You will have seen them around – small vans, wonky trailers, Union Jack on the drivers’ doors, exhaust pipes puffing. All streets, in time, are visited. No door is left un-knocked. You can pick up their leaflets from the pavement. Somebody has to. All have lovely pictures. Their smiles beam up from the gutters. They make bold, if generically vague, pledges – ‘strong and stable’, ‘stop the boats’ – but give no guarantees. The political season has returned.
First impressions matter. They seem like friendly people. They want to make a difference. Don’t we all? Some talk, some listen, some tick their canvass cards with orange, red or blue ballpoints, some have spreadsheets on their mobile phones. Sometimes they come around with the candidate, big rosettes, campaign manager, cameras in tow. Busy-ness is the name of the game. The candidate must not stay too long or get trapped into awkward questions.
This way of picking up votes is fine for bin collection and similar issues of local importance, but it falls far short of providing a mandate for a national government. The former LibDem MP, the late Sir Clement Freud, said that the skills required for fighting an election and running the country were quite different. It was like winning a hundred metre sprint and, as a prize, receiving the ignition keys to a combine harvester.
The ULEZ snowball, or, how to manipulate a by-election result to change national policy
This local vs. national disparity was revealed in the recent Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, which was narrowly won by the Conservatives, against all predictions. This was the parliamentary seat of Boris Johnson MP, the former prime minister, who resigned in dignity or disgrace, according to opinion. Labour was well ahead in the polls, the government was in a shambles, and most psephologists, studying the runes, assumed that Labour must win.
What went wrong? Most commentators concluded that one issue swayed the election. The Labour mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, sought to extend the ultra-low emission Zone (ULEZ) for motor vehicles to the outer suburbs, which included Uxbridge. The intention was to improve the quality of the air in London. Cars and vans that failed to meet the standards for low emission, mainly older models, would receive an additional charge of £12 a day, if they were driven within the zone. The Labour failure to gain Uxbridge was interpreted as a sign of electoral displeasure over ULEZ.
The impact of this unlikely result was immediate. The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, asked Khan to think again about ULEZ. The Tories came to a wider conclusion. Promises made at the UN Climate Change Conference COP 26 (2021) in Glasgow were quickly placed in the ‘pending’ tray. The net zero commitment, enshrined in law by the Climate Change Act (2008), might have to be delayed beyond the existing 2050 target. New licenses were granted for the further extraction of fossil fuels from the North Sea. Lord Frost even suggested that Britain might benefit from global warming.
Here was Qyik Fix UK Ltd politics in action. Based on a handful of votes in Uxbridge, the powers-that-be demoted clean air on their list of priorities, broke their pledges, and anti-green-washed their manifestos in readiness for an election. “My campaign”, said Steve Tuckwell, the winning candidate for the Conservatives, “is a referendum against ULEZ”. His victory was deemed to be, like the Brexit referendum, the Voice of the British People having spoken.
Dirty tricks campaigns, voter apathy and political indifference
There is, however, another point of view. It could be taken as a failure in our electoral system. We can start by being pernickety. The turnout was 46.2% of those eligible to vote, 17.3% lower than in the 2019 election. Labour’s share of the vote rose by 6%, and the Conservatives’ declined by 7.4%. The Conservative majority was reduced from 7,210 to 495, which under any other circumstances would have been regarded as a good result for Labour.
There is little reason to suppose that the electorate was opposed to cleaning up the air in Uxbridge, or anywhere else. If, however, voters were threatened that ULEZ was a left-wing measure that might cost their families £4,500 a year – as the local Tories put it – many would have a cause to complain. They were duped by petty electioneering, which is the enemy rather than the friend of democracy.
An equally significant lesson could be drawn from the apathy of the voters in a by-election which had the weight of the country’s attention placed upon it. Why did the electorate of Uxbridge bother to register their opinions? Was it because the level of debate failed to rise to the challenges of our times?
Protecting democracy will take collective responsibility and action
We are surrounded by dire warnings. Everyone with a TV set or a laptop will have heard about the floods and forest fires induced by global warming. We know about the barren lands and pollution. Every day, we are made aware about the consequences of starvation and mass migration. Those who object when the activists of Just Stop Oil or Extinction Rebellion glue themselves to pavements should consider what their alternatives might be.
Where is the political discussion about how we can cope with climate change and adjust our ways of living accordingly? Why do we mock the desperation of refugees by threatening to send them to Rwanda? Those who trivialise the future are activists as well.
If we believe that democracy is only a matter of deciding who wins the next election, by whatever means, we do not live in a democracy at all. We may take the calling cards of the door-to-door salesmen who promise to fix the gutters and mend the locks. If we then vote for them, we surely only do so in the hope that they will do better than the last lot of odd job experts, who left such a terrible mess.
The test of a true democracy is whether it can arouse our sense of personal responsibility to meet a collective challenge. Our problems are not insoluble unless we make them so.