Brian May and the Party Political Mug’s Game

Brian May
Brian May

We’ve never liked Queen, but it recently occurred to us that Brian May’s Common Decency campaign looks vaguely like a more polite/less ragingly cynical version of the Defensive Voting thing we keep going on about.

May, the band’s 67-year old guitarist, is on the telly every five minutes at the moment plugging this new initiative, an attempt to transform the political landscape through a combination of cajoling apathetic non-voters into turning out on May 7th, and getting them to vote as a bloc for candidates they collectively deem to be the most ‘decent’ on offer, regardless of party.

We’re increasingly thinking that in a neoliberal non-democracy, under abjectly rubbish First Past the Post, people need to look at elections strategically rather than as just millions of atomised individual choices – and the natural evolution of that idea would be to organise like-minded, non-tribal voters across the country, get them to collectively decide which is the most viable non-Tory candidate in each constituency, all go away and vote along those pre-agreed lines and encourage others to do the same.

May’s version is definitely well-intentioned. It’s refreshing to see someone like him do the usual rich rock star’s political life-journey in reverse – rather than going from youthful lefty-liberalism to plutocrat-sociopath politics in later life, the until-recently life-long Tory voter has started campaigning against NHS privatisation and flirting with the Greens, while continuing to zealously oppose the government’s badger cull. His Common Decency mini-movement call for the kind of proportional voting system we so desperately need, and, even more pleasingly, the nationalisation of the banking sector.

That said, while its proposals are excellent, they’re based on a fairly shallow, naïve critique of the way things are. Things aren’t bad because of balls-to-the-wall consumer capitalism, and the way it brainwashes us all to an extent where we can’t even imagine a society not disastrously skewed in the favour of the richest and most powerful, say Brian and friends. They’re bad because of the voting system, and because a lot of MPs aren’t very nice.

But something we and Dr May definitely do agree on is that political parties often actually get in the way of squeezing a least worst out of the system. Under First Past the Post, party loyalty is a mug’s game. That’s clearer than ever at the moment.

As we’re frankly fed up of arguing, left-wingers need to grasp that this won’t be democratic election, and this isn’t a democratic country. We need to forget trying to get anything you’d actually want to vote for out of the present system. Instead, we need to agitate and organise and make enough of a sustained, noisy, grassroots fuss to force radical change – a sort of peaceful, slow-motion revolution. And until that time, we need to use elections like our dead-eyed overlords use them – cynically and pragmatically, with no illusions that it’s a democratic process, to defend our interests.

The kind of party fanaticism you see everywhere at times like these bludgeons any prospect of cool-headed strategic voting to death. Activists and supporters focus obsessively on their own party’s prospects to the detriment of everyone else.

We see it in real life, we see it on political bits of social media. As befitting our political views, our experience of it is practically all from Greens, Labour left-wingers and Left Unity/TUSC types. But the fundamentals are the same. You must vote for their party absolutely everywhere it stands, otherwise you’re essentially Oswald Mosley.

There’s this sense that even just by doing some research, looking at the statistics, examining past election results in your constituency, you’re already an evil sell-out. Instead, the noble ‘democratic’ thing to do is just vote paying absolutely no intention to where you are, or how everyone else in the constituency is likely to vote – even if every available bit of information points to a vote for the party you’d ideally support being a complete waste. Even if it means voting for a Green/TUSC/Left Unity paper candidate in a constituency where they’d be lucky to pull a hundred votes and where a not-too-bad-considering Labour candidate has a real chance of unseating the sitting Tory.

Better that than ‘support’ Labour, or ‘support’ the Lib Dems, you’re told – again, we see that dewy-eyed, lip quivering idea that voting has to be this grand, heartfelt exercise, and that by voting for someone you’re somehow magically endorsing whatever they do if they get in.

We’ve never voted ‘for’ anything – it’s always been about keeping the worst people away from power, and plugging the gap with something not quite as bad. From our perspective, this election is about flinging Ed Miliband in front of the Tory-Neoliberal express train in the hope that having to crunch up his bones might slow it down a bit.

