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It’s almost exactly two years to the probable date of the next General Election – May 2015. The results have come in from the May 2013 local elections around the country. As a parliamentary candidate, I now have an even keener interest in the facts and figures!
Obviously, everyone is talking about UKIP in the local elections. They did well too in my local constituency. Although there were no elections in Brighton & Hove this spring, Peacehaven & Telscombe Towns ward – part of East Sussex County Council and my Kemptown constituency – did have elections. UKIP did extremely well, taking both seats from the Conservatives.
This doesn’t bode well for the Tory MP for Kemptown, Simon Kirby. On this showing he would lose thousands of votes to UKIP – and lose his seat. Nor was it a good result for Labour, beaten into third place. The Green Party stood two candidates in the ward and polled a respectable 200 votes – not bad for a campaign starting from scratch.
So why did UKIP do so well in a part of Brighton Kemptown and across the country? I think there are lots of reasons but the main one is clear: huge swathes of people are simply fed up with what they see as the main three ‘all the same’ parties. They have a point.
This follows the pattern seen elsewhere in Europe. The mainstream parties all support different degrees of austerity. Many of them are mired in corruption scandals and seen as entirely self-serving. They represent the ‘political elite’ and are out of touch with the concerns of ‘ordinary people’. IPSOS MORI research shows that nearly two thirds (63 per cent) of UKIP voters are male, three fifths are over 55, and half identify as working class.
It just takes UKIP (or Beppe Grillo in Italy) with a populist, humorous, outsider stance to make the most of the desire for ‘something different’ and to give mainstream politicians a kicking. Of course, it is easier if the policies of the protest party pick easy scapegoats – foreigners, Europe, scroungers and the like – which sections of the media already regularly target.
So, can the Green Party (or the radical left more generally) simply replicate the success of UKIP or other protest parties?
It’s not that simple. We genuinely do have a completely different and more complex message to UKIP. For us, the worsening climate disaster is closely linked to the austerity drive. It is the same powerful elite who are driving attacks on the living standards of the vast majority of people, and threatening the very survival of the planet. And the solution to both is linked too: breaking the power of that elite, reorienting the economy towards sustainable goals, and fairer distribution of the wealth that already exists.
For many people that seems too big and daunting a message to grasp – much easier to blame foreigners and scroungers. And of course we in the Green Party remember only too well that we scored a stunning 15 per cent in the 1989 Euro elections, but only scored 0.5 per cent in the following general election – a sobering thought for me. It tends to be only in moments of major crisis that people can grasp the bigger picture: after the Chernobyl disaster, when the danger of nuclear power became a reality; or immediately after the economic crash, when people saw the real immorality and incompetence of the bankers and the inequality of the contemporary capitalist system.
For most of the time, we have to connect these big themes with more day-to-day problems that people face. State benefits are just such a crucial issue.
While most media attention has been on the local elections and the success of UKIP, the benefits revolution introduced by the Tories has taken root. This Tory-led government has slashed benefits in a way that its mentor (Margaret Thatcher RIP) would never have dared.
The government and the right-wing media have softened up the public with scare stories about scroungers and the size of the benefit bill. Most people think benefit fraud is around one third, while in reality it is much less than one per cent – and tax evasion and fraud dwarfs benefit fraud by a ratio of 40:1.
But the ‘welfare reforms’ (ie. cuts) are now taking effect. A briefing prepared by the local Community & Voluntary Sector Forum in Brighton & Hove paints a bleak picture. Over 35,000 households in the city will be worse off as a result. And the three worst affected wards are all in my own constituency – East Brighton, Moulsecoomb & Bevendean and Queens Park – where 10,000 households will face cuts.
These staggering figures are a devastating indictment of the coalition government and the local Tory MP Simon Kirby who voted for all these benefit changes.
It’s clear to me that a major emphasis of my campaigning in the next two years will be supporting those affected by these benefit cuts, holding the Tories nationally and locally to account for introducing them, and forcing Labour to come clean on whether they would reverse them.