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« Windows on Uzbekistan | Main | A two-sided self-interested stitch-up »

The Hoodies are in 10 Downing Street

The new editor of the New Statesman asked me to write a column for him. But I addressed its readers in the first person, saying those of us Saddam haters who are not Gallowayites but who opposed the war are the majority and should not fall back into comfortable opposition. I didn't address the news of the day and it wasn't right. By the time I did so - and read the Queens speech in full - I was late and only half got carried. So here is the full thing, punch-line and all.

"There is an edge and anger in the air. It feels like one of those moments when the public sentiment changes at a deeper level than fashion and is shaped by what Raymond Williams called the “structure of feeling” to distinguish what is a matter of opinion from mere opinion, and recognise it as a material force.

The hyper-activity of the legislative programme in the Queen’s speech is designed to deny and defy this tide. There was a moment for me when I knew it was not going to work.

It was somewhere way past number 30 in the long list of commitments in a programme dedicated to re-injecting “respect” into our civil society. Those of us still breathing - after a diet of ID cards, cuts to incapacity benefit, more private capacity in the health service, and more security crackdowns - learnt that the government will legislate to “encourage greater voter participation in elections”.

This goes along with the Prime Minister’s headline approach of attacking anti-social behaviour. For him the main lesson of the election is that British people, especially young and disrespectful ones, especially those wearing hoods - and now known as hoodies - must learn how to behave. And if they can’t learn they must be taught. And if their teachers and parents can’t teach them, then the government will.

On teaching them to vote, according to the BBC, a new Report from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister sees the solution to the democratic deficit in e-voting. This “could not only improve the efficiency of counting votes but also have a profound effect on turn-out, especially among younger voters.” It points out that members of the public are already happy to vote by telephone and the internet in TV shows such as Pop Idol and Big Brother. "Given the market segments at which many of these programmes are targeted, voter participation in them is likely to involve a significant proportion of young people and others who, traditionally, do not participate in political elections," it goes on.

The report looks forward to touch screens in the booth, computerised counting, internet and text message voting. Thus will trust and “respect” be re-established. “The long-term goal of the government is to provide more choice to the electorate in the hope that this will also increase the numbers prepared to cast their vote.”

In pre-war days when spin was spin and no lives were lost, one might have written with amusement at the eagerness of Tony Blair to define his swansong in such a tough-guy manner – the five times a night bravado designed to impress media barons, intimidate the rest of us and defy dissent.

It is not just Labour's army of disaffected who are not going to buy it. Blair was always confident that he could deal with them. For the first time the constitutional change agenda is broadening away from the political cognoscenti and into what could become a genuine movement. The issues at stake extend far beyond the previously rarefied discussions on the merits of various systems of proportional representation. Among the political meetings and demonstrations held since the election, two have been organised by Compass, an increasingly influential organisation that is seeking a new direction for progressive politics. Elsewhere, a packed Make-Votes-Count meeting launched ‘Storm for Reform’, an alliance of groups demanding electoral reform. (Blogged below) It held a vigil outside Downing Street the morning of the Queen’s Speech. Driving past in her horse and cart, her Majesty and her consort seemed bemused. They looked at a small section of the crowd who were neither waving nor drowning but wore gags across their mouths - to symbolise their loss of votes that count.

The change in feeling is a post war one: a manifestation of reality after Iraq and an election that holed all the parties below their waterlines but left their superstructures intact. Its expression may be constitutional, but its source is a hollowing of belief in the state. For many voters now there is no confidence that it can oversee the most grave and defining action a polity can take, the decision to go to war. Its civil service, its intelligence services, its media, its opposition, its legal system, all the checks and safeguards vital for a democracy broke or bent. Nor was there any swift political correction as after the time the British forces invaded Egypt to try and recapture the Suez Canal in 1956.

The fact that proper punishment could not follow at the polls has, if anything, deepened the sense of humiliation. The election verdict was rejection of a Conservative message that frightened and alienated, of a Liberal Democrat alternative that proved ultimately feeble, and of a war Prime Minister who garnered little over 35 per cent of the vote – and 22 per cent of the available electorate – a record low for a “victorious” party.

Enchantment will not be restored by electronic gimmicks and text messaging. It is most unlikely that baroque e-voting legislation as proposed by Blair will “encourage greater voter participation in elections” by young people. The voters are not the problem. The vandalism and anti-social behaviour damaging the ‘values’ of British society starts at the top. The hoodies are in 10 Downing Street."

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May 20, 2005 in Blair's Bust - UK election | Permalink


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