An awakening of the UK Independence Party as a persuasive political force came to define the month of February, in a month where the stability of not just the Conservatives, but the whole of UK centre politics was called into question by the result of the Eastleigh by-election. Of course, this is not to overstate the impact of this by-election, the general election is still two years away and the UK Independence Party could return dormant just as easily as they were stirred, however, I do see the Eastleigh election as providing us with some substantial clues as to what could happen in 2015.
Primarily, it shows that the Conservatives are in danger of having their vote split with UKIP. Indeed, if UKIP present themselves as a viable right-wing alternative then Cameron may just find his party being regularly beaten by Labour in marginal constituencies, something which we all know would most probably cost him the election. The Prime Minister has asserted that his party will not swing to the right following this result, but if UKIP maintain at their current pace then the Conservatives will need a shift in strategy if they want to stand a chance of competing for a majority in 2015. This said however, having run to demonstrate their progress in the south, Labour’s negligible increase in votes from 2010 only went to show how far the party still has to go to turn their poll lead into votes, especially in traditionally unpopular areas. And similarly, even the victory of the Lib Dems didn’t salvage a great deal of hope for centre politics as a whole, with their percentage of the vote dropping by 14.48% from 2010, a fall in support likely to occur across the country at the next general election. Eastleigh was indeed a substantial coup for UKIP, whether they will be able to gain a substantial foothold in Parliament after 2015 is yet to be seen, but the warning signs are there for all the major centre parties- Farage is coming to get your votes.
Aside from the initial party comparisons however, anyone who is concerned about the state of our democracy must, at least in some part, have been worried by Eastleigh. The turnout figure of 52.7% was alarming, especially in light of there being a clear protest vote against the Conservatives and indeed all the centre parties in the form of UKIP. This means that 47.3% of the Eastleigh electorate did not get their views heard or recognised, and furthermore, there appears to be no desire to examine why they didn’t vote. These people all have a reason for why they didn’t vote, each of which sheds light on the nature of our political system. It seems as though politicians have ignored the issue of voter turnout because they assume that people don’t vote either because they can’t be bothered- something which more than anything suggests that political education needs to be more widespread, or due to the fact that people are happy with things as they are- a redundant argument when one considers that the point of asking people to vote is to determine whether they want the current government to continue in power.
It is evident that change needs to happen and it is unfortunately disputable whether a government will act before voter turnout drops below 50% and undermines the credibility of our majoritarian representative democracy. However, as I stated last month, here at Backbench we aim to ensure that day comes sooner rather than later, and in the next few months will be announcing ways in which you can voice your opinion regarding how politics in the UK needs to improve. Our political system is not in crisis by any means, but we face difficulties of engagement and participation which need to be addressed separately from party political games. Hopefully, collectively, we can apply the pressure necessary to ensure a progression of our democracy and a removal of the stigmatism surrounding politics in the UK.
Reversing back to the past however, and to the work of our Commentators during the last month, and once again the decision regarding article of the month has been headache-inducing. Indeed, an article which obviously stood out for me was the analysis of Australian politics and specifically of the political maverick Kevin Rudd by Emma Gray; the need for provocative characters in politics is always an interesting discussion point and Emma demonstrated this with typical lucidity and flair. However, despite her best efforts, I have decided to award the Article of the Month award for February to an article published at the start of the month- “What did the British ever do for us?” by Jack Hillcox. The article provided a thought-provoking analysis of the current government’s policy towards the education of History in schools, particularly in relation to our imperial past, a subject which is universally relevant, but even more concentrated as we continue to consider what our role is in the world today. Another issue which was scrupulously reviewed last month by Luke Jones and Edward Sainsbury was the government’s Workfare programme, dealt a huge blow in court and set to be reviewed amongst much criticism of the scheme. Both of these articles excellently covered a topic which is central to so many young people, most of whom will have spent over fifteen years in an education system which doesn’t ensure them a job at the end. Furthermore, a specific mention must go to Edward’s piece for being the most highly read article since the website began, with just under 1,000 views. Who ever doubted the power of the internet to get your views heard eh?
Surely this must be the optimistic message to end this editorial- that the internet can provide an unprecedented opportunity for your views to be seen and heard by an astonishing amount of people. If we embrace this medium then we have the ability to change politics. February highlighted not only the emergence of UKIP and a minor crisis for UK centre politics, but that political disengagement is continuing to rise- why? Well we hope to find out, and through the internet create the change the UK needs to see.
By Sam Bright