‘The British people have said for years that they don’t want mass immigration. The main parties ignored them. This is venality’
Parliament has broken up for the summer. But it has broken down for good. Back in April — before the expenses scandal fully broke — the Labour MP Frank Field wrote on his blog: “Week after week, MPs have been turning up but with almost no serious work to do…The whole exercise is vacuous.” That period now looks like something of a golden age. In the weeks since then, the public’s pickpockets at Westminster have been turning up with nothing to do other than check whether their office neighbours have jumped out of the window.
What we have seen from the expenses row, through the aborted coup against the Prime Minister and finally to the European elections, is that the main political parties in Britain have become useless as reflectors or the concerns of the public they presume to represent. After a pitiful showing in the European Parliament elections, and a pitiful reaction to that pitiful showing, it has become clear not simply that the main parties are incapable of rising to the challenges they face, but that they are actively creating and causing many of those challenges.
The failure of Westminster in its current guise is nowhere better demonstrated than in the major parties’ refusal to recognise messages even when given in a resounding, often shockingly clear voice. The UK Independence Party (Ukip) coming second in share of the vote still doesn’t seem to be enough to make the parties wonder what they were being told about Europe. And even the election of two British National Party MEPs has not provided the much-needed wake-up call.
Gordon Brown and David Cameron practically compete to misunderstand the significance of that event. At Prime Minister’s Questions, Cameron tried to seize fairly easy moral high ground by dropping in, correctly, the fact that the BNP were thugs and fascists. Brown responded: “On the Labour side of the House, we will do everything in our power to show that the problems that made people vote for the BNP are the problems that we are dealing with — on housing, on social justice and on employment.”
Which is to miss the point rather spectacularly. But the PM is not the only one. At a recent meeting in Westminster, I questioned one of Cameron’s key strategists about what the party was planning to do to stop the BNP’s rise. I was told that internal polling showed that while disenfranchised Conservative voters go to Ukip, it is disenfranchised Labour voters who go to the BNP. In other words, he spelt out smugly, the BNP was not a problem the Conservatives could do anything about.
Biting my tongue, I asked, as one would want to ask Brown, why his party seems to think that the single issue which most allows the BNP to pick up votes — the apparently limitless mass immigration which makes many decent people feel like strangers in their own country — was not an issue his party could address responsibly, thereby lancing the boil of BNP support. I was told that the Cameron crowd believe their poll bounce in 2005 was attributable to Liberal Democrat voters coming over, and that if the Conservatives were to discuss immigration it would scare away those LibDems.
This is the way that decent politics ends: lusting after a few thousand voters while coolly ignoring millions. The British people have consistently and increasingly registered that they do not want to be ruled from Brussels. The main parties have ignored them. The British people have said for years that they do not want mass immigration. The main parties have ignored them. This is venality. But it is a venality which has fatally combined with something else.
When it transpired that Jack Straw was one of the cabinet and shadow cabinet ministers who made money by “erroneously” claiming for £1,400 of council tax he wasn’t owed, he excused himself with the immortal admission, “Accountancy does not appear to be my strongest suit.” The question that must now be asked of the Justice Secretary Jack Straw and all his Parliamentary colleagues is simple. “What then is your strong suit?” Is it your charm? Your duck-pond or your Corby trouser-press?
People in government and those aspiring to government should possess two things above all else: they should have a moral reason for doing what they do, and they should be competent at doing it. Our main parties are filled by people who repeatedly show that in place of a moral sense they have only a desire to be in office. And they now also admit that they are simply incompetent where they have not been criminal. That they desire to rule, incompetently, over people whose opinions they despise so much is an oddity that those of us who watch Westminster can merely wonder at.
Fighting over the same irrelevant piece of ground, the major parties are no longer worthy of the people. They must either change radically or be replaced. Westminster needs not reform, but revolution.