by Georgia Luckhurst
It’s funny, but until about two months ago, I really couldn’t have cared less about British politics. In the UK, where a historically two-party system forms our political culture, the political scene appeared tired to me: overwhelmingly dominated by middle-aged white men who didn’t really seem particularly interested in the lives of anyone who hadn’t received the same educational or financial privileges as they had. (Also, a reminder: the UK still has an unelected legislative chamber, the House of Lords, which includes people who inherited their power because of family legacy and titles. We also still have a monarch. So you’ll understand why so-called British “democracy” maybe didn’t excite me and many other teenagers as much as it could do.)
Today though, the British electorate will be voting in what could be the most exciting election in British history. I say that because nobody knows what is going to happen. What was once a two-horse race between Labour and the Conservatives has turned into an opportunity for parties like the Greens, Plaid Cymru (the Welsh Nationalist Party), the Scottish Nationalist Party, and the UK Independence Party to grab a significant portion of the vote. For once, the ruling political mores are being challenged – and the mood in Britain is fiery, to say the least.
With everything to play for, parties are making more of a conscious effort to reach out to those they had maybe traditionally ignored. In the last election here in 2010, only 33% of women eligible to vote cast a ballot. Another recent study shows that huge percentages of the ethnic minority population in Britain aren’t registered to vote. Disenchantment and disappointment have characterized the public’s feelings about politicians, particularly when the majority of us aren’t middle-aged white men who went to Eton. Major parties – realizing they can’t just count on traditional partisan allegiance – are being forced to pay attention, issuing separate manifestos for women and paying careful attention to social issues like LGBTQ+ rights in the UK.
The wage-gap in Britain is the sixth worst in the European Union. For so long, this has been considered a done-and-dusted issue: people, by which I mean men, seem to think that was all sorted a long time ago (“They fixed that stuff! Have you seen ‘Made In Dagenham’?”) Moreover, only 23% of MPs in the UK are women. It’s been inspiring to see three major female political leaders fighting in this election – Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP, Natalie Bennett of the Green Party, and Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru - but it’s high-time parties recognized gender imbalance in the UK.
Furthermore, two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in the UK. In order to tackle violence against women and girls, Labour has promised to establish a commission to enforce national standards to prevent domestic and sexual violence taking place, while the Conservatives have announced plans to tackle what has been a very publicized issue in Britain in recent years, female genital mutilaation. My favourite policies come courtesy of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens: the Lib Dems wanting to create a national sex education curriculum that actually teaches young people what consent is and why it matters (shout-out TYFA’s Campaign 4 Consent!), and the Greens pledging to make it illegal for members of the public to attempt to prevent breastfeeding in public.
Social issues which young people have been talking about for a while now are also finally getting a look in, with parties like Labour promising the introduction of LGBTQ+ inclusive sex-and-personal education, and the Liberal Democrats pledging to fight for universal same-sex marriage rights across the world. The Greens swear to include diversity and equality classes in school to tackle bullying and encourage acceptance. UKIP meanwhile, who stylize themselves as the people’s party, truly live up to their definition: they really do care about people–it’s just that they only care when the people are white, Anglo-Saxon, straight, male people, as evidenced by their thoughts on gay conversion therapy in the UK, saying they wouldn’t ban it outright because people may “request” to be converted and UKIP ”believe in individual conscience and the right of people to make their own choices”.
Personally, I’m most excited by the Liberal Democrats decision to put the topic of mental health at the top of their manifesto priorities. I’m very fortunate to live in a country with universal, free-on-delivery healthcare, but for so long British society has neglected the necessity to define mental health as what it really is: an aspect of one’s self that is as vital to our experience of life as our physical wellbeing. As Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said, “It is wrong that relatives and friends needing a hip operation can expect treatment within a clear timeframe but someone with a debilitating mental health condition has no clarity about when they will get help. I want this to be a country where a young dad chatting at school gates will feel as comfortable discussing anxiety, stress, depression, as the mum who is explaining she sprained her ankle.” Pledging £120m to go towards mental health care improvement, Clegg concluded: “Anxiety panic attacks, depression, anorexia, bulimia, self-harm, bipolar disorder… mental health conditions are one of the last remaining taboos in our society, and yet they will affect one in four people.”
Overall, I’m pretty pumped about the result – no matter what the outcome, I’m just excited about what 2015 has done to shake up British political culture. (I mean, bar the nightmare result of a UKIP majority, obviously – I’m not entirely sure Nigel Farage is a real man, and not just a figment of my imagination that collated of all the most-loathed bigots I’ve encountered in my life into one, racist, super-misogynist.) I may be too young to vote myself, but finally parties are amplifying issues that matter to me and so many others. Bring on the 7th May!