General election campaigns have degenerated into an exchange of personal abuse which puts most people off; a flurry of election promises marketed by high-pressure salesmen; and the usual solemn warnings about apathy – as if the real problems in Britain were caused by the inactivity of the people, rather than the activity of the parliamentarians.
Apathy has its advantages for the political class – by which I mean the party leaders, their spin doctors and their embedded correspondents in the media, who live in the Westminster village and rarely seem to get out to listen to what is being said.
It encourages ministers to do what they like on the grounds that the public are not really interested. For the same reason, it entitles the media to dumb down their coverage as if that is the only way to win attention. This suggests that those at the top have little confidence in people’s intelligence.
My own experience, four years after leaving parliament to devote more time to politics, has convinced me that, far from being apathetic, most people are angry that no one seems to be listening to them; nor do they believe what they are told. Anger and mistrust are highly political responses and in no sense can they be described as apathy.
That is why we have seen so many popular movements growing up which provide a real outlet for those who no longer feel connected to the parliamentary process and its media entourage. The result is that real politics increasingly focuses on the issues of peace, the environment, civil liberties, pensions, student debt, and the rights of women and trade unions, whose activists get far less coverage than the personalities in the major parties, and are often described as troublemakers or rebels.
The big peace demonstration this Saturday in Trafalgar Square will be a test case. If past practice is followed, the only media interest will be if there is a scuffle or an arrest, while the speeches made from the plinth will be completely ignored.
Meanwhile, even those who voted against detention without trial have been denounced as soft on terrorism. This is despite the fact that one of them was Lord Irvine, whom the prime minister had appointed as lord chancellor, suggesting that New Labour’s election campaign is to be based on fear.
Everyone would do well to remember that polling day belongs to the electors and not to the party machines, for it is the one day in five years when every voter has exactly the same political power as the prime minister, and the media coverage could – and should – focus on that.
Opinion polls which predict the outcome, though they are of interest to the party managers as they plan their campaign strategy, do not help the electors, who want to know what the candidates believe before they cast their vote. What is needed now is for some imaginative polling organisation to send a questionnaire to all candidates with, say, 20 key questions and a commitment to publish their answers, nationally and in their own constituencies, making it clear that if they decline to answer, that refusal will also be made public.
It would not be hard to draft the most relevant questions since, before we vote, we are entitled to know the attitude of all our local candidates towards the war, the UN, nuclear weapons, policies to end third world poverty, the EU constitution, education, the environment, student fees, privatisation, means tests for pensioners, civil liberties, taxation, trade union rights, council house building, and other key questions.
Democracy is about representation, but many people now feel that we are being managed all the time. It may be that the real legacy of New Labour will be the erosion of democratic rights, with our conference disregarded, parliament taken for granted and the cabinet told what has been already decided by the prime minister and his coterie of personal advisers – like Lord Birt, who has not been elected, cannot be questioned and is in no way accountable.
This is why so many people are wondering how it is that a leadership which presented itself as being so moderate could have launched us into four wars, abolished Magna Carta, and banned demonstrations in Parliament Square under the banner of modernisation.
But none of this should, in any way, discourage us, for historically all progress comes from below, as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists and the Suffragettes came to realise. So too did the “terrorists” we imprisoned for their role in the colonial liberation struggle, who ended up having tea with the Queen as heads of Commonwealth countries.
For the first time in my life public opinion is well to the left of a Labour government and that is why – at nearly 80 – I am so optimistic.
* Tony Benn’s latest book is Free Radical