The witching hour and the Westminster bubble
Few individuals have introduced more words into our language than Roald Dahl; breathing life into his vocabulary he was able to epitomise a thing or a moment in a spoken sound. To enter common usage a word or phrase has to capture the popular imagination and ring true, something that Roald Dahl did with playful irreverence.
To mark the 100th anniversary of Dahl’s birthday The Oxford English Dictionary has added many of his fine words into their latest edition, seeing the phrase witching hour from The BFG line up with additions from contemporary society like YOLO and yogalates.
One of the most significant and Dahl-esque additions to the dictionary in 2016 is Westminster bubble; a word that captures an important dynamic in UK politics at a moment with many people feeling both engaged but lost. We’ve been spoilt with new words entering our political vocabulary over the last twelve months, Brexit, Regrexit and Corbynista to name a few, but none cut to the heart of the collective experience like Westminster bubble.
In this piece I will review the last 18 months of political activity, looking at trends and statistics to make the case for an acknowledgement deficit being at the heart of the current political unrest. With less than a week left in the second Labour leadership election in a year, I’ll explore what the road map for effective decision making looks like in votes like these and propose how we go about getting the democracy we want.
A frightsome awakening
I’m not sure the night of 7th May 2015 had a witching hour according to Roald Dahl’s definition:
“a special moment in the middle of the night when every child and every grown-up was in a deep deep sleep, and all the dark things came out from hiding”.
For so many a sleepless night. As the general election result unfolded into the morning of Friday 8th May the shock of the Tory’s securing a second term with a parliamentary majority was almost universal, even within the Conservative Party.
However what we all know now is that this result merely opened the book on an interesting chapter of UK politics.
I think it’s significant that an event of genuine political passion and engagement was still fresh in the collective memory of the nation as the general election ran its course. Set against the 84.6% who voted in the Scottish referendum, the 66.4% turnout for the 2015 general election felt pathetic. (oops… does my idealism look big in this)
The 18 months that followed are important, but before we move onto look at this I’d like to share the most interesting data I saw following this result; the comparative outcome had the election been run on proportional representation.
These two graphs leave a lot that needs exploring, however the thing I want to draw your attention to is the gulf in how the parties are represented between the two systems. The Conservative majority is cut from 99 seats to 43 under proportional representation, but more importantly the Green Party, UKIP and Lib Dems return from oblivion. The possibilities for a coalition government could have made the aftermath so interesting.
Instead, if you include all those who didn’t vote, 75.6% of registered voters didn’t vote for the elected Conservative Party. Okay, I appreciate this is a cheeky statistic because who knows where non-voter allegiances lie, however even if you base that statistic on the ballot box they received 36.9% of votes cast to receive 50.9% of the available seats.
I raise this statistic not to question the Conservative Party’s legitimacy in forming the government or to create resentment, we all engaged with the process as it was laid out and the system gave them the victory. I draw attention to these statistics to highlight the reality of the system. What followed is the interesting bit…
Democracy is scrumdiddlyumptious!
So what happened in the aftermath of the election? On Saturday 20th June 2015 over 100,000 people marched on Westminster to campaign against the government’s austerity measures. Over the summer of 2015 the Labour Party’s membership grew from 193,754 to 292,505 in the process of electing Corbyn as Party Leader in September, and then came the European Referendum….
72.21% of the 46 million registered to cast a vote on our membership of the EU did so.
I’m sure I am not alone in still feeling uncomfortable thinking about the result. My mind is transported back to traumas as yet unresolved. However among the proclamations of despair following the outcome was the view that the ‘leave’ vote was a perfect example of why we should never hold referendums on topics like our membership of the European Union. Others mused; oh well if we genuinely believe in democracy then we’re going to suffer results like this.
Firstly, don’t we (wrongly) invade countries and overthrow dictators in the name of democracy, all you “this is why we should never hold referendums” folk?
And secondly, since when was the UK a shining example if a democracy, all you “if we believe in democracy we’ll suffer results like this” folk?
Why is a 72.21% referendum turnout not a victory for democracy and human beans everywhere?
It’s at moments like these I believe the world has given us a gift (granted my mind often swings between this belief and the feeling that “We’re doomed! We’re doomed!”).
The EU Referendum was not a shining example of democracy in action!
It feels like there’s lots of learning we should be furiously engaged with following the European referendum shenanigan if democracy is genuinely something we care about; setting simple parameters of success seems like a simple one place to start as we prepare to throw the nation into one of the most frightsome processes based on a 1.9% margin of victory.
This month the Electoral Reform Society released a report in response to the European vote. Access to information, education and citizen involvement in the process were highlighted as areas for improvement, with the referendum campaigns described as “dire” with “glaring democratic deficiencies” which left voters bewildered. According to this report only a third of voters described themselves as informed or very informed in the week of the vote despite 69% of people being interested or very interested in the referendum.
