Monday, May 08, 2006

The problem with stopping the BNP…

… is that, in the current state of our democracy, it’s too easy to get elected.

Let me explain.

Nick Cohen’s incisive piece on the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog, posed the question: Bigots, racists and worthless buffoons - so why do they keep getting elected?

Cohen warns of the dangers of communalist voting following communalist campaigning. This got my mind ticking over, and having just run the election results for my own ward through a spreadsheet, I realised that – with the right motivation and certain conditions – it is pretty damn easy to get elected.

Now, in no way do I wish to denigrate the amount of effort put in by the various candidates because I’m sure they’ll be the first to tell you that it isn’t that easy at all… and 12 of the 15 candidates didn’t get in, so it can’t be that easy! Right?

Wrong. Bear with me while I start at the beginning.

The first thing to note is that in a ward of almost 10 000 eligible voters, fewer than 3000 people bothered to vote. Yes, the poll (i.e. voter turnout) was a dismal 29%. That means almost 3 out of every 4 voters simply did not care enough about the issues presented by the political candidates to trot down the road to cast a vote.

But let’s get specific. Because each person has three votes, there were 8229 votes cast out of 27717 possible votes. But here’s the shocker. Of the votes cast, all a candidate needed to win a seat on the council was just under 1000.

Yes, to win a seat under current conditions, all you have to do is persuade a thousand people to vote for you. You merely have to attract a piddling 3.5% of the total votes cast by persuading 10% of the total population to vote for you.

Now hold that thought, because I’m going to come back to it and explain why this is so dangerous when a group like the BNP wakes up to this.

The other shocker is that ‘democracy’ while it may be seen to be in action, it’s just a mirage – it’s (literally) taking a nap or watching TV while giving every appearance of being hard at work. And that’s not a metaphor. Democracy is not an abstract idea. It is the will of the people, and instead of voting on Thursday, 3 out of 4 people were willing to do something else instead. Democracy went home and watched TV.

For example, the winning candidates in my ward got 1118, 997 and 929 votes respectively. As I said, it means that they each managed to secure 10% of the total number of possible votes or a third of the actual votes. But wait. Candidates who didn’t win got 5320 votes between them, so two thirds of the actual votes cast, or 20% of the total population of the ward did NOT want those councillors.

So this is the state of our democracy. To win a seat, all you need is to corner 10% of possible votes. Roughly double the number of votes for you will go against you (but they will be distributed over the many losing candidates) and 70% of possible votes will never be cast, because people – ‘The People’ – simply don’t care about any of the candidates’ platforms.

So how does this help the BNP fascists get in while we’re having a nap?

Well, typically fringe parties with a particular communalist axe to grind will get a very high proportion of their supporters to the polls, while the average middle ground of (usually) decent, moderate opinion, doesn’t get off its collective arse.

The nightmare scenario in any ward like my own is that they manage to find 1000 people to ‘motivate’. That’s all it takes. And since those 1000 people can vote for three candidates and are likely to vote for the same party, they would be almost assured of getting at least 2 of the 3 elected, while the rest of the vote is split between not only the three big parties, but the several left-wing alternatives as well.

But there are a few things to consider that might avert disaster. Communalist politics tends to burn very bright very quickly, instead of the slow-burn politics – backed up by hard work and solid social policy – that characterises more sane politics. While groups like the BNP might theoretically need a very small threshold (1000 people, remember) to take over a ward, they will be batting above their weight: they will be using the top end of their support base, while people of goodwill are lethargic. Moderate and progressive parties are only mining a small seam (29% of eligible voters) with a large potential for growth if they can find a way to motivate and activate these people.

(Sadly, they appear to be squabbling over the spoils instead. Fighting to capture a larger share of an ever shrinking pool of reliable voters, the main parties are failing to capture the imaginations of the vast majority of the electorate. Sure, the electorate may seem lethargic and indifferent, but whose fault is that?)

The trick then, considering the fascists have a far more finite support-base which they use up more quickly, is to get the middle-ground interested in politics again. The people who are going to stop the BNP, aren’t the voters. They’re the people watching TV or taking a nap. The people who could be voters.

