One of the many problems with the British electoral system is that it is fundamentally undemocratic. The first past the post electoral system effectively discriminates against the large percentage of the population that looks beyond New Labour or the New Tories when they cast their vote.
One consequence is that those whose voices are not represented by the mainstream get squeezed out. For example, it is a remarkable fact that the British parliament probably stands alone in Europe as never having had a single Green party MP.
Another consequence is that as the parties merge into the middle ground in a race for a small number of marginal seats, so too does politics become less about substance and more about appearance.
On the main issues facing the British people today, there is only the appearance of difference on policy from Labour, Tories and Lib Dem.
On the economy, all three have for years embraced and celebrated the neo-liberal free market dogma responsible for record levels of wealth inequality and the worst recession in over fifty years.
They are also united on the necessity of vicious cuts as the solution to the crisis and are divided only on the timescale for the implementation of those cuts. In Birmingham, for example, where I am a ward councillor, a Lib Dem/Tory council is making 2,000 jobs cuts this year and up to another 5,000 in the coming years. The Labour group in the Council literally sat on their hands when they had the chance to vote against the cuts – choosing to abstain.
On climate change, there has been a collective failure of the political establishment to take the kind of urgent action which could shift our economy towards being more environmentally friendly, and to create hundreds of thousands of jobs in new green industries. Instead, billions continue to be wasted on new Trident nuclear weapons and ID cards.
On the war in Afghanistan, all three parties support a disastrous occupation and have been loyal servants of American foreign policy. The Lib Dem anti-war creditials disappeared the very moment they were most needed, when the invasion of Iraq actually started. The only difference between them and the others now is that apparently they bomb with a heavier heart.
The subsequent racism and Islamophobia that has accompanied the ‘war on terror’ has served only to feed the growth of the far right and undermine political commitment to the British model of multiculturalism and pluralism.
In the face of this stifling, and increasingly right-wing consensus, what difference would it make to vote Respect?
Firstly I believe it is essential that we elect politicians free to speak out, and with the courage of their convictions to do so. The space for radical progressive voices at the centre of politics is shrinking just as our answers are more and more relevant. I believe there is a large minority – in some cases a majority – for whom the principles of peace, justice and equality are the bedrock of their politics.
We cannot and should not allow this long and important political tradition to be pushed to the margins.
Salma Yaqoob is the leader of Respect- the Unity Coalition. She is a councillor for the Birmingham Sparkbrook ward and is contesting the Birmingham Hall Green constituency at the forthcoming general election. Click here to see her website.
[Tomorrow: the Liberal Democrats, by Andrew Hickey]