Portsmouth University academic and media analyst Emma Austin talks to Mark Wright about grass roots activism, the disturbing gap between political image and reality, and the fuzzy messaging that could alienate traditional Tory voters on June 8th.
Mark Wright: What do you think are the important issues in this election?
Emma Austin: The important issues are based on the economic situation. It is clear that the gap between rich and poor is becoming even more pronounced. In 2017, in a developed country, nurses are relying on food banks, while the NHS is being dismantled and sold off piece by piece. The threats to the social safety net are very real and need to be addressed.
MW: Do you think the current electoral system is fit for purpose, and do you think it represents the will of the people?
EA: An ideal system would be proportional representation, which would accurately reflect the numbers of votes in particular constituencies and across the country. Unfortunately, that isn’t likely to happen in the near future. There was a proposal when Tony Blair was in office to put this forward but he was defeated by people both within his own party and within the Conservatives. I don’t see it changing in the near future but I certainly believe a change to the voting system would represent people’s views more thoroughly.
MW: The Greens and the Lib Dems have a policy proposing a second referendum on Brexit, with the possibility that Britain could remain a member of the EU. What are your views on the prospect of a second referendum?
EA: I would welcome a second referendum, but I don’t think they would be able to pull that through. There would be so much hostility towards a second referendum from those who voted to leave. They would see that as using political influence to go against the will of the people who wanted Brexit. I think it is more likely that the European Union will offer us alternatives. There is currently a European MEP who has proposed that British citizens could opt in to EU citizenship, so there may be a chance to build a better relationship with Europe by offering membership of the state on an individual basis. I would prefer a second referendum given the claims made in the media at that time about the amount of money, touted by the Conservatives, that was supposedly coming back in. And certainly for younger people, who have been completely disenfranchised. This has ruined their generation’s chances, and their economy.
MW: Was Jeremy Corbyn fair in asking questions about UK foreign policy in regards to the recent terror attacks?
EA: I think any politician has the right to ask questions of foreign policy, especially if you are a member of the opposition. There was an interesting exchange between Sir Michael Fallon and Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4 News, where Guru-Murthy quoted this idea that Britain has, in a sense, hastened the rise of extremist acts by its intervention in Iraq. Fallon said, ‘Oh, I reject that utterly, Jeremy Corbyn is wrong,’ and was told that Guru-Murthy was actually quoting Boris Johnson. There is this interesting idea that even within the Conservative Party there is a recognition that what has happened in the past is influencing what is happening here now. A lot of politicians and media commentators are also calling not just for a political intervention and a state security intervention in terms of terrorism, but also for us to look towards our own communities, to build a sense of belonging. That is something I think Jeremy Corbyn is quite keen to promote: that you can root out extremism by being inclusive, by making sure that people don’t feel excluded.
MW: The Conservatives have lost ground in their poll lead in recent weeks. Why do you think this might be?
EH: I think there are a number of reasons why the Conservatives are losing ground. They haven’t come up with clear policies. They have come out with things they would like to do, but they haven’t come out with a very strong decision about what is achievable, about what they want to push through next. In comparison, Labour’s manifesto presents a very clear offering, and is costed no matter whether you agree with the figures or not. The Tories have not been able to start that narrative in the media.
I would argue that Labour have used social media to really engage with potential younger voters, something the Tories haven’t done quite so well. And, certainly, Theresa May’s appearances in the media have not done her, or the party, any favours. It is making her look like a very isolated figure. She doesn’t seem to have a party consensus, she doesn’t seem to be taking advice from the Conservatives. She is setting herself up as a figurehead of power. If that falls, it will be reflected in how people engage with her as potential voters. You can see definite echoes of how Margaret Thatcher was presented in the press, certainly in terms of positioning the strong female offering what she calls the ‘strong and stable’ leadership. It’s noticeable that that dialogue has been dropped now from her speeches; she has recognised that it is being mocked. Her presentation as an individual is starting to change slightly because she doesn’t tend to react very well under pressure in the press.
