Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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10/5/15: watching the UK election from afar

I didn't get to vote in the election on Thursday, didn't organise a postal or proxy vote.  Partly this is pure inefficiency, but also, I really don't know who I would have voted for.  Whatever else one might think about the early 1980s with Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot, there were clear policy differences along classic left wing / right wing differences.  So the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher triumphed the family and the individual, low taxation, privatisation, this kind of thing.  Whilst Michael Foot represented collectivism, caring for the weak in society, high Government spending, and so on.  And at the danger of looking at the political scene 30 years ago through rose tinted spectacles (and I'm aware that nostalgia isn't what it used to be) the fact that there were clear policy differences meant that at a personal level there was a certain degree of respect - why attack the person when you can attack the pollicy?  And little regard for image, will Michael Foot ever be forgiven for wearing his donkey jacket at the cenotaph?

(Parenthetical story, please skip to the next paragraph to keep with the main thrust of this post.  When Michael Foot stood down as Labour leader in 1983 following a resounding victory for the Conservatives in the election, I had just started short term missionary service in Indonesia.  I was watching his resignation speech with the family I was staying with and, referring to Margaret Thatcher, he said something like, "Those who try to be macho don't come to mucho."  I laughed at this, to find everybody else in the room looking at me expecting me to explain the joke.  I mean, how do you explain this to people for whom English is not their first language?)

So I for one find the political scene difficult to access now, in the sense that there doesn't seem to be the clear easily understandable differences between the parties that there used to be.  Certainly, when Labour came to power in 1997 with David Blunkett as education secretary, there was a strong sense of Labour needing to demonstrate that it was more Conservative than the Conservatives.  I had actually been delivering leaflets for the Labour party that year, even spending an excruciatingly boring Sunday afternoon with some of the most humourless people I've ever met stuffing envelopes.  On the night of the election I was delighted, but rapidly wondered why we'd bothered changing parties.

So, I opted to watch this year's election from afar.  Kept up to date to some extent from the BBC News website, 'Have I got news for you?' very helpful also in summarising the key things which happened the previous week.  On Friday got up at my usual 5am. to switch on the Internet and see what was going on, this being 3am. in the UK very much the time when things were heating up.  Found the rest of the day's events really interesting to follow,  particularly interested in the events from an electoral rather than a political point of view.

So, some observations if I may.  Two major sets of congratulations are due.  Whatever one might think of David Cameron personally or politically - and I'm aware that not everything he's done over the last 5 years has been popular in Christian circles - finishing up with an overall majority is a major achievement in the circumstances which ought to be recognised by all irrespective of our own views.  And the other major congratulations goes to the Scottish Nationalists for a most amazing victory, going from 6 to 56 seats out of 59 in Scotland altogether leaving, rather neatly, one each of Conservative, Labour and Liberal.  Slightly curious that they achieved considerably more votes on Thursday than there were votes in favour of Scottish independence in the recent referendum, not entirely sure I understand the reasoning here!

Major commiserations to the Liberals, plummeting from 57 right down to 8 seats.  Alas, I can't prove this, but I predicted that something like this would happen right from the 2010 election.  I mean, what were they supposed to do?  They opted to back a Conservative government, antagonising an awful lot of people who had voted for them, not least students over their U-turn on student funding.  Why vote Liberal if in effect that's a vote for the Conservatives?  But, what else could they have done?  Had they joined forces with Labour they would not have had an overall majority, so they either would have had to gather more partners (from Northern Ireland, maybe) or govern on a minority basis.  Or they could have refused to enter into any formal relationship and voted according to the issue at the time, which could easily have given rise to another general election soon after as happened in 1974.  In any eventuality the Liberals would, sooner or later, have looked bad.  So, I have a measure of sympathy here for them in what has just happened.

But what of UKIP?  Due to the vagaries of the electoral system, they achieved 1 MP with nearly 4 000 000 votes across the country, compared to the SNP 56 MPs with just less than 1 500 000.  So 56 times as many MPs with considerably fewer than half the votes.  So, David Cameron, in the highly unlikely eventuality that you're reading this, please remember, as you face the opposition benches, that that one UKIP MP in one sense represents the one constituency but in another single-handedly represents the 3rd biggest number of voters after Conservative and Labour.  Whilst I can see from a UKIP point of view that the election was disappointing, it's not entirely clear to me why Nigel Farrage felt it necessary to resign, converting votes to seats when the support is evenly spread across the country (roughly) is not going to be easy.  There was, of course, an opportunity to vote to reform the electoral system a few weeks ago, I voted in favour but was in the minority on that occasion...

And Labour?  Well, from every point of view bar one they did reasonably - not brilliantly - well on Thursday.  Their overall share of the vote went up by 1.5% compared with 2010, with a net gain of 14 seats in England and Wales.  The problem was their crushing defeat in Scotland, going from 41 MPs down to just 1.  But is it not reasonable to consider this more of an SNP victory than a Labour defeat?  The Liberals also lost all but one of their seats, and the Conservatives only had 1 to start with.  Good luck, Ed, I'll be interested to see what you do next.

But there is one other thing in the election results which I find truly horrifying, a potential timebomb, which nobody else seems to have noticed (although I could easily be wrong here).  25% of the Northern Irish electorate voted Sinn Fein, a party historically aligned to terrorist activity whose MPs do not take up their seats in Parliament.  On the assumption that these voters are Catholics (about 40% of the Northern Irish population) this means that well over half of all Catholics in Northern Ireland are voting Sinn Fein.  Is it only me who finds this horrifying?  Am I missing something here which is obvious to everybody else?  I'm aware this is old news, the vote has not changed much from 2010, but even so, does this not indicate the potential for considerable instability again in the years to come?

Fundamental principle of democracy, it seems to me, is that we really can't be telling voters that they're wrong.  We may not like the choices made but we have to accept that this is what people are saying.  Again, if I might presume to advise Mr Cameron, can I suggest that you set a target to reduce the Sinn Fein vote in the next general election, and consider what positive measures you can bring in achieve this?

So, some thoughts on the election from a distance.  If I may, before I finish, I'd like to tell you about one other thing.

I gave blood on Friday.  Why?  Because an email round to say that one of our colleagues needed an urgent operation and that blood of either A+ or O+ needed immediately to facilitate this.  Being A+ (and yes, I know this is just an arbitrary classification not a value judgement!) off I went.

Have to say, I rather enjoyed the exercise.  There was a real sense of camaraderie amongst those who went, of doing something worthwhile, giving real help to a much valued colleague in need.  Whilst it was not entirely clear whether the blood we gave directly was given to our colleague, or used to replenish the stocks (I think it was the latter) the direct relationship between our colleague's need and our donation made the whole exercise very meaningful.  Indeed, they were very clear that they wanted 8 donations to cover our colleague's operation, no more and no less, at least one person who turned up to give was turned away.  Which seems to indicate that the hospital's capacity to store blood is very limited.

But of course, this is not what I am used to.  I have given blood in the UK before, with the donation then going to an overall blood bank. And there are clear advantages to this system.  The blood donation can be organised on a sustainable, repeatable, on going basis, with large stocks meaning that the risk of somebody needing a transfusion for whatever reason not able to get one negligible.  In this blog post I was considering my experiences in North West Uganda, contrasting the more immediate and localised approach to helping each other in time of need rather than the western more collectivist approach.  This is another example, I suppose.  As I concluded then, there are advantages to both approaches - and we can't have it every which way.

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