True confessions of a reformed ballot-stuffer

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The Independent Culture
I HAVE led a largely blameless life, mostly through timidity. But the worst thing I ever did was to stuff the ballot box in Balliol College, Oxford, during an inconsequential election for the Student Union. Well, in fact, I didn't stuff the box myself, but I watched and sort of approved as two fellow leftists signed against the college register for absentees (mainly postgrads, living in London) who would never vote themselves, collected ballot papers on their behalf, and voted the left ticket from Aardvark to Zebedee. I remember being told, when I voiced a tremulous (and momentary) objection, that this was necessary, since - e'en then - the opposition were doing exactly the same thing over at Exeter College.

We saw it as a question of ends and means. For a start, some of us on the left weren't that enamoured of One Person One Vote (except in the cases of Rhodesia and South Africa), choosing to believe that, in the words of that adolescent saw, "if voting changed anything, they'd abolish it". Bourgeois democracy was a passive process, aimed at buying off the innate anger and radicalism of the masses.

We preferred participatory democracy. This was where everybody attended long meetings, at which left-wingers like us, with the gift for oratory, bypassed the organs of the capitalist media, and convinced their listeners of the need for revolutionary socialism. Once that had been got through, you could safely take a vote. The decisions of, say, 200 people who had been involved in a process like this were far superior to a thousand crosses on pieces of paper.

It may be that there are members of the Socialist Worker's Party, or the occasional columnist, or stand-up comedians - or even people who are all three - who still believe this elitist tosh. I certainly don't. But some kind of variant on this psychology is in fact common to those who play the political game across the spectrum. There were, for instance, the right-wing Labour claques that handed out offices and restricted party membership in many inner-city areas for several decades. In the Conservative Party, up until 1975, the leadership was decided among cabals of titled chaps in late middle age, who were wrongly described as the "men in suits". Many of New Labour's finest came of political age fighting the entrist Militant tendency within the National Organisation of Labour Students, a battle in which few democratic prisoners were taken.

Most politicians seem to accept the inevitability of something like this; it's part of the business. They see a necessary gulf between the aspirational language of politics and its grittier practice. Politics, they will tell you, is a hard, unlovely trade. In order to do the things that you think are important, you must first win. To win, you will have to make compromises and take tough decisions. And you must never, ever expect to be treated fairly: not by the press, or by your colleagues. If you can't hack it, then you're in the wrong business. Politicians rarely express self-pity. Except in their memoirs.

If a reader, with no direct experience of politics, were to eavesdrop on a conversation between a cabinet minister and a senior journalist, two things would stand out. The first would be how different the minister was from expectation: how much wittier and more direct. The second would be the sheer brutality of the language. It is, I now realise, the language of men and of power, simultaneously cocky and defensive - the language of no prisoners. Only the f-word comes between Real and politik. Poor so and so's down, lucky so and so's up.

Journalists, and especially political correspondents, collaborate to maintain this internal language of politics. When my friend Trevor Phillips was a challenger for the mayorship of London, I could feel him being written down in the media, because he did not conform properly to what a politician should be like. He was not an MP, he hadn't been the leader of a borough council, he did not have a constituency on the left or the right. He had not served his apprenticeship or done his time.

The fact that, almost uniquely, he believed in the position and wanted to fill it, was of little significance. Write to the Today programme and ask them how often, in the time that Trevor was a declared candidate, he appeared, and how often Ken Livingstone did.

This sense of what a "proper" politician is threatens to exclude those who - like Clare Short - have taken the invitation to be truthful too seriously, and have subsequently been pilloried for committing "gaffes". Women are very vulnerable here, since if they play the game well, they are "Stepford Wives", and if they don't, they are deemed naive and unsuited to the rough-and-tumble of politics.

But something's changing. In the past the electorate have generally rendered unto the politicians that which is theirs; a deference to their supremacy in the political world. An electoral college to select the leader? Fine, that's your business. A Greek millionaire to fund your party? Someone's got to pay. A sleight of hand at the party conference to suggest you're achieving more than you really are? Everyone does it. A caucus coup in which Ken Livingstone replaces Mr X as leader of the GLC within hours of an election (as he did back in 1981)? That's politics.

Not any more. Take the twin issues of the electoral college to vote for the Labour candidate for London's mayor, and the use by the Dobson campaign of party lists of addresses for campaigning. People do not believe that either is fair; and they're right.

The college allows unions to cast votes on behalf of their members without balloting them - and that's simply undemocratic. And equity demands that all candidates should have access to the same party lists for the purpose of canvassing. End of story.

Realpolitik these days means dealing with the fact that the press is far more interested in process than in policy. Policy is too complicated. So if you do something in a way that would not immediately seem fair and honest to an intelligent 10-year-old, then you're in trouble. The transgression will receive more attention than all your wonderful reforms put together.

So it is no longer a defensible part of the great game to give the impression that, say, 5,000 extra policemen are about to pound the beat, and then to justify yourself on the grounds of the small print in your speech. Nor can you expect to be understood when you want to replace a second chamber of unelected toffs with a second chamber of unelected meritocrats. And if you want to talk about transparency - which means that the process of government is open to scrutiny - then you must provide a Freedom of Information Act that measures up to the word.

Oh, I know. I'm being naive. My friends will tell me that there are big and important issues at stake here: the ability of government to make clear decisions, the need for London not to be at constant war with Westminster, things like that. Politics is not a fair business; and over in Exeter College, they're stuffing the ballot box.