If you honestly believe that there’s no difference whatsoever between the Labour and the Conservatives, or even the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, you’ve let your angst blind you to all-important nuance and subtlety. The differences are minute, really – scandalously, anti-democratically small. But they’re there nonetheless. Labour is genuinely awful. Practically everything bad you can say about it is true. But it’s also true that on each and every one of those issues, the Tories are worse (especially in our pastoral-rural neck of the woods, they’re also repeatedly insist that they offer the ‘only alternative’ in seats they’ll never win and where your only realistic choices are middle-of-the-road Lib Dems or Tory automatons.)

The anti-tactical Left presents you with a false choice – you have to vote for ‘what you believe in’ absolutely everywhere, or support the neoliberal status quo and ensure that an alternative never arrives. There’s no middle ground.

We think there’s a way of nurturing an alternative without leaving the Tories with an open goal. Rather than standing in as many seats as they can, parties like the Greens should focus their resources on the most promising constituencies and try and punch through there. That way, over a number of elections, you could end up with a bloc of radicals in parliament – and have achieved that without letting Tories slip through all around the country. We wrote about it here.

When parties and their supporters demand you vote for them everywhere, what they’re really doing is putting themselves before the welfare of the general population. They’re passionate, committed, well-intentioned people trying to make the world a bit less abysmal. But they demonstrate a willingness to prioritise their own objectives – getting more votes, more publicity, more power – over achieving the least terrible end result for the vast majority.

Is it a better that a few more radical candidates in hopeless seats get to keep their deposits than last time around, or that we avoid another five years of rule by terrifying empathy-deficients like Iain Duncan Smith and George Obsorne? Or an axis of evil coalition between the Tories, UKIP and DUP? Especially given that we think there is a clear way of getting radicals – or Greens, at least – elected and voting defensively and strategically at the same time, for us it’s a no-brainer.

But the biggest, most profound problem of all here is the general fixation with voting and elections as the political be all and end all. After a hundred years or so of banging on about revolutions, most of the Left has now realised that twentieth century-style armed uprisings are gone for good. So instead, a lot of radicals seem to have swung behind contesting elections as the only way of changing things.

But for the foreseeable future, elections under First Past the Post are always going to be about Labour and Tory governments. Without huge popular pressure and more of the kind of grassroots activism we’ve seen a welcome surge of in recent years (Occupy, UK Uncut, the People’s Assembly etc) that’s not going to change. Neither is the fact that the political system as-is is impervious to radical reform.

Once, we watched a memorable YouTube clip featuring indomitable American leftist Chris Hedges addressing a meeting of the American Green Party. Hedges had been brought in to talk about strategies for radical change. And standing there, as austere and nonchalantly devastating as ever, he basically spends fifty minutes telling them that whole their approach to politics is utterly wrong.

Much like we’ve seen in England and Wales in recent years, the American Greens had been attempting to increase their respectability and conform to what people had come to expect from a conventional political party. Rather than trying to become the Democrats Mark 2, and make headway within a political infrastructure expressly designed to prevent radical change, Hedges argues, the Greens need to become a very different kind of organisation.

With the neoliberal state turning increasingly hostile to the people it still laughably claims to serve and ecological crisis rolling in, groups like the Greens have to encourage people to get together, organise, and do politics outside the conventional channels – setting up food-and-essentials-producing co-operatives outside the corporate system, and convincing people to pool resources to help each other and the most vulnerable people in society, says Hedges.

The kind of things most ordinary people would scoff at, in short, but things that a radical, sustainable alternative will be built out of, if it ever comes around. We’re very open – far more than Hedges would be – to the idea that getting radicals into parliament could play a very important part in bringing about that necessary social overhaul. We still think Tony Benn had the right idea. But even if it does, and Benn did, elections won’t be anywhere near as important as the party tribalists make out.