Less than six months after the publication of The Greasy Poll, the period of political history it catalogues already seems like a distant age. Yet it was only last year: the era of Cameron, Clegg and the coalition, and of the UK general election that finished it off. It almost killed off Clegg’s party too – though not of course in Ceredigion. It will forever be one of my more warped boasts that in the general election of 2015, I was one of only eight lead challengers across the entire UK who failed to beat an incumbent Liberal Democrat.
Reactions to the book have been plentiful, and for the most part, very favourable. I’ve had supportive correspondence from members and elected representatives of every party, bar UKIP (thankfully) and the LibDems (unsurprisingly). Amongst Plaid Cymru comrades, the response has been so heartening. I was nervous of putting something so raw out there, and worried that it might upset people for whom I have considerable respect and time. However, I felt that the story needed to be told, and in as ruthlessly honest a way as possible, for contained within this one small tale of an election contest in the west of Wales is so much of where we are going so badly wrong.
“Parker was on the money a long time before most commentators. In fact, to some extent, a long way ahead.” – Richard Lewis Davies, Wales Arts Review
And my god, are things going wrong. Almost every day brings a new low in our political and societal discourse, and as ever, this is as apparent not just in the big headline news but the telltale details. As I write, looking at only the last 48 hours, there’s been a Welsh Tory MP demanding dental checks on traumatised refugees from the Calais ‘jungle’; a full-throttle witch-hunt against Gary Lineker (Gary bloody Lineker!) for politely questioning such inhumanity; a constant trickle of reports of people being attacked in our streets for how they look, what they are wearing or what language they are speaking; and thugs heckling without shame the victory speech of the Labour MP elected to replace Jo Cox, so brutally murdered in June by a right-wing fanatic. Last night, I had to turn off BBC1’s Question Time, as I could no longer cope with the furious, inchoate baying of the audience at anyone or anything they took against. Mob rule is winning; politics is becoming coarser and uglier by the day.
Looming in the background is the spectre of Trump. Even if he loses, the forces of spoilt brat anger and entitlement, racism and misogyny, protectionism and hatred that his campaign has awoken will still be there a month from now. And not just there; here too, and across the world (President Le Pen anyone?). It’s terrifying to imagine where all of this might take us.
Of all the things said and written about The Greasy Poll, the one that meant the most was Richard Lewis Davies in Wales Arts Review, who wrote that in the context of identifying growing intolerance “Parker was on the money a long time before most commentators. In fact, to some extent, a long way ahead.” Unsurprisingly, I think he’s right, though I take no joy at being proved correct in identifying and pulling together various strands of growing fascism over the last fifteen years. And make no mistake: fascism is what we are facing. It is no less so for sporting suits rather than jackboots.
I’ve put a fair few books out there over the years, and promoted each of them with numerous readings, presentations and so on, but those for The Greasy Poll have been different to anything I’ve experienced before. The last part of each session has been to throw the debate open to the audience; these discussions have often been raw, intense and lengthy, especially since Brexit. People have been desperate to chew the issues over, to voice their own growing fears and dwindling hopes. The political parties – all of them, I’m afraid to say – are largely failing them. I’m sliding towards the conclusion that the parties themselves may well be part of the problem. Their prime concern is always, and will always be, their own fortune. They have become machines of self-propagation, often at the expense of the greater good.
Tied to the artificially polarised world of the political parties are the systems that cement them in place. We have a Tory majority government in London elected by 36% of those who voted, headed by a Prime Minister no-one outwith her Maidenhead constituency ever voted for. In Wales, we have a nigh on majority Labour government elected by 31% of those who voted. This is an electoral system designed for the needs of the nineteenth century, and no amount of tinkering around at its edges is going to make it fit for the twenty-first. It has to go, and soon.
This sounds unremittingly bleak, and in many ways it is. There is a small kernel of light and hope, however: history shows us that in the darkest times, new movements, new alliances and new progressive ideas are born. There are flickering signs that some of our representatives are catching on to that, which is encouraging. But much of the impetus for meaningful change will only come from those prepared to think and act independently, and in new ways. That’s my challenge now, and it feels a far more urgent – and exciting – one than attempting to become a frustrated member of the Westminster bearpit.
Trying to become a politician made me realise how deeply I treasure being a writer, free to say exactly what I believe needs saying. I shall not jeopardise it again.
Mike Parker, October 2016
Mike Parker’s The Greasy Poll is available from Y Lolfa (£9.99)