The lessons from this EU Referendum leave us plenty of room for improvement and more importantly some work to be done!
Taking stock and Corbyn
And so we arrive at the door of Jeremy Corbyn…
Surveying the current political landscape it’s fair to say that the only visibly engaged group of the electorate moving with any ‘momentum’ are the people rallying around Mr Corbyn; an MP who appears to sit outside the establishment and has failed to gain the support of the majority of his party or the press.
So why is the growing support for Corbyn so unshakable?
Three statistics stand out for me:
- During the EU Referendum “nearly half of all voters (46%) thought politicians from both sides were ‘mostly telling lies’” The Electoral Reform Society – IT’S GOOD TO TALK – September 2016
- 40% of leave voters and 23% of remain voters “believe that national government does not listen to their concerns” The Joseph Rowntree Foundation – July 2016
- “75% of press coverage misrepresents Jeremy Corbyn” The Independent – July 2016
I believe the dynamics that make Corbyn’s support so steadfast and resolute operate are simple. It’s a response that taps into dynamics that are personal and national. It’s a chain of reactions:
- The vast majority of people don’t feel acknowledged by the political system in this country. They don’t feel their voice is heard on issues that affect them and the number of government decisions that affect them is growing.
- There is widespread disillusionment with the establishment, which broadly speaking includes many at Westminster but also the national press and big corporations.
- Corbyn was thrust to the fore with an anti-austerity agenda and very evidently positioned outside of the establishment
The groans of “this much we know” from future readers are almost audible as I write…
The golden ticket
At the root of the steadfast and unshakable nature of support for Corbyn is something very personal and exploring it will involve some shameless generalisation.
I believe there is a growing acknowledgement deficit that runs throughout society and its present in our relationship with the governance of our nation. I believe many people carry an unmet need for acknowledgement by the political system and the establishment who exert power. This unmet need comes from a belief that our voices aren’t heard and our views aren’t represented in our country’s governance. As with all unmet needs, if a healthy response isn’t found, it can generate a raw emotional feeling around the topic which isn’t healthy for our country, our democracy or the individual.
For many Corbyn represented the opportunity for a healthy response to this unmet need.
However instead of being given the space and press neutrality over the last year of his Labour Party leadership, the establishment who exert power in this country have been violently rocking the boat. The press and the Westminster bubble, architects of our feelings of being unacknowledged by the governance of our nation, just steamrollered the solution with exactly the kind of behaviour that gave us this unmet need for acknowledgement in the first place.
Corbyn supporters, you thought you felt sore about the state of UK politics after the general election, how sore must you feel now?
So where do we find a healthy response?
A common theme for me throughout the last 18 months of UK politics is the need for democracy to be a something we practice daily. Not necessarily in big ways, but it needs to reach further into our lives than occasional votes.
I’m not convinced that maintaining the current trajectory, carrying on as we have been, simply voting for Corbyn is going to give us the politics we want.
At the moment the political arena feels like an arm wrestle between Corbyn’s supporters with the hurt of unmet acknowledgement and the Westminster bubble (supported by the press). It’s plain to see the opposition have muscle, and so we’re gonna have to get beyond the feelings of hurt to act smart if we’re going to get this need met and get the democracy we deserve.
What do Oompa Loompa’s teach us about democracy?
Alongside Roald Dahl’s Oompa Loompas entering the Oxford English Dictionary this month are two words with a cynical tone on modern developments in political activism. Judging from this line in their Charlie and the Chocolate Factory song I sense they’d approve:
“what do you get from a glut of TV, a pain in the neck and an IQ of 3”
Clicktivism, less affectionately known as slacktivism, has become such a phenomenon in modern politics that both words are now entering the dictionary. If further proof was needed the online petition for a second referendum reached over 4 million signatures; substantially more than the protest march following the referendum vote. Online petitions are an important tool of democracy, but in their rightful place they’re a small part of a much fuller picture.
In UK politics we are in danger of forgetting the power that ‘we the people’ hold; our strength in numbers when engaged in active democracy. So what are we missing:
- Proportional representation… a system that would acknowledge every vote
- Equipping ourselves with the knowledge and experience to fearlessly debate
- Gathering people together to create campaigns and movements
- Participating in campaigning, marches, acts of solidarity and protest
- Teaching your kids, family, friends, in fact everyone what democracy looks like
As for how to vote in the Labour Leadership election… look beyond your feelings, work out what you want the future of politics to look like, decide how your actions might support that taking shape and act accordingly.
Just remember democracy is about more than simply casting one vote and in return getting what you want…