Wednesday, January 28, 2015

99 Days To Go - how to get my vote

Fixed term Parliaments mean that 120 days of electioneering replaces 200 days of Nick Robinson speculating over the election date. What would you prefer? I don't yet know how I'm going to vote, but here are a few of the things which will affect it:

 - We have a family member who has coeliac disease. Because of EU food labelling regulations, we can now tell with every item of food whether it's safe for them to eat. Restaurants are now obliged to tell us about the allergen content of every dish they serve. This is a massive plus for us. Given the volume of lobbying against the laws, you can bet they'd be dropped like a hot brick as soon as we left the EU.

 - Mental health services in the UK are doing even worse than the NHS as a whole, with reduced funding and beds, and a broken system of care. Depression is more like alcoholism than a broken leg. Broken legs heal, you can be discharged as fully fit and don't come back until you break something else. Depression and mental illness tend to recur, but the NHS system is to discharge people once they are better, thus removing all formal support bar the GP (who offers an occasional 10 minute consultation). Unsurprisingly, many relapse. Given the nature of mental health, there aren't any sizeable lobby groups speaking out on behalf of the anxious and depressed, so I'm pleased the Libdems are making some noise about this, and disappointed that they seem to be on their own.

 - Over a million people used food banks last year, this is a national scandal. We can't have a government that pretends that austerity, benefit sanctions etc. are working. I'm pleased that more people are in work, though many of those are using food banks too. Billions have been poured into the economy through extra borrowing and quantitative easing, but where have they gone?

 - Speaking of borrowing, whilst interest rates are at a historic low, isn't this a good time to borrow to invest? I thought that was the idea of low interest rates anyway, to encourage business to borrow and invest, so why doesn't the government follow the same logic? (But)

 - The environment has disappeared off the agenda, the 'greenest government ever' was a pile of steaming compost, and the only thing people talk about now is fracking. Last year was the warmest ever in the UK. Brazil, that place that used to have a rainforest, now has a drought.  If Eric Pickles had a biscuit for every renewable energy proposal he'd blocked he'd... oh right. We ignore this one at our, and everyone else's, peril. The poor and vulnerable of the world suffer most from the over-consumption of the rich.

 - If I get an election leaflet through the door which spends most of the time whining about the other party, displaying distorted bar charts, claiming credit for an initiative which was actually a campaign by a cross-section of the community, not just them (yes I'm talking about the A303), then I'll think less of the candidate for taking me for a fool. I'm not going to vote for someone who assumes I'm stupid. (here is one recent selection of local leaflets)

 - Neither am I going to vote for someone who seems more concerned about gaining power than they do about using it for the benefit of the community.

 - Having foreign aid at 0.7% of GDP isn't a massive burden for the 5th richest country in the world, and I would rather we erred on the side of generosity. What goes around comes around. I would have thought UKIP of all people would understand the concept of standing your round in the global village pub, but they don't.

 - Immigration: we're in a mess over this one. Despite the promises, we are importing people faster than we're providing the infrastructure for them (housing, services etc.). Thanks to recruitment policies for the NHS, we have a health service that would collapse without foreign-born labour. (Which in turn leeches qualified doctors and nurses from countries with far more need of them than we do). We're in a mess over integration too: attempts to define 'British Values' splutter out, or emerge knee-jerk in response to things like the Charlie Hebdo killings. We talk about 'tolerance' and 'rights' mainly because we don't want people interfering in our personal so-called freedom, not because we believe in them as principles of liberal democracy. We are neither physically or philosophically equipped to deal with the current influx of cultures and people, but neither do we know how to talk about it sensibly.

 - Ideology & Character: I'd have a better idea of who to vote for if any of the political leaders actually believed in something. For one thing it's easier to work out what they'll do, Cameron and Miliband give the impression of making it up as they go along, based on not sounding like one another. Clegg is the clearest and (oddly) most consistent. But to be honest there isn't a leader of a mainstream political party that I trust. They have schemes but no vision. It doesn't help that they're all about my age and most are career politicos: where have all the talented and experienced politicians gone who knew how the real world functioned?

 - Christians are encouraged to pray for those in government, and to work for the good of their community. I believe its my moral duty to vote and to be politically involved. So I don't have the Russell Brand option.

 - The NHS is a great blessing and a bottomless pit. There is no obvious stopping point for the amount of cash you can pour into it: why should one hospital get a high-tech bit of kit and not another? At what point do you go for a cheaper, but less effective drug over one which gets better results but costs 10x as much?

 - The future may be more like 90 years ago than 20. The welfare state again is a great blessing, but it nationalised community support. People haven't needed unions, churches, working mens clubs, community spirit etc. because the things we used to do out of neighbourliness are now done by the government. Despite the empty rhetoric and the absence of strategy, the 'Big Society' has started to re-emerge in recent years. It is too complex, too costly, and too ineffective, simply to leave everything to the government. That's not an easy piece of logic: do I leave the government to pick up the tab for my bad health choices? Do I complain about the litter in the park on Facebook and ask what the council are going to do about it, or pick it up and bin it myself? We can't leave everything to politicians, if we ever could.

 - I'd rather have politicians who can admit mistakes, admit that they've learned things they didn't know a few years ago, admit that they tried something and it didn't work. We know that all politicians can do bluster, from Boris to Burnham. Stop it.

I do wonder if this is the best time for ages for those who really care to get involved in politics. The fragmentation of the voting system means that smaller voices are more likely to be heard (the Greens, with 1 MP, and Plaid, with 10% in a recent Welsh poll, are to feature in national debates). UKIP is clearly a party in flux, the Libdems could turn left (Farron/Cable) or right (Laws/Alexander) after the election, historic allegiance to the Conservatives and Labour is drying up - Scotland is a straw (or maybe a salmon) in the wind for Labour, the North of England will be next, given a decent alternative. This either spells a dangerous vacuum, or a great opportunity, for 'normal people' to get involved in reshaping our politics and parties. Leaving it to the career politicians isn't working.

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