Published on [Permalink]
Reading time: 6 minutes
Posted in:

Political Habit

I've had this blog post by Art Kavanagh saved in my to-read list for a while now, because these two paragraphs struck a chord with me:

For the first 16 or 17 years of my electoral life, I never had any difficulty deciding who should get my vote. In 1988, I moved to the UK. As an Irish citizen, I was allowed to vote in all elections, including general elections, and I did just that. In 1994, John Smith died and was succeeded as leader of the Labour party by Tony Blair, who planned to make fundamental changes to the Party’s constitution and ethos. It became clear that both the Labour Party and I were moving away from socialism at the same time, though certainly not in the same direction. I no longer wished to vote for the party, as I had done as a matter of course — or habit? — for the previous 6½ years.

So what was I to do instead? No other party appealed to me. There was no obvious alternative. I didn’t for a moment consider abstaining. Instead, I asked myself what were the issues of immediate importance to me, and how could I best advance them. It was clear that there were two issues that I felt particularly strongly about: getting rid of first-past-the-post in elections and asserting my rejection of euroscepticism (which, in the wake of the Maastricht treaty was becoming virulant). Given these priorities, the party whose policies were closest to my own views was obviously the Liberal Democrat party. I’d always previously thought of them as hopelessly centrist and unprincipled; but a dispassionate examination of the issues suggested that they should have my support. And so I voted Lib-Dem, regularly and as a matter of habit, until I moved from the UK in early 2006.

I became eligible to vote in 1986, and voted for the Liberal/SDP Alliance that year and again at the 1987 General Election. I think I'd already worked out that the Conservative and Labour parties were the big beasts that had run Britain (with varying degrees of success) for decades, despite only being indirectly aware of their actions in my childhood. The Conservatives were not hard to dislike, in fact they seemed to go out of their way to be unappealing to me. Labour at that time seemed broken and ineffectual to me, which was pretty much the case even after Neil Kinnock became leader. While I was disappointed by the result of the 1987 General Election, I held my nose and persevered with my support for the Liberal Democrats, as they now were. Of the three party leaders, Paddy Ashdown appeared to me the most coherent, though admittedly that was informed more by how the other two parties came across on television.

I did have some hope for Labour when John Smith became leader, and was devastated when he passed away. While I didn't have the burning hatred for John Major that I'd harboured again Margaret Thatcher, his inability to bring the party behind him fully helped cement my view of the Conservatives as the Nasty Party, years before Theresa May famously coined the term.

(In hindsight, I can see now that those fissures were the basis for the subsequent breakdown of the Tories into increasingly hostile tribes, that would culminate in 2019 with the proverbial lunatics taking over the asylum.)

I stuck with the Liberal Democrats through the 1990s and 2000s, with Charles Kennedy taking the helm. While I was glad to see the Conservatives defeated in the 1997 General Election, Tony Blair and his New Labour seemed too good to be true. I was prepared to give them a chance however, because I could see it would take a long time to undo the harm the Tories had inflicted.

That changed in 2003 when Britain went into Iraq alongside the USA despite public opposition, and my suspicion that the gulf between New Labour and the Conservatives wasn't nearly as wide as either side made out grew.

The 2007/8 financial crash, along with the transition from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown without a General Election, soured my mood further. My late father had handed in his Labour supporter card over the Iraq War, and I shared his opinion that New Labour were now just 'better Tories than the Tories'. Meanwhile, my support for the Liberal Democrats was wavering, as I wasn't sure where they stood now under new leader Nick Clegg.

The 2010 General Election result, and the sight of both Nick Clegg and David Cameron together, left me reeling. I think I already knew in my heart that the Coalition wasn't going to impede the Conservatives, and the 2011 AV Referendum confirmed that. Meanwhile, Labour appeared a lost cause under Ed Milliband, with division already evident. I'd already taken to using the term Blue Labour for those MPs whose inclination appeared much closer to the Tories.

I reluctantly voted Green in the 2015 General Election, knowing that my vote would most likely go to waste, because I couldn't stomach any of the alternatives. Particularly UKIP, the UK Independence Party, and their leader Nigel Farage, who to my mind were the Tories minus any compassion or decency.

I wasn't sure at first what to make of Jeremy Corbyn's election as Labour leader in 2016, but for the first time in many years I felt that he was perhaps the leader we needed. Sadly, it soon became apparent that a large portion of the political Labour party didn't share that view. Then came the EU Referendum, which was decided less by the talent of Leave — decidedly debatable, despite what Dominic Cummings and others might think — and much more by the machinations of the press and the paralysis of Remain when it came to articulating why we should stay.

The result of the Referendum didn't settle anything, and instead merely served as the catalyst for an accelerating process of political breakdown as both the Conservatives and Labour descended into factional infighting.

I blogged shortly after the 2019 General Election about how big a gut-punch that was for me. I now feel that I'm without a political home for the first time in my adult life, or at least a place from which any meaningful change can happen.

The Conservatives are now not just the Nasty Party, but a party whose only interests are staying in power at all costs. Labour under Keir Starmer appear to be no more united than they were under Corbyn or Milliband, and the Liberal Democrats and the Greens might as well not exist nationally. The SNP in Scotland are the only other voice out there, but they seem content to allow the disintegration of the United Kingdom to accelerate. The DUP in Northern Ireland stubbornly persist with the idea of the Union despite the obvious disinterest of the Conservatives they formerly helped keep in power.

I don't know how this is going to play out. Waiting for the Conservatives to implode is not an option, given their apparent willingness to trash the UK economy and allow people to die in the meantime. We sorely need an effective opposition, but I feel that it'll need to come from a new place with a clear idea of who we are, where our place is in the world, and how we conduct ourselves. Particularly with regard to climate change.

Reply by email