Saturday, May 23, 2015
So, there I was, two weeks before the general election, getting excited about the opinion polls for the eight East Sussex seats. Set to buck the south-east Tory trend, the county was on-course to be a multi-coloured ribbon of red, yellow, blue and green. The reality, of course, was different: the Lib Dems lost Lewes and Eastbourne - curiously the electorate rewarded the Tories for downgrading maternity services and closing A & E in this town - and Labour failed to take Hastings and Brighton Kemptown. The only bright spots were Labour winning Hove and the Greens holding on to Brighton Pavilion. Otherwise, East Sussex is as blue as the rest of southern England.
It’s not all bad, though. Labour came second in the seat of Mid Sussex, Nicholas Soames' fiefdom covering the West Sussex area around Haywards Heath and East Grinstead. This may seem like the sound of straws being clutched at, but Labour has been a distant third in every general election since the seat’s creation in 1974; this result is seismic. It has made me realise that, for any left-leaning person, if Cameron’s lazy Thatcherism is to be truly opposed, only Labour can do it. It is a broad church, other anti-Tory parties are not: the Green Party has barely broken out of single issue politics and, whilst smaller parties on the left are excellent at local campaigning, their electoral performance is a token. A friend in Gloucestershire told me he realised, as he campaigned unsuccessfully for Labour to re-take the seat of Stroud that was lost in 2010, that any anti-Tory position other than Labour is a luxury: we cannot afford to argue the purity of our political positions whilst people are victims of the bedroom tax, cuts in council services and the tearing apart of the hard-fought-for social safety net.
However, it wasn’t the hope of the Mid Sussex result that made me finally re-join Labour, the party I have always voted for, was active in in London during the 1980s but was last a member of in the 1990s: I filled out my application before the recent elections. I had been questioning the terms of my political engagement for a while - thinking of not voting, having faith only in trade unions, flirting with the Greens – but when the notice of candidates for the local district council elections was posted in my area, it became apparent that in a large number of the 35 wards there was little democracy on offer. In my own ward there was a choice between the existing Tory councillor and a UKIP challenger; there were similarly limited options elsewhere and, in a few wards, sitting councillors were standing for re-election unopposed. Labour fielded candidates in only 15 wards, mostly in towns, and the Greens only 7. How can this be allowed to happen, we cried, throwing up our hands? Well, we had allowed it to happen. If there is no alternative political activism at the grassroots in the countryside, there can be no alternative in the democratic process. Two quotations were running through my mind when I went to the polling station to spoil my district council ballot paper: the writer David Runciman’s aphorism, “only politics can save you from bad politics” and Podemos' leader Pablo Inglesias’ observation that, “if the citizens don’t get involved in politics, others will”. It was time to stop pontificating and get active.
We are now trying to build a Labour Party branch in my village – seven members and counting – with the modest aim of making sure there is always a Labour candidate on ballot papers. More importantly, it is vital that other views are always heard, even in these conservative rural areas, and that people are reminded there is only one political party wedded to the founding principles of our fair and modern society: the NHS, comprehensive state education, affordable homes and employment rights.