Apathy, disillusionment, distrust.
Over the last decade, low voter turnout relative to our European neighbours has been a consistent theme marring the UK general elections. Young people especially are disillusioned. In a poll earlier this year, 60% of first time eligible voters said they would not vote in the upcoming 2015 general elections. That's not surprising given that young people are among those on the frontlines of the worst impacts of the ongoing economic crisis.
Between 2008 and 2010, the number of unemployed 16-24 year-olds almost doubled to 20%, and since then has risen further to over 36%. Youth unemployment is now at a record high, over three times higher than unemployment for older adults.
As next generation rapidly disengages from the traditional party system, fringe far right parties like UKIP could end up winning more seats from both the Tories and Labour - as much as 7-12% of the Westminster vote.
UKIP and the emerging politics of lunacy
The latest polls show that Labour is on course to win the 2015 elections with a slim majority. But according to Peter Kellner of opinion research agency YouGov, if fringe parties like UKIP are able to take more seats than expected from the mainstream, UKIP could even enter a future coalition government.
The defection to UKIP of Tory MPs like Douglas Carswell underscores this trend. Carswell echoed widespread public sentiment when he complained,
"All three of the older parties seem the same... They're run by those who became MPs by working in the offices of MPs. They use pollsters to tell them what to tell us. Politics to them is about politicians like them. It's a game of spin and positioning."
While Carswell identifies real problems with Britain's political class, his solution to it - defecting to a far-right party run by an ex-banker - could lead to a dangerous mainstreaming of a new politics of lunacy.
Despite UKIP politicians' Victorian attitudes to women, ethnic minorities and gay people, their potential electoral ascent hinges on the fact that forty percent of British working-class voters believe they have no representation in politics.
But the UKIP 'alternative' is no alternative at all - its policies involve more austerity; cutting state spending on public services further, while nearly doubling the defence budget; and continuing the Tory stealth privatization of the NHS. Among it's most regressive ideas is to support coal power, oppose wind, ban Al Gore's film The Inconvenient Truth from schools, freeze immigration for five years, and scrap the Human Rights Act.
Adapt or die
Mainstream parties retain a window of opportunity to salvage the situation, but that window is closing fast, and requires real soul-searching and a willingness to break with the failed three-party paradigm. Is this really achievable?
I asked Sonia Klein - a former Labour parliamentary candidate for Ilford North currently fighting for a seat in the Welsh Valleys - what she thought. Sonia's candidacy has been endorsed by Lord Neil Kinnock, former Welsh MP and longtime Labour Party leader, for what he calls her "down to earth" approach, "strong practical abilities" and "passion for justice [which] will ensure she gives unstinting local, personal services to the constituency."
"We need more politicians with real life experience so they understand the needs of people. The Westminster bubble is not a place to nurture these skills, but this is where most of our leaders evolve. The result is a disconnect between policy makers and the public," Sonia said.
Unlike most people aiming to enter into the realm of British parliamentary politics, Sonia comes with two decades of transatlantic experience working across business development, corporate strategy, public policy research and grassroots empowerment. Sonia wants to bring her interdisciplinary skills to the challenge of transforming the lives of ordinary people.
"The Labour Party needs to return to the roots that had once made it the number one party for ordinary working people everywhere," Sonia told me.
"The 2008 financial crisis, and the aftermath, has proved that business-as-usual has failed. The Tories promised change, but instead unemployment has increased, the NHS is being dismantled, and the country's education policies are in tatters. Labour has an opportunity to put Britain back on track, but that means remembering what made Labour great in the first place: working people. And applying that to the challenges of 21st century."
At the heart of Labour is... labour
Sonia was born in east London, the first child of Pakistani parents who were sent to the UK by their families to study and build a better life. She describes them as her inspiration. Her father, from Pin Dadan Khan, a small town near Jhelum, studied economics in Glasgow before moving to London to become an accountant. He worked as a bus conductor at night and studied during the day. Her mother, who is from Peshawar, left university to raise her four children, but that didn't stop her from launching a series of small businesses across London.
