As I spoke that Sunday I found myself saying something I hadn’t thought of before. Maybe it’s not the most significant thing I have ever said, or that anyone else has said for that matter. Maybe it isn’t even a particularly original thought, but the British people haven’t elected a left wing government since 1974. Yes, that’s 41 years. So what makes anyone think that if Jeremy Corbyn is elected as leader of the Labour Party and takes his party in a left leaning direction, that this situation will change at the next election?
If you are a left wing Labour supporter it is an inconvenient truth that the backlash against the left wing policies of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan led directly to the rise of what is now called Thatcherism. Those that remember those days before 1979 still tell the stories of the three day week, rubbish piled high in the streets and the dead going unburied.
Whether you have left wing beliefs or not, this is significant. Firstly the successful candidate will be vying to become Prime Minister, but it is more than that. A healthy democracy needs a credible opposition to the governing party. That opposition has to have credible policies of its own that the public can respect, even if they don’t fully support them. That respect is unlikely to come from policies that were rejected in 1979 and are now as out of date as flared trousers and curly perms. The world has moved on; the hard left hasn’t.
It doesn’t matter how well-meaning a party’s policies may be, they are totally irrelevant if the party is in opposition. Elections in this country are won from the centre ground, not from the extreme left or the extreme right. To get elected your policies have to appeal to the mass of the electorate, not to those on the extremes.
Can Jeremy Corbyn change that reality and get himself elected Prime Minister on a left leaning platform? I doubt it.
It has been suggested that Tories are registering as Labour voters in order to vote for Corbyn and thereby keep Labour out of power. It has also been suggested that people from the extreme left, Marxists and militants, have also been registering to vote. I don’t know if it is true but if it is then it’s a sad state of affairs. If you are so lacking in faith in your party’s policies that you have to sabotage the opposition then your party is in trouble and needs to re-think its policies, because the public won’t be fooled forever. They may just decide to vote for the opposition because they can’t stand having the present incumbent in power any more.
John Major won the '92 election because he wasn’t Margaret Thatcher and he wasn’t Neil Kinnock, not because he was John Major. I suspect that Tony Blair won the 2005 election because he wasn’t Michael Howard, not because the electorate still liked or admired Labour policies, which were already showing signs of the doom that was to come.
We don't yet know who will lead the Tories into the next general election, but they shouldn't be able to start measuring up No 10 for new curtains just because they aren't Jeremy Corbyn.
Of course I don’t have a dog in the Labour leadership race and I think it would be unethical of me to register to vote if I’m not a true Labour supporter. But I am a floating voter and as such open to persuasion. However, Labour won’t persuade me to vote for them if I believe that their policies are left wing, because I fundamentally believe that such policies are well past their sell by date and are unworkable in the real world.
Jeremy Corbyn has suggested that he wants to debate Clause IV, the one in Labour’s founding charter that related to state ownership of industry. Labour would phrase this as the people owning industry, but as “the people” never had a say in how those industries were managed that is just window dressing. Corbyn says he only wants to open a debate on the subject, but no leader wants to debate a policy they don’t believe in, just in case they are forced to adhere to the outcome of the debate. So we can be reasonably sure that Corbyn wants to reintroduce Clause IV. How many votes will that lose him? As an aside, within the EU it may not even be legal to nationalise an industry, because EU competition rules are against monopolies and for state owned industries to function (however badly) they need to be a monopoly. So, along with the centre ground goes the pro-Europe vote.
Those of us with memories longer than that of a goldfish will recall the inefficiencies of the nationalised industries. The motor industry that no longer exists. The two week wait for someone to come and fix your telephone line and worse. I used the nationalised trains to commute and believe me, they were far, far worse than what we have today.
Labour MP Gerald Kaufman described Michael Foot’s 1983 Labour manifesto as being “the longest suicide note in history”. It contained promises for unilateral nuclear disarmament and the re-nationalisation of industry, both policies favoured by Corbyn. Coincidentally that was the year that Corbyn stood for Parliament and won his seat in Islington North. I suspect we may hear the same term being used about the Labour manifesto of 2020 if Jeremy Corbyn is elected Labour Party leader.
