Elections as Shopping

The gulf between politicians and the rest of us yawned wide at a hustings meeting I attended last week in the Carmarthen East and Dinefwr constituency. The politicians in attendance were all candidates in the Welsh Assembly elections to be held on May 5th. Politicians are constantly walking verbal tightropes, of course, often saying what they think their audience wishes to hear, but the candidates’ response to one question was, I thought, revealing.

The question was about their views on referenda. We in Wales had a referendum in March on whether to give the Welsh Assembly law-making powers, and we voted ‘yes’. The hustings question asked if the candidates would support a referendum in Wales similar to that in Iceland, about whether or not to implement cuts in services and increases in taxation to repair the economic damage wrought by unaccountable banks and other financial institutions.

This did not seem to be the sort of question that the candidates were expecting. Simon Thomas of Plaid Cymru, who heads the Mid and West Wales regional list for the party and who was on the panel in the absence of Rhodri Glyn Thomas, the current constituency member who is up for re-election, said he did not support government by referendum, and that everyone had the chance to vote in general elections.

William Powell, heading the regional candidates list for the Liberal Democrats, also came down firmly against referenda. Some of the issues are too complex, he told his audience. Did this mean that we non-politicians are too dumb to understand the big questions of the day? Or that our role is limited to placing a cross beside the name of a candidate, whom we probably do not know, once every few years?

Henrietta Hensher, the Conservative candidate for the constituency, runs a catering firm called Pommes and looks to be a brisk, bright and efficient businesswoman. She quashed the referendum idea too, on the basis that we already have a democracy and can vote in elections, and also defended the probity of politicians, saying that the public should “stop going for politicians” because by and large they worked hard in the national interest.

As for the Labour constituency candidate, former miner Anthony Jones, was he in favour of or against referenda? To be honest, I’m not sure. I think he focused on explaining why the last, Labour government of the UK baled out the banks and thus added to the National Debt — because otherwise ordinary people would have lost their savings.

Two candidates were in favour of referenda. Christine Williams, heading the regional list for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) said the party favours local referenda. Christine spoke a great deal of sense during the meeting, I thought, and would be an asset to the Assembly. Ironically, UKIP would like to abolish the Assembly as an unnecessary cost, and to replace it with a system for Welsh members of the UK parliament to spend a quarter of their time in Wales. I do not back several UKIP policies, for example their plans to  build nuclear and ‘clean coal’ power stations, but the party does recognise that we the people should have more frequent involvement in government than marking a cross a dozen or so times during a lifetime.

The second candidate broadly favouring referenda was Neil Lewis, on the regional list for the Green Party. He came down in favour of local decision-making and community-led action, and unlike Henrietta Hensher thought that too many politicians looked after their own interests rather than those of the people they had been elected to serve.

The debate was mostly good-natured, especially when at its most formulaic, the routine of defending our present system of government from radical change. The people and parties who do best out of current political arrangements have little incentive to make sweeping alterations. Have we made much progress in democratic participation since the first Reform Act in 1832? We have gained universal suffrage, but the impact of voting has if anything diminished. Elections have become occasional exercises in consumer persuasion, when parties present lists of promises to entice people to vote for them, like blandishments to buy goods from one store rather than another. We vote as consumers going shopping, not as participants in our government. One hustings meeting does not make an election, any more than one swallow makes a summer, but from what I heard, UKIP and the Greens are particularly alert to the loss of autonomy that accompanies our sidelined status as consumers of what others choose to give us, and as givers of what others decide to take.

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