Britain’s 2005 General Election




T

he
British general election of May 2005 generated much discussion,
with sentiments of despair in some quarters and jubilation in others.
In a flurry of hype, journalists have employed many over-inflated
adjectives regarding a “historic victory” while simultaneously
accusing politicians of causing increased voter apathy by running
the “least inspiring [campaign] in living memory.” 


As
Timothy Garton Ash notes in the

Guardian

, “by the standards
of most previous British elections, from 1945 to 1997, the differences
between party policies are remarkably small. Some will put taxes
up a bit, others promise to bring them down a bit, but no one proposes
to change the way the economy is run,” perhaps going some way
to account for the fact that for the first time since 1923 the number
of people who voted for the government was outnumbered by those
who refused to vote, suggesting a correlation between greater choice
for voters being equal to more votes. A 2001 report published by
the Hansard Society reveals that when it comes to general elections
many say that they see “the parties as being ‘all as bad
as each other’ —meaning that they had nothing positive
to vote for which consequently led them to abstain.” This goes
some way to refuting accusations that the drop in voter turn-out
is caused by apathy. As the

Guardian

reports, “Whereas
between 1984 and 2000 voter turnout fell from 83 percent to 72 percent,
the proportion of people who said that they had boycotted products
for ethical reasons rose from 4 percent to 31 percent. It also demonstrates
that although 44 percent of people had attended a political meeting
in 1979, this had dropped to 25 percent by 2000. Over the same period
the proportion who had gone on a demonstration increased from 20
percent to 33 percent.” 


This
year around 61 percent of the electorate voted and 36 percent of
them voted for Labour. The Liberal Democrats gained a point or two
at the expense of the Conservatives, but, on the whole, voting patterns
resembled the 2001 general election and a small change in voter
preference may have quite easily put the Conservatives in power,
also telling us very little about the country and public concerns. 


As
per usual the election campaigns for the major parties were run
by public relations companies, which have become increasingly bigger
businesses in the UK since the 1980s. Companies devote huge sums
to creating images to delude consumers. It is an incredibly successful
strategy, but one that is based on nothing more than deceit. 


The
PR industry is dominated by a few big players, most of which are
U.S. or UK in origin and ownership. Since the 1980s governmental
actions and policies have led to a vast increase in PR spending
by governments and by corporations in their attempts to influence
government policy. Fundamental to this is the relationship between
deregulation of business and public relations. Media analyst David
Miller describes it as a “revolving door of power, moving between
local politics, think tanks and PR and ending up as a minister in
charge of part of the deregulated industry [that they] helped to
create.” 


Voters
appear to be increasingly aware of this as politicians, big business,
and the media have all suffered a decrease in their ability to influence
the general public. Part of this decrease in influence is due to
a rise in mistrust and it should be of no great surprise that the
three largest proponents of “spin” are also the three
least trusted groups in society. According to a 2003 MORI poll,
journalists, politicians, and business leaders are at the lowest
end of the spectrum of public trust, with just 18 percent of the
population saying they trusted journalists and politicians to tell
the truth. The

Financial Times

reported these results, focusing
on business leaders with the headline: “Business leaders enjoy
revival in public trust,” basing their headline on the fact
that business leaders moved up from 25 percent in 2002 to 28 percent
in 2003. Statistically three percentage points is barely a significant
increase, leading Robert M. Worcester (chair of MORI) to conclude,
“If the

FT

does this to make their readers feel good,
then little wonder that journalists rate bottom of the poll for
their veracity.” 



If
we compare what people are actually voting for to what the candidates
stand for, we find that they often have very little in common. The
PR industry trains candidates to project personal qualities, produce
slogans that might win votes, and shift the focus away from tangible
issues. These “virtues” are conveyed in a number of ways.
For example, we see Tony Blair in a 1997 landmark election broadcast:
he is at home, he is dressed casually and drinks tea from an eclectic
range of mugs; he expresses cynicism about politics and politicians
and he reveals his love of football. None of these things are politically
important, but they enforce our image of the prime minister as a
trustworthy leader. 


In
the 2005 election the Conservatives’ technique is to use language
that just manages to stay on the side of respectability. “Are
you thinking what we’re thinking?” says the Conservatives’
slogan, raising the distinct possibility that both you and they
are thinking things that should not be spelt out too clearly. 


As
part of their election coverage, the

Guardian

notes, “The
list of the top 10 issues covered by the media over…four weeks
is just as notable for those themes that have remained almost entirely
peripheral. Transport, Europe, housing, and employment were among
those that recorded less than 1 percent of all coverage.” 


In
1997 four out of five or more saw the following as the most important
issues in deciding who to vote for: 


  • Providing affordable
    homes to those who need them 

  • Tougher laws
    on the international arms trade 

  • Tougher policies
    to protect the environment 

  • Policies to
    reduce the gap between rich and poor in the UK and worldwide 

  • Firm measures
    to reduce energy consumption in order to tackle global warming 

  • Clear legislation
    that establishes the rights of individual citizens 


In
terms of the most recent election, it would be hard to believe that
the populations’ attitudes have significantly changed on these
issues between now and then. As Tom Curtin, managing director of
Green Issues Communications, explains: “It s very hard to vote
when people don’t know who or what they are voting for. Transparency
and simplicity are at the heart of democracy and if a complex and
inconsistent system deters people from voting—that is extremely
dangerous.” In a system like this, formal elections may occur
but they will have very little meaning. A 1997 British Election
Study cross- section survey announced that 58 percent of the British
population agreed that people at large “have no say in government
actions” and 45 percent went on to agree that “the party
in power does not matter, things go on the same.” 


When
it comes to concerns over the ongoing conflict in Iraq and national
security, the vast majority of the population said they disapproved
of the prime minister’s handling of the situation, but seemed
to show less concern when casting their actual vote. Labour and
Conservative voters, whether they knew it or not, were actually
voting to increase the threat of terror, which could understandably
have terrible consequences. In February 2003, five weeks before
beginning the invasion, a secret Joint Intelligence Committee report
stated that any terrorist threat was likely to increase by invading
Iraq: ‘Al Qaeda and associated groups continued to represent
by far the greatest threat to Western interests and that threat
would be heightened by military action against Iraq…. Any collapse
of the Iraqi regime would increase the risk of chemical and biological
warfare technology or agents finding their way into the hands of
terrorists, including al-Qaida,” which gives us some indication
of how seriously the Blair government actually takes the threat
of terrorism and accredits them some success in their goal of misleading
the population. 


We
can only speculate as to what would happen if the main parties had
been willing to address people’s concerns on the issues they
regard as vitally important, but what we do know is that if the
trend continues and these issues are not restored to the political
agenda, people are likely to continue to switch off mainstream politics
and take the positive action of developing potentially democratic
alternatives to elections.



 





James Quinney
is a longtime activist and freelance writer/researcher based in the
UK. He writes frequently for many different magazines and publications
on social issues.