In response to the recent General Election results, students at the University of York arranged a protest campaigning against the proposed cuts by the new majority Conservative government, as well as for electoral reform. A heated debate ensued as the decision to conflate the issues of austerity and electoral reform was called into question. Such a decision was, undoubtedly, a poor one.
Electoral reform is one of the most pressing political issues facing us today. There is no denying that it is ludicrous for UKIP to gain the third highest share of the vote, and yet only have one MP. Similarly, the Green Party gained a little under 4% of the vote- under Proportional Representation this would have merited 24 MPs, but under the current system they possess only one. In short, a five-party system is attempting to be born in a system designed for two.
However, to achieve electoral reform, or any wide-ranging reform, requires a mass movement. Sadly, the York protest did precisely the opposite; in conflating anti-austerity and electoral reform, the protest lost rather than gained support. Electoral reform is a cross-party issue, and those who voted Conservative or UKIP would have understandably felt alienated. Indeed, even I, despite believing in both its anti-austerity aims and electoral reform, felt as though I could not attend because it did not offer representation to all those who believe in electoral reform but identify with the right wing.
I spent a long time debating with myself as to whether I had made the right decision. After seeing a short video of the protest on Facebook, I realised I had probably made the right choice. One of the speakers argued that we should expand beyond our left-wing bubble and appeal to UKIP and Tory voters. Such statements are essential in order to achieve the mass movement required for change. Unfortunately, the very nature of the protest, with its conflation of two issues, seemed to me to have already defeated that sentiment. His sentiment was also lost due to his subsequent remarks that “it starts by hating the Tory scum”. This kind of rhetoric, shouted in the middle of a busy street, is completely destructive. Such inflammatory comments merely make those they attack feel alienated- a feeling which is not conducive to engagement in constructive debate and discussion. Respect should be shown to all groups, no matter how different their ideologies may be; it is the only way support can be built to achieve change.
A distinction should be made here- working with others is not the same as capitulating to opposing ideologies, or compromising your own opinions. Rather, it is about remaining open to alternative views so they can be engaged and tested in a clear and open debate, and it is about working together to achieve common goals. If some Conservative and UKIP voters, for example, want to change the electoral system, then those on the left who share that aim should unite with them to achieve that common aim. If we want change, co-operation, but not capitulation, is the key.
Unfortunately, it seems as though, on all sides of the protest and election debates, things have become increasingly inflammatory. There was recently an article in The Telegraph describing “the Left” as “bad losers”. These assertions do not help the debate. Firstly, it is incredibly homogenising to describe all left-wingers as “bad losers”. Left-wing is a broad term which denotes a wide range of beliefs; many on the left may not have even regarded a Labour victory as a victory, and certainly many would not regard Labour as a “left-wing” party in its current incarnation. Furthermore, not all left-wingers are advocating condemning those who voted Conservative. It is also important to remember that hurling insults at those who disagree is not simply some sort of epidemic confined to the left-wing. For example, J.K. Rowling received abuse on Twitter attacking her ideological position because the Conservatives had won the election. All sides have blame to take for precipitating conflict.
To those who supported Labour, or at least would have preferred them to win, we must accept that they have lost the election. Of course, it was an unfair contest in the sense that there was unfounded scaremongering about a Labour-SNP coalition, and there were certainly press attacks on Ed Miliband. However, ultimately, Labour lost through their own faults. They failed to offer a radical alternative and did not maintain a clear position.
Many will argue that radical policies are the path to destruction, but according to the polls, the British electorate were, in many ways, more left-wing than the Labour party. 70% believe in re-nationalisation of rail, whilst Miliband gave a half-hearted offer of the state competing against private service providers. Similarly, 68% believe in bringing energy back into public ownership, but Miliband pledged only an energy price freeze. Ed Miliband should be congratulated on being an improvement on previous leaders Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, because he was more reflective of the views of the electorate; however, he did not make his position clear enough.
The appetite for an alternative exists, but it is a question of engaging in a constructive and open debate, in which we work with other groups to achieve change.