This article appeared on Page 9 of Ceylon Today on Tuesday January 6 2015.
Vote in hope and repent at leisure
About twenty years ago, I had a meeting in Whitehall with a Conservative MP who was concerned that one of his constituents had been falsely accused (by his estranged wife) of child abuse. After the meeting, I noticed that my umbrella was missing. Soon after, I was watching the news on TV when I saw the MP announcing that he had switched to the Labour Party. “That’s the man who stole my umbrella”, I cried.
Alan Howarth, for it was he, was the first MP to defect directly from the Conservatives to Labour, and the first former Conservative MP to sit as a Labour MP since Oswald Mosley. Howarth wanted to be seen to be doing the decent thing by winning a seat as a Labour candidate. He failed at Wentworth and then again at Wythenshawe, but got a chance at the safe Labour seat of Newport East. Miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, who had been emasculated by Thatcher, stood against him but Howarth easily held the seat for Labour. He now sits in the House of Lords, as does his partner Baroness Hollis. They came under a cloud for claiming separate expenses although they live next door to each other. He did send my umbrella back.
When I lived in the UK, I always regarded it as my moral duty to exercise my franchise. Because of my class and family background, it would have been anathema for me to ever vote for a Conservative candidate. The Labour Party stood for my class, the working class; it had provided the welfare state (with some help from Liberal Party thinkers); it had allowed me (with some help from Conservative education minister RAB Butler) to go to grammar school and university. Labour candidate Jack Diamond came to our school. He always won the Gloucester seat- until he lost to Conservative Sally Oppenheim.
When I moved to Wimbledon, I found it rather creepy when I received a letter from Sir Michael Havers welcoming me to his constituency. This was a rock-solid conservative seat, so I later tactically voted Liberal-Democrat in the hope of unseating Sir Michael’s successor Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes. I was unsuccessful in my attempted coup. However, in 1997, miracle of miracles, Roger Casale won the seat for Labour.
That was the year that New Labour ended 18 years of Conservative rule. On the BBC’s election night programme Professor Anthony King described the result of the exit poll, which accurately predicted a Labour landslide, as being akin to “an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying practically all life on Earth”. Anthony Charles Lynton Blair entered Downing Street on a wave of optimism and good will, on 2 May 1997. He promised to restore trust in politics and breathe new life into Britain’s tired institutions. Sound familiar?
The Myth of Political Parties
The story of the development of political parties is a fascinating one but must wait for another article. Briefly, the theory is that like-minded people band together and agree a set of policies. They exert a discipline within the group in order to translate those policies into legislation and administrative procedures. They persuade the public to support them by placing before them an outline of what they propose to do if elected. The public can compare this with what rival parties propose to do.
How does this work out in practice? Blair had won power by jettisoning many traditional Labour policies. The Blair government achieved some progressive measures but the effort was undermined by madcap experiments in neo-liberalism that undermined health services, education and transport by the attempt to introduce quasi-markets. Prisons have been privatized and there are record numbers of people occupying them – how else to make a profit? Soon after taking office, the new administration announced that it would be continuing the economic policies of the outgoing administration in the interests of stability. One can see why New Labour was attractive to a Conservative like Howarth – it was carrying on Thatcherite policies and it was in power. Power attracts crossovers.
Blair was a career politician with no trace of socialist principles or ethics who joined a socialist party as a career move. His father had been a prospective Conservative candidate and his political leanings appeared to have rubbed off on the young Tony, who stood in a mock school election as the Conservative candidate.
Democratic elections involving political parties are often little more than the chance to get rid of one set of scoundrels when we are tired of them, only to replace them with another set. Blair replaced Major but carried on the same policies. In Ireland, Fine Gael replaced Fianna Fail. The voters did get the chance to throw out the corrupt scoundrels who got the nation in a mess, but now the Irish economy is being supervised by 15 unelected officials from Brussels, and even the (elected) cabinet is kept in the dark.
Sri Lankan Party Theory
What do the Sri Lankan political parties stand for? We think of the SLFP of Sirimavo Bandaranaike as a party of the left. She had Marxist parties, LSSP and CP, as members of her governing coalition and she moved a long way towards a command economy with nationalisation of key areas and subsidies alongside austerity.
The UNP of JR Jayewardene was instrumental in introducing economic liberalisation even before Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. When he was prime minister from 2001 to 2004, Ranil Wickremasingha tried to continue such policies. Strange to note then that in 2014 the official website of the UNP says: “We are being cheated by the neo-liberalists and the Washington consensus: the UNP vehemently opposes ‘social protection’ cuts and wants more subsidies”.
