These are the first elections to be held since Real England was published. Everywhere I go, people ask me 'what can I do?' about the many issues highlighted in the book. There are many answers to this, but clearly the ballot box must be at least one imperfect part of the solution, if there is one.
The problems I highlight in the book are many, but they come down in essence to the erosion of independence, community and character in England. This stems, in my view, from an over-mighty state-corporate machine, which crushes the life out of the individual and the community, out of spontaneity and creativity, in the name of growth and shareholder value and state power.
Voting is a deeply imperfect method of changing anything, especially in this sclerotic democracy where very few of our votes actually count. But what voting can do, especially in elections like this one, is send a message: a message about what you don't like as much as what you do. Millions of people will be doing this today, because since I wrote the book the machine has begun to cough and stutter and reveal its many flaws. People are furious and will be out there in droves showing it. These are, in my view, exciting times. I love watching the government collapse, and the banks, and the system they prop up, because out of the chaos of a failed system may come something better, if we choose to make it happen.
This time around, in protest at the very existence of what I increasingly regard as an illegitimate system, I was tempted not to vote at all; to state my case by refusing to be involved. But lately I have changed my mind. I think that today's ballot, especially as some of it is under a PR system, gives us a great opportunity to express our anger about what is happening to England at the hands of the machine.
So I have just been to vote. And I thought it might be interesting to some people to lay out how, and why.
Firstly, I obviously didn't vote Labour. I want this party obliterated at the next general election for its many crimes against England in particular and the UK in general. For a decade of toadying to corporate power, a decade of insane over-regulation, a decade of criminalising dissent and spying on its own people, a decade of illegal wars, a decade of crushing local democracy and local initiative, a decade of over-centralisation, a decade of anti-English constitutional change, a decade of rising inequality, a decade of public service privatisation, a decade of... well, you fill in the gaps. Anyone voting for this shower this time around would have to be criminally insane or in their pay.
Then there are the Tories. They make nice noises about decentralisation of power, which I am genuinely intrigued by. They have a vague and unsatisfactory answer to the 'English question' created by devolution; but at least they have one. Environmentally, their policies are actually pretty good in some areas. They talk about saving the English pub, which I'm always a sucker for. If they win power at the next election, they probably won't be any worse than Labour and may in some ways be better.
But ... they're still Tories. What that means is that a love of the global corporate economy is deep in their bones; even deeper than in the bones of NuLabour, if that is possible. I can't see a cabinet full of millionaire, expense-fiddling Etonians reining in the City. I can't really see them giving away significant power either (Labour said the same before they got into government.) More likely I can see a clean passing of power from one Establishment party to another, and most things carrying on as before. No thanks.
So we come to the Lib Dems, the one mainstream party that genuinely impresses me at the moment. On civil liberties, a key issue, the Lib Dems have been really impressive and genuinely principled. If they got their hands on power I think we could expect a roll-back of the database state, and also constitutional change. We could also expect PR for Westminster, which would be great. They've been good on green stuff and local democracy for quite some time.
And yet ... Nick Clegg is a shameless schmoozer who is taking his party further and further to the corporate right at precisely the wrong time. And then there's Europe. I am deeply suspicious of the EU, because I am deeply suspicious of any body which centralises political power, particularly when it does it without the permission of the people whose power it is centralising. The Lib Dems are gung ho supporters of further EU centralisation, and for me, though I am not anti-EU in principle, that's precisely the opposite of the kind of localisation of power I want to see and which England needs.
I also think that, at this time in history, what is needed is a big showing at the ballot box against the political establishment. If things are going to change in any significant way - always a long shot - the political classes need to feel that the voters are completely rejecting them. Only that will they be forced to rethink their direction of travel. We should all be voting for the kind of party which the political and media establishments dismissively refer to as 'fringe.'
There are, of course, a clutch of such parties which claim to speak for England. Firstly, there's the BNP, which despite its name is mainly an English party; it builds its key support on anti-immigrant sentiment and there are very few immigrants in Scotland and Wales. The only justification for voting for one of the 'big three' today, in my view, would be to keep the BNP out of the European Parliament. Despite this, they may get some MEPs. The traditional reaction of the left to the BNP is to jump up and down and scream 'fascist', but I think a more mature response is required. Not necessarily to the party itself, which is genuinely nasty and whose vision for the UK is one of apartheid and racial conflict - but to those who may vote for it.
If tens of thousands of people vote BNP today it will not mean we suddenly have tens of thousands of neo-Nazis in England. It will mean that people feel their concerns are being ignored by all the establishment parties. Those concerns will be about identity and power- about large numbers of immigrants at a time of economic stress, about a multicultural model which is widely unpopular, about what capitalism does to working people, about the fact that 'nobody speaks for us' - the refrain you hear time and time again all over the country and which today may even make Nick Griffin an MEP. That would be a grim result for all of us, but if it happens our reaction to it should be to ask why so many people in England feel so cut off from, and so unheard by, the political elite that they are prepared to vote for a racist party to make their point heard.
There are other right and far-right parties out there who claim to speak for England, or Britain, too. There's UKIP, which wants us out of the EU. UKIP are not a racist party, and a few of their points about Europe are well-made - not least our lack of a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, which democracy demands. But they are blazer-wearing reactionaries whose ranks are swelled by some dodgy characters and whose expense claims don't stand up to much scrutiny despite their anti-establishment pose. Then there are the English Democrats, who for a while looked promising. This is an non-racist English nationalist party dedicated to creating a parliament for England. They're a bit too right-wing for me overall, but nonetheless I could perhaps have seen myself voting for them because on the big political picture in England they are often broadly right. Unfortunately it seems that the party is run by some very stupid people who seem to find it perfectly acceptable to make alliances of convenience with racists for electoral gain; so they've blown it.
So who did I go for? Who's left?
Well, I voted for two different parties today; not my original plan, but I changed my mind when I got into the booth. Tempted though I was to vote for the Roman Party, a local one-man operation whose slogan is 'Ave!' and whose policies may or may not include compulsory togas, in the end I voted at the local elections for the Greens. I've voted Green for years and was once a member. They're not perfect; they are swinging a bit too far to the fringe left for me, and I am queasy about their gung-ho support for onshore windfarms and their enthusiasm for English regional devolution rather than an English parliament. But I know the local candidates and I know that the Greens deliver at local level. Perhaps most crucially, the Greens stand for the kind of deep devolution of power to local people that would solve a lot of the problems I highlighted in Real England.
In the Euro elections I intended to vote Green too. But I when I got there I did something eccentric. I decided I wanted to register a protest at the continual and unasked-for centralisation of the European Union. I like the European project, in principle; I like the idea of a union of independent nations working together. But I don't like what the EU has become: a behemoth which has taken powers from independent nation states (for which we can't blame the EU itself but our own politicians) and used them to strip-mine the oceans and the farmland, bombard us with absurd over-regulation and hand too much agency to the global corporate machine. So I found myself voting for a new lefty alliance called No2EU Yes to Democracy, which aims to highlight these things. I don't know if that was the right decision or not, but know I want to say something firm about the need for a relocalisation of power and that was the way, this time around, that I chose to say it.
I'd be interested to hear what others voted and why, or even if.