They say a week is a long time in politics. Make that 3 days: you know, those 3 days before, during and after the election.
The morning after the night before, we woke up to the surprise of an easy (though narrow) win by the Conservatives; the SNP turned Scotland (and much of Westminster) yellow; voters turned out in unexpected droves; UKIP gained 3.8 million votes yet only 1 seat; and 3 of the top leaders resigned…..the list goes on.
Possibly the biggest surprise for me was the huge wave of what can be called at best ‘debate’ and at worst ‘vitriolic mudslinging’ on social media by those who didn’t vote for the triumphant Conservatives. The latter were remarkably quiet, at least on my twitter account.
All through the election campaign, uncertainty, cynicism and passivity seemed to be the order of the day. The sheer number of parties and policies to chose from and the predicted ‘no clear winner’ lulled us into apathy. But as the clock struck 10pm on Friday night when the exit polls showed a likely Tory win, twitter went mental and people saw red (well, Blue actually).
We came to life. Suddenly the reality of another 5 years of ‘Blue power’ jolted us into a polarised, emotional debate. The depth of feeling toward the Government’s austerity measures and education policies made for colourful language. And also, sadly, disrespect for people’s freedom of choice.
Despite being in the ‘seriously fed up and disappointed’ camp, I switched off, determined not to get dragged into the mayhem. I decided instead to talk to people, to engage in person with people who voted differently from me. (Lord, I must be growing up!) I have to say, it makes for a much more respectful conversation when you have that person physically in front of you; its much less easy to throw insults and jibes.
The whole episode taught me a few things.
Firstly, that in times of economic uncertainty people will chose a safe pair of hands. To quote the Grand Duke from the recently released remake of Cinderella (yes, really!), “The people want to face the future with certainty!”
Secondly, it takes skill and sensitivity to discuss these emotive issues in 140 characters. It’s all too easy to cross the thin line between healthy debate and personal attack when you can’t see the person, particularly if you fail to appreciate that we should never judge a person by who they vote for. This is the essence of a democracy, is it not?
Third, that our current electoral and political system is no longer fit for purpose. Not only is electoral reform clearly essential to more fairly translate the share of the national vote to bums on seats in parliament, but we need a fresher approach to how we run the country: too many people felt obliged to vote for ‘second best’.
And fourth (bear with me here), that the British public are far from the apathetic, dispassionate lot the media makes out. Although many people may have voted exclusively for what suited them personally, many of us do care deeply about how policies affect us as a community, whether we voted Red, Blue, Orange, Yellow, Purple or Green (will that darned song “I can sing a rainbow” stop going round my head?!). And we get very annoyed when we feel powerless to do anything about it, even when it’s just a once-every-four-years vote.
The question is, what will we do with that passion now that the colour of government has been decided? Will we retreat back into a cynical, disempowered mindset, or turn that thirst for something we believe into action?
Nothing is a fait accompli; on the contrary, a good democracy and a ‘civil’ society is one that has active, compassionate citizens. The challenge to us now is to choose an issue, one thing we’re passionate about, one thing that we can fit into our busy schedules, and ask ourselves what we can do to help make it a reality.
Over to you!
PS I wrote this originally as the News & Commentary Piece for this week’s edition of Post40Bloggers.com. A slightly more pared down version can be found on their site here.