Sonia explained that her parents put the community at the heart of everything. She remembers her father providing accounting services for free to anyone who needed help, especially the market traders and immigrants he had met during his journey. Her mother mentored Asian women and young mothers. Their house was always full of people who needed help.
Such experiences are part of the reason Sonia has been a lifelong member of the Labour Party. Her inspiration for joining, she said, was the party's traditional ethos of representing the interests of 'labour.'
She is a natural organiser. Her first political act was marching with her parents at age 7 in a demo in London. Her first act of civil disobedience, though, is more telling. She organized a school sit-in with her friends in lower sixth form, to protest a new rule where students had to leave school at lunchtime due to lack of funds to pay for lunchtime supervision. It was an all girls' school, so many students were forced to sit in the forest adjacent, and some were harassed by passersby. "We organized the sit in and the Headmistress hit the roof, suspending all of us," Klein recalled fondly. "This was overturned when the press found out what was going on! The next day, the Head apologized for her behaviour. She said she had a toothache."
The turning point, she said, is at age 15 when she spent a month in Pakistan with her Dad. "For the first time, I really noticed poverty, hardship, struggle and also witnessed ambition, aspiration and tenacity," she said. "I was never the same after that visit. I never took anything for granted after this."
The socialist entrepreneur
Sonia described her life as a 'portfolio' of experiences and adventures leading to a wide-ranging career that stemmed less from planning, than from combination of a restless thirst for knowledge, new challenges, and the need to pay the bills.
From washing dishes to advising Congressmen, she has come a long way. She began her professional career as a scientist, but finding herself on the poverty line as a researcher in Oxford, she adapted and landed in management consulting. At the same time, Klein has remained passionately involved in community work, providing support services and mentoring for women entrepreneurs, and voluntarily taking on case work for a variety of social issues.
"I'm a businesswoman with a socialist heart," said Sonia, explaining her passion for politics.
"My experiences have guided my politics. I believe that the state supporting people is not just a moral objective, it makes fiscal sense for the country. We must translate that to the right. I also believe that to support the provision of public services we must build an economy to sustain the cost ,and we must translate this to the left. The end goal of public policy should be a better life and better future for every citizen. To understand the needs of public policy, you must have experienced it first."
Local, public power
Swansea East is one of the most deprived constituencies in the UK. For Sonia, the challenges there are similar to ones she saw firsthand as a youngster growing up in Dagenham, Walthamstow, Bow or East Ham.
"The financial crisis proved that we need a different way of doing things, one which recognizes the need for responsible and accountable finance," said Sonia. "The problems in Swansea East, the health inequalities, the education deficit, the urban poverty and unemployment, they all stem from limited public services, lack of opportunity and low morale. We need to ensure quality public services, but for that we need a strong local economy. And for that we must get to the heart of the problem."
Sonia's vision for the Welsh constituency is a much-needed one: to re-train the massive pool of unemployed local youth with skills for 21st century jobs, to focus on inward investments, strategic partnerships and, in her own words, "bringing the world to Swansea."
"We need transparent government focused on making business work for people rather than the other way round," said Sonia.
"In Swansea, I want to revitalise the socialist values that made Labour great: equality, economic justice, empowerment of workers and opportunities for the unemployed. I want to bring everything I've learned in the private and nonprofit sectors to build the capacity of local communities and institutions. I want to see Swansea East as a revitalised economic engine, where residents have a real say in vibrant and proactive local government structures, where small and local businesses thrive, contributing to new employment and educational opportunities."
It's an inspiring vision, and one that's rare to hear amongst the ranks of the political class, whether Labour or Tory. But then, Sonia seems to be a rare specimen of political animal who has actually cut their teeth in the real world.
Given the ongoing widespread apathy with the electoral system, we need more political representatives like Sonia who actually bring something to the table other than self-serving careerism. Failing that, Britain's political future looks increasingly loony.