MW: What do you think of the way that the media currently reports on politics?
EH: In a 2010 episode of Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe, the filmmaker Adam Curtis explores the decline of deference in politics. There was an argument that, as mass media increased, so did the coverage of politics, and actually our contempt for politics at the same time. Politicians were presented as human beings, and once you realise they have feet of clay there is a loss of respect. Certainly I would argue that when you look at televised debates, when you think about the insults that pass between members of parliament and within government, there is this sense that perhaps because they have become so mediated we’re not sure which messages from them we should trust, or even if we should trust them at all.
MW: Theresa May has said that the Tories are unsure about the amount that older people will have to pay for care, and will not reveal a social care cap before the general election. What message do you think this sends to voters?
EH: Given – and this is a generalised assertion – that a traditional base for Tory voters are people in the middle classes, middle-aged and older, I think this lack of detail has damaged the Conservatives. People are concerned about their savings. Home-owners are concerned that they are going to lose their homes to pay for care. A lot of people are now worried about inheritance. What is going to be left behind for their children? There hasn’t been a costed care plan and people are expecting the worst. My father has been a life-long Conservative voter; this election, he will be voting a different way. He refuses to vote for the Tories because they haven’t clarified their policies. I think some of us are very uneasy about the idea of suddenly writing them a blank cheque so they can decide later on to give us the details. There is a lot of suspicion around politics, and around the outcomes of decisions made by people who don’t always seem to have much in common with their voters.
MW: Are there any contemporary politicians or political thinkers that you admire?
EH: I think the benefit of hindsight makes it easier to admire historical thinkers, so not contemporary but certainly influential: Emma Goldman. She is a key political thinker whom I have always admired. In recent years, I find it difficult to separate the mediated image of leaders from what I believe they have actually achieved. It is one of those questions where time will tell. While I’m not a particular fan of politics, either Left or Right, I did enjoy some of the changes in policy in America from President Obama, especially the introduction of Obamacare. That was a major step forward. In this country, it is slightly more difficult to say. Most of the time, I would say my political heroes are the people who go on strike: the teachers, the teaching support staff, the railway workers – the guards especially – who are refusing to compromise on safety or on standards. They are really political leaders and heroes.
MW: The Green Party has presented a policy to decriminalise the purchase and the sale of sex; the Lib Dems are talking about raising £1bn per year through legalising cannabis. Do you feel either of these policies should be considered by the other parties?
EH: I think the sex industry is an issue that is going to upset and divide a lot of people. Certainly, any changes to that industry should be spearheaded by the workers themselves. I feel that any direct government interference would tend to be punitive towards the women, or the workers within the industry. Certainly, there should be a decriminalising of their practices because this is what puts women and sex workers at risk. Whether it would be a policy adopted by other parties, I couldn’t tell you.
The decriminalising of cannabis and raising revenue on it is being trialled in various states in America. If you were to monitor the quality, if you had safeguards in place, then yes, that is something that I think political parties should look into. As with tobacco and alcohol there would need to be age restrictions, as studies suggest that cannabis potentially does more damage to your brain when you are younger. There is a female collective in California who are legally growing cannabis and turning it into painkillers by taking out the psycho-active element. You don’t get high, but it still relieves pain. Something like that, where you are looking to relieve pain, to help people medically with marijuana, is the way forward.
MW: Lastly, where do you see British politics going in the next five years if the opinion polls are correct and the Tories win?
EH: In terms of positives, you will see lots more grassroots political activity and activism. You will see a lot more people turning to trade union support to try to mitigate the worst effects. In terms of what it will do to Britain, it will probably erode our safety even further in terms of public services and care services. I think if these polls are correct we can look forward to an NHS that is being pushed towards its death. I think we can look forward to protracted and damaging negotiations with the EU; it is not in their interests to help us out easily. And I think we will see more international tensions as we try to deal with politics at home, and presenting our image to the rest of the world.
Photography by Moshe Tasky.