A reflection on the British general election

by Don Franks

Like New Zealand, Britain is officially a country of equal opportunity under the rule of law, with increasing hardship for those at the bottom.

When there’s an election, and the party most obviously callous towards poor people wins, decent folks are dismayed and bewildered.

“What the hell just happened? Why did it happen?

Then, in anger and frustration, “the voters were stupid!”

With all respect, I disagree there.

True, the ins and outs of British politics I know little about, but I think that’s beside the point. People I’ve interacted with on several visits seemed very similar to people in my own country. Some impatient, some helpful, some friendly, some impersonal, some very considerate.  All, in their daily life, just trying to get by, in a modern capitalist society, with all the stresses, rewards and false hopes that brings.

In homes, workplaces and on the streets, people cope, often quietly heroic against unrelenting day-to-day pressure. The well-paid, underpaid and not paid at all, somehow cooperating to keep society going, not always smoothly, but going.

To do this, the mass of people contribute different fields of expertise. Trade skills, academic skills, parenting, negotiating, caring, teaching, organising, entertaining, fetching and carrying, picking up the shit.  Society expects and demands high standards of people’s specialised intelligence; by and large this is delivered.

In one field of social life, however, extremely little is demanded of people: namely, parliamentary politics.  There, the people’s requirement is to tick a voting form – however you wish – deposit the paper and return to your usual daily duties.  Minimal time and effort for an apparently supremely important matter. But that is alright, because there are, in society, as well as cooks and nurse aids, professional politicians. It’s the pros’ job to be preoccupied, day by day, with political matters. It’s their special field of expertise, for which they are relatively well-rewarded, with money, perks and social status.

“Leave it to us”, they advise. “Just give us your vote and we’ll do the rest.”

This message is accompanied by a contradictory welter of claims, admonitions, threats and promises put together by specialist political public relations experts.

To the extent that their limited time and energy allows, working class voters try to make sense of the political experts’ conflicting messages.  Then they vote a certain way or, if everything seems incomprehensible and remote from real life, not at all.

Voting for members of parliament is an advance on kings’ divine right but it’s not a working people’s grip on the helm of state.  Post-election, politicians’ decisions may or may not correspond to their solemn pre-election promises.

Everything human changes.  Parliamentary democracy will eventually be replaced by new forms of social/political organisation.  In years hence, it may seem as bizarre as feudal tithing.


  1. I’m glad you feel ordinary people are well-intentioned in New Zealand and the U.K. I live in the U.S.A. and I can tell you that voters here are NOT well-intentioned, one of the reasons we do not even have national health care. Ordinary people — the only people I usually come into contact with — are sometimes decent people, but many of them are greedy and nasty, traits encouraged in the U.S. They’re so worried that a neighbor might get a public benefit that they vote for those promising to cut benefits even if it turns out that it’s a benefit they need or might need. I survived eight years of a drunken thug as governor of the state of Maine, and Donald Trump’s election could hardly surprise me after that. I have no interest in what comes out of Trump’s cheeseburger hole, but I do watch his fans (with the sound off) closely. These are the same faces I saw in Life magazine as a child screaming at little African-American children trying to go to school.

    • Thanks for writing in Susan. Voting does throw up some weird looking results sometimes. I know it does in New Zealand, where political spin often seems to be taken over substance. I havn’t spent much time in the USA but have taken a great interest in it over the years, as many New Zealanders have. From my point of view there is much to admire in the USA. Despite the imperialism of its ruling class, and some domestic social consequences of that, the USA has much behaviour I look up to. It’s democratic and labour organising traditions and mass movements like the Anti war movements and the Civil rights movement have inspired and educated me.

      • Yes, resistance movements are the best moments in American history. Isn’t that true of any nation’s history? But I will share with you my perceptions as a high school antiwar activist in the 1960s of the antiwar movement in the United States. Most of the people involved were worried that they were going to be drafted. They had no critical analysis or understanding of why we were murdering peasants in Vietnam; consequently, they could convince themselves it was all a “mistake” (this crap is still being peddled in the U.S. along with the notion that soldiers were “defending our freedoms” — I cannot begin to express to you how I loathe that expression) and/or support the many military invasions this country has undertaken since 1975. At the age of 16 I began to learn that being against something with no serious analysis ends up being fairly meaningless.

  2. “At the age of 16 I began to learn that being against something with no serious analysis ends up being fairly meaningless” That is very true. I was much older when I started to absorb that thought. Over my political lifetime – early ’70s until now – its been my observation that we havn’t done enough serious analysis in New Zealand. In most sections of the left there has been a contempt for theory. The left of the union movement has mostly relied on cheerleading outbreaks of militancy and the anti war movements and anti racist movements have mostly fed off moral indignation. I’m not disparraging those sentiments bu they are nowhere near enough. Without serious analysis, militancy can be dissipated and movements coopted by the capitalists political establishment. That is what has happened here to a large extent, to the social disadvantage of low paid working people.

    • I think theory is important, but knowing what is actually going on is even more important. When you read a book such as William Blum’s Killing Hope you comprehend that U.S. foreign policy is extraordinarily consistent and evil, and you can watch it being played out today. NO NATION ON EARTH is to be permitted sovereignty. The slightest efforts at mild reforms will be met with draconian interventions, invasions, and bombs. It amuses me greatly to see Democrats in the U.S. howling about foreign interference in our elections. We have murdered heads of state, people running for office, voters, even those who were totally marginalized — now that’s interference!

      I agree completely about moral indignation. What moves people in the U.S. is the overwhelming importance (in their minds) of feeling good about themselves. They engage in endless activities that let them pat themselves on the back — you would not believe the constant campaigns to “raise awareness” of [fill in the blank], the moral righteousness regarding racism by people who are totally unconscious of their white privilege and who have no idea that they live in a nation founded on white supremacy. I heard a Canadian indigenous professor speak to white people’s belief in manifest destiny without their even knowing what the term means. The things you are speaking of take WORK, WORK, WORK — constant self-education in all its forms, both academic learning (I should point out that here learning is far more likely to take place outside academia) and observation of one’s society.

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