While the school halls drafted in to serve as the polls echo with the occasional scratching of solitary pencils, the army of democracy is snacking oven chips and fiddling with the remote. Who is going to lead them into battle?

9 Comments:

At 12:03 am, Anonymous richard farnos said...

Surely according to Nick Cohen's thesis OutRage! would be defind as a "communalist" organisation? Does that mean that it is also "sectarian" and quasi-fascist? Or is all this "communalist" stuff simply a ruse to smear Respect with a far right tag?

 
At 10:51 am, Blogger Brett Lock said...

No, Richard, there is a difference bewteen a 'community group' and communalist politics. Community groups do not put forward candidates and fight elections. Communalism is a tactic, not an ideology, so just because one group employs the tactic effectively does not mean it is of their ideology. Left, right, centre, communalism is a game anyone can play - though it does tend to be harnessed by the extremes.

 
At 8:43 am, Anonymous richard farnos said...

We Brett, please enlighten us to what this "communalist" tactics are, for I see no similiarity between Respect and the BNP. Also could you explain what its relationship is with Multiculturalism, a relationship suggested in Cohen's piece but not elaborated to any useful extent.

All the best

 
At 9:45 am, Blogger Brett Lock said...

I think Judy Beishon's article in The Socialist, explains the problem quite clearly.

http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/2006/439/index.html?id=pp7.htm

 
At 8:46 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone interested in the BNP's rise - from either side of the argument - may also be interested in this site - http://www.notfair.co.uk - which is collecting responses from MPs (as well as the public) as to WHY they think the BNP is making such gains, and what they think can be done to stop them.

It's a site from a political theatre company who have a play on in the West End later this month which tackles the issues head on. Very timely and very worth checking out...

 
At 12:52 am, Anonymous richard farnos said...

Well I still don't get it. What as the support gained by Respect amonge the the predominantly Muslim Asian community in East London got to do with the BNP?

 
At 9:34 am, Blogger Brett Lock said...

Richard, read this very thought provoking article.

http://www.irr.org.uk/2002/july/ak000001.html

Playing communalist politics - which the BNP are past masters at - is playing with fire.

The more Respect is seen to be a "Muslim" party, the easier the BNP will find it to sell themselves as the "White" alternative. Their sales pitch will be: "not only are immigrants taking jobs/benefits/oxygen, but they're getting *organised*. Unless whites get organised too, we'll be unprepared, yada, yada, yada..." And of course, the pay-off line will be "Only the BNP puts the interests of the while *community* first."

This is not the direction, I'm sure you'll agree, that we'd want to see UK politics taking.

 
At 10:40 am, Anonymous richard farnos said...

O I get it. Communalism is the exploitation of real or imagined conflicts between communities, such as the inaccurate notion put around before the last general election by Nick Cohen among others that the lack of inclusion of LGBT rights in the then Equalities Bill was due to labour seeking to woo Muslims votes. While indeed this is the stocking trade of the BNP as Arun Kundnani’s article demonstrates, I can not see how such a claim can be laid at the foot of Respect.

For neither does Nick Cohen nor Judy Beishon claim that Respects policies are Communalist and Judy acknowledges that Respect stood over 150 candidates of in places with an insignificant Muslim community such as Plymouth, Portsmouth, Cambridge, Liverpool, Newcastle and Oxford. So Nick’s and Judy’s concerns aren’t based on anything Respect has actually done but on the ethnicity of a number of their candidates and that their victory was confided to there East London base.

There is a nasty whiff about all this as well as a whole host of assumptions: Firstly that because you have a Islamic name that you’re a practising Muslim; secondly that Muslims are only interested in Islamic affairs; thirdly that Muslims councillors can not represent anyone else but Muslims; and finally that Muslims only vote for Muslims. If we applied this sort of perverse logic to the Socialist Party we would conclude that they are white supremist! After all, all of their candidates were white and stood in wards with a significant white population.

I am at a bit of a loss of what they expect Respect to do? Not stand in the East End and only stand white candidates?

All the best

 
At 1:18 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David Lucas the guy who was selling gallows is now a member, and has just been arrested for arms dealing.

 

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