In the mid-1990s, I represented an Iraqi refugee who had been cut off from social security in London. A civil servant made that decision because my client had chosen to leave over £1,000,000 in a bank in Iraq before fleeing the country secretly. Briefly, his case was that Saddam Hussein imposed a 99% export duty, which would mean attempting to bring the cash to the UK would have resulted in donating £990,000 to that hateful regime and retaining only £10,000. The state’s case was that my client had knowingly disposed of his wealth with the intention of claiming social security benefits here. It is worth mentioning also that my client was a highly qualified engineer who owned a civil construction company. He said, “I want to go back to Iraq after the dictatorship has ended and use the money to rebuild my country.” He had dozens of references and good fortune on his side. I won his case.
After the hearing my client said to me, “You are the first person in this country who has helped me and I thank-you. In Iraq there is only one party to vote for. I know nothing about politics here but I understand that there is a choice of who to vote for. I’m terrified of voting for the wrong party in case people like Saddam Hussein get in. Who should I vote for?” I explained that he could contact each party, ask for their manifestos and make his own mind up as to who to vote for. I also pointed out that he didn’t have to vote and he could spoil his ballot if he didn’t like any of the choices on offer and that spoilt ballots were counted. He said, “I don’t think I’ve explained myself properly, I wish to vote for who you vote for. Please tell me who you vote for.“
At the time I was a Labour voter and was very strongly tempted to tell him to vote Labour. I’m very relieved now that I stuck to my professional principles at the time because I don’t think he would have been pleased to have voted for a party which later endorsed the illegal bombing of his country’s civil infrastructure, of which he was very proud. I declined to tell him how to vote. He argued with me about it and tested my beliefs almost to destruction. Eventually, he asked me how many didn’t vote and when he found out the rough proportions he was visibly shocked.
We are currently witnessing the end of an established party system in the UK. The old warhorses of Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat, are worn out from decades of struggling to become identical to one another. New parties are emerging and stealing the show. Whether UKIP has peaked in popularity or the parade of bigots they have chosen as candidates will prove a winning combination still remains to be seen but there is no doubt that they have stolen the show so far. The Green Party already have control of one council and have actually managed to elect an MP. In Scotland, all the political momentum is with a nationalist campaign for independence which has played one trump card consistently, which is that Scotland need not be governed by right-wing governments from England. We’re even witnessing the rise of truly pan-European parties, like The Pirate Party, which appear to understand digital issues and their role in modern life in a way which the other parties cannot even pretend to grasp.
We do not know what groupings or alliances will emerge victorious from this political paradigm shift but those which populate the existing regime are unlikely to all survive the process intact. The thieving Tory bastards haven’t won an election since 1992 and appear likely to lose at least 29 seats to UKIP next year. If Scotland goes independent, Labour will look like a very different party. The Liberal Democrats are facing a political apocalypse which promises to be as complete as it will be cathartic for our country.
At the heart of all these intertwining processes is the humble ballot box. Without it, none of this can happen. Bound in the straight-jacket of capitalist ideology, our existing parties do nothing to challenge corporate power. The City of London is intact and untouchable. The Occupy movement was right to protest on the doorsteps of what the 1945 Labour Manifesto called the “hard men” of money. It was right to recognise that within the secure walls of the banks the decisions which shape our times are taken and not within the Palace of Westminster. However, it was wrong when it failed to recognise that voting still has the power to change that. The simple act of deciding who you want and casting a ballot in that direction will be the lodestone of our society. We can’t hope to emerge into a new world with a bright future by any other means. Other means can raise consciousness, build strong political networks, successful win single issue campaigns but they cannot hope to unite communities of people behind a political vision.
Russell Brand argued that voting endorsed the existing parties. He has made the puerile mistake of conflating the system with the substance. When asked what he would prefer instead, he didn’t have a clue. This approach ~ smash the system and see what happens ~ will create a power vacuum. We all know what happens when good people stand aside to see what happens… … fascist groups who really mean what they say step in and seize power. My old Iraqi client knew all about how that turned out. Voter turnout is dropping in the UK. If it falls below 50% in a general election, the people will have abandoned the political system. Despite all the propaganda, the British people recognise Westminster as being the seat of government. If that recognition fails, I’m getting on the first boat out, before the bullets start flying, because politics by other means is war. I’ll be calling up my old Iraqi client to ask for his advice. What will you do?