Monday, January 17, 2005
The Cabbies' Party
How often have you been told that politicians are a bunch of crooks that should be replaced by 'ordinary people'? Last week's ITV political talent show Vote for Me, intended to counter popular alienation from politics, has ironically left this argument in tatters. Sandra Gidley was quite right in her blog last Saturday to point out the apparent contradictory attitudes of the public.
Vote for Me concluded last Friday night with the victory of Rodney Hylton-Potts, anointed 'The People's Politician'. You may have heard him on the Radio 4 Today programme on Saturday morning (at 08:20) - he's a pantomime right-winger, obsessed with immigration, part Al Murray's 'Pub Landlord', part archetypal London cabbie.
It turns out that he is also a convicted fraudster who has spent two years in Brixton prison. Yesterday's Observer reported that Hylton-Potts, instead of celebrating his victory,
... is being forced to deny allegations that he told a fellow competitor that in the 1960s 'you could drive to Henley without seeing a nigger on the streets'.
Hylton-Potts is in no doubt about the main reason for his victory.
Hylton-Potts, who won the competition on the strength of what he calls his 'cabbie's manifesto' - the mandatory castration of paedophiles, the legalisation of all drugs, the repeal of the human rights act, a massive prison-building scheme and an immigrant deportation programme that would reduce Britain's population by 20 million - vehemently denies the allegation.
'I won because of what I call the "cabbie vote", he said. 'I think cabbies are a very good guide. As I was being ferried back and forth to the studio, I would say to the cabby: "What do you think of immigration?"
Should we worry? Dolan Cummings, reviewing the programme in Spiked, argued its irrelevance to real politics. Literally speaking, he's right - Vote for Me was pure light entertainment, a variant of the Pop Idol format. Despite both the producers' and the victor's claims, the winner of Vote for Me is unlikely even to stand at the next election, let alone get elected.
'When I told them my views, every single one of them said: "Good on you, mate."
While we may laugh at the prejudices and ineptitude of the candidates in Vote for Me, we cannot simply dismiss it. The concept behind the show, the eventual winner and his popular appeal are all further evidence that the ingredients exist for the emergence of a powerful right-wing populist movement.
What are these ingredients? They may seem an unlikely combination, yet what they have in common is opposition to what might broadly be termed enlightenment values.
The first ingredient is a pool of resentful voters who see themselves as losers. Typically older, white, uneducated, working class men, their grievances stem from losing out in the economic and social changes brought about by globalisation and liberalisation. They hate foreigners, gays, speed cameras and the BBC. They have a chip on their shoulder about everything that's changed in the past fifty years and they hark back to the 'good old days' of the British Empire. This is precisely the demographic group that votes for UKIP and the BNP. Election results and polls throughout Europe, not just Britain, suggest there is anything between 15% and 25% of the electorate in this category. If there were a deep recession or the Tories were to implode, this percentage would increase.
The second ingredient is a widespread disillusionment with the democratic process and the political classes, a sense that politics is run by a remote and dishonest elite, 'only in it for themselves', using 'fancy words' and conning the public. Note how Robert Kilroy-Silk plays this card - an 'ordinary bloke', sacked from his media job for 'telling the truth'. This narrative is validated by the tone of the political coverage in most of the tabloids - indeed, I get the impression the Daily Mail's agenda is to dismantle the whole democratic contract.
The third ingredient is an organised religious right. Violent bigotry could always be dismissed as a phenomenon confined to ethnic minorities, so long as it was only Muslims or Sikhs who were burning books or throwing stones. The recent protests against the BBC for broadcasting Jerry Springer - The Opera suggest there are also many white Christians who essentially object to the post-1960s liberalisation of society.
The final ingredient is a charismatic leader able to join the dots. Fringe parties have a penchant for infighting and a consequent tendency to fragment, but a strong leader able to impose discipline and project some simple messages can perform remarkably well. No-one has yet succeeded in marrying the grudges of working class whites to the agenda of the religious right, but the success of the Republicans in the USA is bound to inspire a copycat strategy in Britain.
It would take only one charismatic figure to fuse these ingredients into a compelling recipe. Is there a British Jean-Marie Le Pen or Pym Fortyn waiting in the wings? Who knows, though it is where Robert Kilroy-Silk's ambitions clearly lie.
Kilroy, having fallen out with UKIP, is already searching for a new political home. Last Wednesday's Guardian Backbencher column reported:
The Backbencher hears that Kilroy's increasingly desperate search for a political home may be about to come to an end. Having been narrowly rejected by both the English Democrats and the New Party - a tax-cutting, British trucker-loving outfit whose logo depicts five blue people conducting a seance - Kilroy is apparently now hoping to lead a putative party called Veritas, set up by four disaffected members of the New Party's national executive. The New Party "knows nothing about it" and Kilroy isn't answering his mobile, but the Backbencher hopes to be able to confirm the wanderer's latest perch shortly.Right-wing populism already has the capacity to create a real impact in Britain. The fuel tax protests in 2000 seriously jolted the government; UKIP won 16% of the vote in last June's Euro elections (more than the Lib Dems); and a 'no' vote seems certain in any EU constitution referendum. It is not that far fetched to imagine the emergence of a coalition comprising some permutation of elderly white racists, Poujadist small businessmen, truck drivers, Fathers 4 Justice, the Countryside Alliance, In-ger-lund supporters, evangelical Christians - and maybe some cabbies.
A widespread complacency has set in about democracy and freedom because they appear not to be under serious threat. In the fifteen years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the alleged 'End of History', we have been through a period of political 'slack water' (to borrow Conrad Russell's phrase) and have become used to a world in which there is no clear ideological conflict. There are signs this phase is coming to an end and we are entering more tumultuous times. A culture war is breaking out and the basic issue is whether or not we wish to live in a liberal, tolerant and rational society.
This is a vital matter for Liberals. If we fail to fight for our interests, we will allow conservative forces to define the debate and we will lose, just as liberals in the USA have been comprehensively defeated.
The Liberal Democrats need to recognise what is happening and fight these illiberal forces now, not cede ground in the hope this will pacify them.
PS: Rodney Hylton-Potts has announced he will stand in Tory Leader Michael Howard's constituency (Folkestone & Hythe) at the forthcoming general election. Make of that what you will.