh as he did in the face of the kind of bullying we saw today.

The Greens? Now, you're talking. I agree with just about everything they stand for. However, I am disappointed by their avoidance during this election of the issue of climate change. This should be one of their key policies. It is of fundamental importance to the future of our world. We observe the impact of climate change and the competition for resources every week as yet more people drown in the Mediterranean. Furthermore, until the Greens can prove that they can run a local council effectively, they shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a national government. The administration of Brighton has been chaotic. During the current election, they have been woolly about finance. Nevertheless, now they have a foothold in Parliament, I believe they will become more experienced. They appear to be the most principled of the parties. That they have remained so may have something to do with the fact that they have rarely been in a position to make difficult decisions about coalitions, voting arrangements or negotiations over manifesto promises.

Lib Dems? I have voted for them several times. In the north east of Scotland, a vote for Labour was usually a wasted vote. My constituency was solidly Tory and only with boundary changes did other parties get a look in. The Lib Dems have been through a difficult patch and are unjustly maligned, or so I believe. Although like others I was shocked when they went into coalition with the Tories, now I believe that that was probably the right choice for them, although some of their compromises, like tuition fees, were the wrong ones. Still, being in government has blooded them, a necessary process if one is to take a party seriously. They are good decent people. It will be sad if we lose people like Jo Swinson this week.

Which brings us to the SNP. There are also good decent people in the SNP, like John Swinney, and some able young politicians working their way through the ranks. Although I think that Nicola Sturgeon is genuine in her stated belief in a form of socialism, I think for many others it is a kind of electoral dress which is intended to get them through this election and into an influential position in Westminster. The constant barking at Labour which takes the place of clear detailed exposition of their own policies, particularly on the economy, is a serious weakness. People love it, of course, this throwing around of insults but at the end of the day, how many of their new supporters really understand their policies beyond the most superficial level? What we have instead is mass hysteria. The insularity of much of the discussion is depressing.

People in England may not realise that Nicola Sturgeon is not actually standing in this election. Furthermore, for obvious reasons, the SNP is not being held accountable for their record in the Scottish Parliament over devolved issues. This means that Sturgeon has had an easy ride in the UK debates and interviews, although it has been more difficult for her in the equivalent sessions in Scotland and she has ended up shouting over her opponents. To be honest she could say that the moon is made of green cheese while neatly evading all discussion of the poor performance of the NHS in Scotland, the devastating impact of the squeeze to council budgets and, indeed, the fall in literacy levels in Scotland. The Scottish Parliament, while demanding 'more powers' has failed to use those it has already got, presumably for fear of upsetting its electorate with increased council or income tax.

And then there is Trident. My family joined CND fifty years or more ago. Where have all these passionate SNP opponents of Trident been over the last couple of decades? The naive populist view that you can get rid of Trident one week, without any consideration of the global, political and diplomatic implications, and then suddenly build lots of nursery schools the next week with the money saved demonstrates a lack of understanding as to how these things work. I get a sense that for most SNP supporters opposition to Trident is financial rather than ethical. Trident is important because it is to all intents and purposes the only policy which distinguishes them from Labour. They have borrowed Labour's clothes very successfully and then sneered at them for their fashion sense.

However, my main reason for not voting SNP is ethical. In a nutshell, I do not believe that nationalism is morally right. I do not know of any European nationalist party which has governed well or which has not ended up demonising people. I believe in building bridges across obstacles not building walls against people.

So, where does this leave me? As always, it leaves me looking for the 'best fit'. In the past, in one election or another, I have voted for every single one of these parties apart from the Conservatives. All the parties contain good decent standing or prospective MPs. I am not one of those people who decries politicians and shouts that they are all liars or dishonest. A few are to be sure, but most of them, whether Tory, SNP, Lib Dem or whatever, have put themselves forward because they want to make a positive difference to their community and to the country. You may think me naive, but I believe that most of them do make that difference, at least locally. I admire them for it and for taking on the chin the insults which are thrown at them.

Nevertheless, I have been disappointed by significant gaps in the policies and campaigning of all the parties during this election. One would think that the world stopped where the waves lap our shores. Indeed, in Scotland, the world clearly stops at Berwick. Why have the hustings not included discussions of foreign policy? The instability of whole countries and regions, some because of the actions of our own country, is a matter of grave concern. I am not a great believer in military adventures, though sometimes there may be little choice. However, a rich country like ours has a duty and responsibility to people across the world, as well as to our own poor. We have drained these countries of resources and used them to create our industries and build our great cities. I am proud of what DfID has done and continues to do to support developing nations. However, we should be doing more than slamming our gates shut in the faces of desperate refugees and asylum seekers. Furthermore, who are we to talk sneeringly about 'economic migrants'? The British have gone to country after country as economic migrants, to Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, to South Africa, to Kenya, to India and beyond. Thousands of our citizens now live in Australia, New Zealand, the USA and, indeed, the rest of Europe. Economic migrants are people like us who want to support their families and to feed and educate them.

The one exception to this blindness to the world beyond our own little island is the manufactured disagreement over Europe. Even in this, our own stance too often has been 'what can we get out of it'?

So, all in all, that brings me to the other policy which is sadly missing from the current debates, that of proportional representation. It works pretty well in elections for the Scottish Parliament. First-past-the-post seems to be working very badly in the UK as a whole. Is it right that with a possible 5% of the vote, the Greens are likely to get only one seat while the SNP with 4% would get 49?  With proportional representation, people like me who don't like to slot themselves into party political boxes would be able to express the range of their views honestly through the ballot box.

That's it, then. I find things to admire and things I despair of in all the political parties. Of one thing, however I am clear. Voting is important and that's what I shall be doing on Thursday.

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Making Scotland an inclusive nation: the aftermath of the Referendum

The Scottish Referendum: how I am voting and why

Mrs Thatcher, my family and me

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