24 May 2010

Democracy, croissants, art and trains (Part One)

Hello, my name is Unkie Dave, and I am a politics addict (Hello Unkie Dave!).

They say the first stage in overcoming a problem is admitting that you have a problem, a later stage is then apologising to your loved ones for all the hurt and trauma your addiction has caused them. That would place me somewhere between step one and step eight, as I freely admit I have a problem and love politics of almost any stripe, but not only have I failed to seek absolution and forgiveness from my loved ones, I continue to drag them headfirst into the mud and filth-laden mire that is my addiction.

Over the last eighteen months frequent readers may have noticed that I have been of the opinion that an election is quite badly needed here in Ireland. On more than one occasion, be it clerical abuse, the Criminal Justice Bill, NAMA, Anglo Irish Bank, AIB, the Civil Partnerships Bill, expenses scandals, ministerial interference in criminal cases, ministerial electioneering dirty tricks involving journalists, or just plain and simple appalling mismanagement of the economy, it has been suggested that the most appropriate thing for those in power to do would be to raise their collective hands, say "My bad", and let the other folks have a go, or at the very least let the good citizens of the nation have a chance to have their voices heard. Finally, after eighteen months of deep frustration and desperate cries out into the night, someone in power finally heard me and decided to do the right thing and go to the nation, cap in hand, and give power back to those with whom it rightfully rests, the good men and women that are a nation's citizenry.

Unfortunately it was in the wrong country.

No mater, an election is an election and not quite being able to justify a flight to Bangkok either financially or ecologically, I convinced The Very Understanding Girlfriend to join me on a mad dash by ferry and train to London on election day, where my Rather Tolerant Sister and her fiancee accepted my imposition upon them with grace and charm. When you are Underemployed you rather forget that not everyone a) can accommodate guests with less than twenty-four hours notice and b) has the luxury of staying up to 5am watching election results come in because of something called "work" in an "office" that starts at 8am.

A truly fantastic few hours then ensued, wherein we accompanied them to a polling station (apparently Irish folks are allowed vote in UK national elections, a courtesy reciprocated here for Dail, Local and EU elections, but not for Presidential elections or referenda. I suggested that my sister vote Irish Parliamentary Party, but strangely enough they didn't seem to be running a candidate in her borough), took a wander by Westminster to see the BBC projecting a tally of the results on the side of Big Ben, almost getting run over by Jon Snow on a bicycle in the process, then on to the Queen Elizabeth II Centre on the South Bank for an election party before finally calling it a night sometime around 5 when it became obvious that no clearer picture would emerge of the results until much, much later.

Saturday saw me joining a protest in Trafalgar Square (again, there's that addiction thing, I'm not really too bothered about what exactly a protest is about, as long as its something vaguely to do with overthrowing the established order you can pretty much count me in) calling for the introduction of proportional representation. The UK electoral system for national elections uses the rather antiquated First Past the Post system coupled with single seat constituencies. This means that a party can get an overall majority in Parliament with less than a third of the popular vote, or conversely get a third of the popular vote and somehow end up with ten percent of the total seats thanks to decades of gerrymandered constituency boundaries.

The irony for me as I marched on Westminster with Billy Bragg to the chants of "Fair Votes Now" was that just as the Green Party here is seeking to do away with Proportional Representation in favour of a German list system in the vain hope that such a change will stop them from being eradicated at the polls next time out, there is a strong movement in the UK clamoring to adopt PR as the fairest and most just electoral system available.

Another thought that stood to the forefront of my mind was that you can now add Parliamentary Democracy to the list of things like football, rugby, cricket etc that the British Empire gave to the world and now sucks rather badly at, for we former colonials are clearly way ahead of the game with our historic and somewhat magical ability to represent broad swathes of the electorate through coalition governments, a situation that seemed unfathomable to both the UK press and general public as negotiations took place between the parties. It seems the English press, like their US counterparts, are very uncomfortable when issues are not black and white, or there is no clear winner. And of course everything must have a winner, for how else can you tell who the losers are?

When the final result was reached once The Very Understanding Girlfriend and I had reached Paris the following week, I was surprised. The Liberal Democrats are a progressive party, and were the beneficiary of votes from many disaffected Labour supporters. The Conservatives are certainly not their natural bed-fellows. But again I was reminded of the Green Party, and words from the Green Parliamentary Party during the special conference on the renewed program for government to the effect that if you are not in politics to be in power you have no business being in politics.

No doubt the LibDems believe, like the Greens did here, that it is better to be in Government with a chance to enact some of their policies than to be outside with nothing at all. The danger for them will be that as the much smaller partner they will find it difficult to exert real influence, and yet will paradoxically come to be blamed for failing to prevent the more draconian measures being passed, being viewed, as they will be, as the conscience of the Government. Just as Eamon Ryan or John Gormley seem to be wheeled out to the media to answer for the Government's failings at every junction, so too can we expect to see a succession of LibDem whipping boys taking the brunt of the public and media wrath for the inevitable public cuts and tax hikes that will be introduced in short order. The question is will any successes that can be clearly attributed to the LibDems be enough to protect them from the inevitable backlash at the polls come next election? Again they would do well to look closely at the Greens here, more as an abject lesson of what not to do.

Saturday rolled on into Sunday, and between election updates The Very Understanding Girlfriend and I managed to slip in an extended visit to the Tate Modern (very big), some experimental Japanese trash-rock in Hoxton (very loud), and some amazing Indian food in Brick Lane (very tasty, and very cheap), along with a veritable cavalcade of friends and family, including my six year old cousin who somewhat endearingly insists on calling me Unkie Dave. I am tempted to draw her a diagram/genealogy chart explaining the erroneous nature of her chosen nomenclature, but where's the fun in that?

On Monday morning we packed up our purple pro-democracy banners and accidentally-curry-infused jumpers, restored our I-can't-believe-its-still-hard-currency Euros to pride of place in our wallets and boarded an early morning train to Paris, the wonder of which still brings a smile to my face. Its only as you step on a train in London and off again in Paris two hours later that you truly appreciate just how isolated we are in Ireland.

A rugged windswept and insular rock in the North Atlantic, but at least we know how to do elections.

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