Crossovers in Sri Lanka
Incessant party-hopping is bad for democracy, confuses the voters and casts doubt upon who stands for what, if anything. There are stories of vast sums of money being paid to those who change allegiance. The case of Amir Ali vs. Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and Others (2006) opened opportunities for crossovers. That same Amir Ali, only a fortnight after being nominated as an MP by the UPFA, crossed over to the Opposition. As I write, 26 UPFA MPs from a 225-member parliament have defected and more are expected.
After weeks of speculation, Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem, finally said he would resign his ministerial portfolio to support Sirisena. This is in spite of Wickremesinghe and Sirisena strongly rejecting Hakeem’s demand for a separate administrative district in the East for Muslims. I will never forget Rauf Hakeem’s comment back in 2007: “The subject of political morality is a relative thing. The current electoral system does not give any government the confidence to try and deliver on the commitments made during the polls.” Blair would appreciate that.
Keeping the governing coalition together must have been like herding cats. The opposition will find it as difficult as the government to herd its constituent components. Although the UNP has retained some atavistic loyalty among the planting community in places like Uva Province, Ranil Wickremasinghe has not been able to match the populist appeal of Mahinda Rajapaksa to the rural Sinhala Buddhist masses. Siresena might be able to eat into Rajapaksa’s Sinhala Buddhist support but he will also need support from the minorities.
Significant numbers of Tamil and Muslim politicians have gone over to the opposition, but will that be enough to convince minority voters that their needs will be met when the JHU seems to be exerting an unhealthy influence on opposition strategy? Rajitha Senaratne cited as one reason for his defection the ruling party’s silence over the hardcore Sinhala-Buddhist groups who were allegedly involved in anti-Muslim clashes. Faizer Mustapha decided to join the common opposition because the government failed to take action against BBS. Hunais Farook crossed over for the same reason. The opposition’s dependence on the JHU should cause Muslim voters some anxiety. The common opposition candidate has agreed with the JHU to preserve the constitutional prominence given to Buddhism.
Tamils are seeking greater devolution of power to Tamil areas but the JHU sees that as creeping separatism. Many Tamil politicians are unhappy that the TNA is supporting Sirisena. TNA Northern Provincial Council Member Ananthi Sasitharan told the BBC Tamil Service that the TNA election manifesto for the last Northern Provincial Election was clear on its stance on Tamil identity and autonomous rights. There is nothing in the JHU-inspired Manifesto to give Tamil voters confidence that their lot will be improved by an opposition victory. The hand of the JHU can be seen in the formulation: “I will not undertake any amendment that is detrimental to the stability, security and sovereignty of the country.”
The president has been seen as a canny populist who understands the rural masses in a way that Ranil Wickremasingha never could. Recently, many have remarked that the President appears fatigued and overworked. He was once the youngest elected MP and he has spent 40 years in politics and nearly ten years as President. US presidents always seem to age rapidly in office but they are limited to eight years. Tony Blair became haggard by the end of his reign.
Blair tried to appear hip by associating with the likes of Noel Gallagher of Oasis (the more truculent brother Liam Gallagher refused to be wooed). An indication that the president may have lost touch with the masses is that he has recruited Bollywood stars Salman Khan and Jacqueline Fernandez to help in his campaign. According to The Hindu newspaper based in Tamil Nadu, under his usual rates in 2012, Salman Khan charged approximately 30,000,000 Sri Lanka rupees per day for public appearances. Near where I live there are people living in temporary accommodation in schools because their homes have been destroyed. They may not be impressed at this time by Bollywood stars. The Hindu also reported that 30 people had been killed and 650,000 displaced because of severe rain.
The historian, Tony Judt, wrote: “Tony Blair is a political tactician with a lucrative little sideline in made-to-measure moralising.” Judt also called Blair: “the garden gnome in England’s Garden of forgetting…the inauthentic leader of an inauthentic land.” Thinking about an election in 2015 prompts a recollection of an article I wrote about an election in 2008, which prompted a recollection of an election in 1997. Barack Obama promised to close Guantanamo. It has not been closed yet and today Obama seems unlikely to take action against those found guilty of torture. In 2008, I advised those euphoric over Obama’s victory: “Celebrate a new dawn but watch out. The nights draw in quickly.”