Which brings me to something that came to my attention on Facebook in the same week as my radio broadcast. It was a post that asked me to sign an e-petition to get rid of David Cameron. Now, what bothers me about this is not that I am a fan of David Cameron, because I’m not. What bothers me is that it subverts the whole idea of electoral democracy.
We had an election in May. The arguments and policies of the political parties were put before the public and the public voted. Now someone, and it has to be an individual, has decided that we, the electorate, were wrong in our choice and therefore a petition to remove David Cameron is justifiable. Yes, one person thinks that he knows better than 36.9% of the voting public.
There are a number of things wrong with this idea. Firstly there is the idea that these e-petitions actually make a difference. If you want to know how they work read this. You will note from point 6 of the guidance that if the petition attracts 100,000 signatures then it may be considered for debate by Parliament. Note that word “considered”. Not “it will” or even “it may”. Just considered. Well, I considered going out for a walk this morning and then decided not to.
The next thing that bothers me is that figure of 100,000 signatures. At the time of the last census, in 2011, there were just over 47 million people registered to vote. That figure will vary from year to year, of course, but it serves as a reasonable base line. So if that e-petition gets its 100,000 signatures it reflects the view of just 0.21% of those eligible to vote. That is hardly democratic, is it? That’s 0.21% who may or may not have voted against 36.9% of the people who actually voted.
That would be like the owners of a Premiership football club deciding they will only sell vegetarian pies at their matches because 98 of the regular crowd are vegetarians and they all signed a petition demanding the removal of meat pies from the menu, regardless of the views of the other 47,902 members of the crowd.
I could start an e-petition tomorrow demanding the return of capital punishment. It might well attract 100,000 signatures because there are some people who want to see capital punishment reintroduced. That doesn’t mean that capital punishment is a good thing or that the majority of British people want it to be reinstated in British law. It only means that 100,000 people, 0.21% of the electorate, want to see it returned.
Another thing about this particular e-petition is that even if it is debated by Parliament it would never have the slightest chance of being successful. Why not? Because every single politician of every single party would vote against it, because they could never set a precedent that allows the elected government to be dismissed in such a way. Why? Two reasons.
Reason Number 1, because it is so open to corruption. Who can say who the 100,000 signatories are? Who can say that they weren’t bullied or threatened into signing? Who can say that they weren’t paid to sign? Who can say that they are even eligible to vote in Britain? Because I severely doubt that Parliament checks all the electoral registers to verify the signatures.
Reason number 2 is that it removes the illusion of our country being a democracy. If an e-petition is all that is needed to change the Prime Minister then why bother having elections? All that would be required is that each party starts an e-petition to get themselves elected and then goes round trying to persuade people to sign it – which brings us back to bullying, harassment, bribery and falsified voting. There is no openness about e-petitions and there never could be.
We pride ourselves on our democracy. It isn’t perfect and we don’t always get the government we want or that we voted for, but it has worked for a long time. We weren’t taken over by fascism during the 1930s because we kept faith with our electoral system. We didn’t succumb to revolution because we prefer to choose our governments through the ballot box.
One final point; e-petitions were first recognised by the coalition government and the current system was introduced in 2010. They were supposed to allow for more inclusiveness in government and to encourage more debate, basically by allowing the public to tell Parliament what they think. However, if they really worked I have no doubt that they would never have been allowed.
In 2102 36,000 e-petitions were started, attracting a total of 6.4 million signatures between them. That’s an average of 177 signatures each. However, only 10 acquired the necessary 100,000 signatures needed for them to be considered for debate, of which 8 were put before Parliament. Of those 8 how many resulted in a change in legislation or action of any kind? I can’t find any record of any that has. If you know otherwise then please do get in touch to tell me about it.
At best e-petitions are a conjurer’s trick; smoke and mirrors to make us think that the government really listens to us. At worst, however, they could severely undermine our democracy. Before you share one with me on Facebook, I’ll tell you now I won’t sign it, however well-meaning the proposal. I believe in government by majority vote, not by a dubious 0.21% of the population with access to a computer.
Next week a return of the Penny Dreadful; a review of “Medusa” by Elizabeth Watasin.