Democracy Café, December meeting

The December 2019 meeting took place a day after the emphatic win by the Conservatives in the General Election. Boris Johnson was returned with an increased majority of 80. The Labour party is now engaged in what will be an extended period of soul searching and will in a few months, elect a new leader. The LibDem leader lost her seat and although they increased their vote this was not rewarded with any additional seats

It was not surprising therefore when the various suggested topics all centred around the state of politics today. There seems little doubt that the main issue in the election was the seemingly never ending saga of Brexit. Boris Johnson had stuck to his key theme of ‘Get Brexit done!’ and this clearly had resonated with the public many of whom are fed up with the whole issue and want it all over.

The discussion about what happened ranged quite widely. What was the meaning of traditional Labour supporting areas in the north voting for the Conservatives? Many of the traditional jobs in large areas of the north have gone and with it those ideas of collectivism and solidarity. ‘Thatcher’s children’ were now the norm. Many have forgotten the battles of the past such as the Jarrow march it was noted. The achievements of trade unions have also been forgotten.

What do people mean by ‘socialism’ now? Was it some combination of public ownership and controls on capitalism? Someone argued for the complete absence of private capital. People wanted capitalism but with limits and were happy overall with a mixed economy.

Mention of a more equal press drew the only applause of the meeting. It seems undeniable that, although fewer and fewer read a newspaper, the relentless bias of the right wing press did have some kind of effect.

The discussion had focused thus far on the problems experienced by Labour and where they might go in the future to recover. The point was made on the other hand that the Conservatives had their own ideological problems. Their beliefs – dating back to the Thatcher era – were based on small government, low taxes, private enterprise, deregulation, competition and free trade. The effects of these policies were increasingly becoming clear. They have been acutely experienced by the ‘left behind’. To reverse these problems, to retain what Boris Johnson called the ‘borrowed votes in the north, and to rectify a decade of cuts to health, schools and to infrastructure generally, was going to require significant reversal of policy. All this while the next stage of Brexit was in full swing. Will the Conservatives be able to carry out such a change in their core ideology?

Individualism seemed to be a thing which counts now. Many of the public who are interviewed seem only concerned with their own situation not on wider issues. The ‘aspiration of the individual’ is what counts someone said. Or was it to be a member of a fairer society? Did people understand the difference between capitalism and socialism in any event?

Inevitably, we got onto personality. It seems that neither of the party leaders was liked nor trusted. At the Salisbury hustings for example, people laughed at John Glen when he referred to trust in Boris Johnson. Studio audiences also laughed when trust was mentioned in the same sentence as his name. Corbyn was widely disliked and distrusted on a wide number of issues. So is the result of this election a one-off and a result of people’s attitudes to these two men?

An argument developed about immigration – one of the prime political concerns today and one that crops up on the doorstep. Indeed, at the last Salisbury for Europe street event, there were two people with strong and fierce anti immigrant views. The difficulty it was stressed was the difference between genuine concerns about the scale and impact on the one hand and prejudice on the other. ‘White working class people look out of their door and see something completely different’ it was said. It was regrettable that words like ‘swamp’ and ‘flood’ were used however. The point that without immigrants, the health service could no operate, food would not be prepared and vegetables left unpicked was not made. The problem has a long history it was noted, Enoch Powell for example.

We continued along similar lines after a break and the discussion moved on the nature of the current system – a familiar topic for the cafe. Salisbury is a safe Tory seat which means that someone could live a lifetime in the City and not ever be represented. That an MP represents all the constituents cut little ice.

One theme was how well can the public understand the complexity of government? This brought up the issue of the Referendum: do MP’s go with what they believe or what the voters told them? This was the difference between an MP being a delegate or a representative. Large parts of the public seem to want the former.

Proportional representation has its own problems and can lead to a small party wielding disproportionate power. The DUP is a recent example. Now that Johnson has a big majority, he will safely ignore them. But in a sense that illustrates the basic problem: one minute the DUP is influential, a day later, they can be ignored. Whatever one thinks of the DUP – and few this side of the Irish Sea will think favourably of them – how representative and balanced is this system of voting. For three years, the ERG has wielded enormous power and influence over government policy. Now, a day later, they can be largely sidelined.

The point was made that democracy is about the ability to challenge the government and Gina Miller was instanced. It was about the right to speak. So in a sense, no votes were wasted as it showed the depth of feeling about a subject.

Conclusion

No definite conclusion but a widespread feeling that things are not right. The damaging effect of a foreign owned right wing press and its influence on voting was expressed. First past the post might, on occasion, produce a strong government which its supporters claim, but it more usually ends up with marginal government and does not represent actual voting. In Salisbury, some felt that they are never represented nor ever can be.

Peter Curbishley

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