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The Party's Over
Hazel Marshall

In a country where more young people will vote in Big Brother than the next general election, what is going on with party politics? Is the party over for party politics?

Amnesty International was set up in 1961 by British lawyer Peter Benenson after two Portuguese students were jailed for giving a toast to freedom. Since then it has campaigned for an end to the torture, imprisonment or death sentence of over 47,000 people. In 1977, for its work, it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Amnesty works by encouraging people to write letters, faxes or emails to governments around the world who are holding prisoners of conscience.

Last night a large concert took part in London’s Wembley Arena. It was hosted by Eddie Izzard and he was joined by Tom Jones, Harry Enfield and the Stereophonics, amongst others. Comedians and musicians shared the stage. The event We know where you live, live was held to celebrate 40 years of the charity Amnesty International. The previous week, thousands of people thronged the streets of London, holding a peaceful parade and street party. Many were dressed in the recognisable candle emblem which symbolises Amnesty International. Others carried candles bearing the portraits of people who have been imprisoned for their political beliefs or who have been helped by the organisation over the past forty years. Portraits of people like Aung Sun Suu Kyi, held under house arrest in Burma for five years and of the current President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, who was jailed for five years in 1983.

But why does Amnesty International have such support? Why can many more people tell you what that charity stands for rather than tell you what the manifestos of the parties who either rule, or want to rule their own country are about. The number of people who subscribe to Amnesty now stands at around one million.

The problem with party politics today is that it no longer seems to have the effect that it used to. Not for us that remembrance of the first Labour victory, that feeling that our votes really do count and can make a difference. It would take something akin to the Green Party sweeping to power for us to appreciate how it must have felt when Labour first came to life. But today, when there are only subtle, rather than sweeping, differences, between the two major parties, who really cares?

Big Brother is more talked about than the general election. Not only will a greater number of young people vote in that programme than will for a politician but last week it beat BBC1's 10 o'clock news in television ratings. The major political parties in the UK today can only dream of drumming up that kind of enthusiasm among the young voters of today. Why is it so much easier to support or oppose governments in other countries and to vote for some person who has sat in a house for ten weeks than it is to decide on our own country’s future.

Big Brother was a phenomenon which started in Holland. It was brought to the UK by Channel 4, via Bazal Productions. Last year millions of people watched the show, with 10 million watching the final one to see who the winner was. 7.5 million placed a vote to help choose that winner. Already this year an average of 4 million have tuned in to watch the series every night, and that number is only going to rise.

One of the major problems is that many people no longer feel that they can make a difference. They do not feel that their vote counts. But even more than that, there has been a shift in politics in the last fifty years which has largely been ignored by the party politicians. People today, particularly young people, are much more interested in single issue politics than party politics. Over the last fifty years a plethora of charities have come to the fore and many have political agendas. The environment and human rights are only two of the main concerns which people now choose to address through membership of charities rather than membership of a political party.

Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Survival International, Oxfam - all these charities and many others like them have all come to the fore in the last fifty years, most in the last thirty. Parent groups for children with various disabilities are springing up all over the place as parents realise that neither the health service nor the mainstream education system is geared for anything other than the majority. These groups raise their own money and decide on their own policies. People no longer believe that a party politician will fight for them. People are now fighting for themselves on single issues.

Is it any wonder then that people don’t want, or can’t be bothered, to vote? Amnesty International have come up with their own manifesto (www.amnesty.org.uk/action/lobbying/manifesto.shtml) which can be used for lobbying politicians. But will it make any difference? We all know that politicians will sign up to anything in the weeks before an election. How many manifesto promises has Tony Blair and New Labour kept? And how many have they got out of by saying that their term ran for only four years rather than five - even though that was their choice!

So is the party over? Will politics change to reflect this tide in political opinions? It is unlikely. But keep lighting those candles for Amnesty. That really is making a difference.



© Hazel Marshall

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