Friday 8 August 2014

The Taint of Modern Politics

Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition in the UK, recently proposed a public form of Prime Minister’s Questions suggesting that this would make the PM more accountable. It is certainly an interesting idea, and any proposition that would help to bridge the chasm between the governors and the governed is welcome in these apathetic times. However, it would be a sticking plaster over what is fast resembling a gaping sore: the utter contempt in which most people hold politicians.

Personally, I never blame people for disliking politics or politicians – it is a profession that has scandalised itself and has been the chief architect of its own downfall. It is tempting to lay the blame squarely at the feet of New Labour and their political machine (itself largely copied from Clinton’s ’92 campaign). After all, many of their innovations excite general disgust even two decades later – the culture of spin; occupying the centre ground of politics; and media training to help MPs avoid answering questions and to instead spout party political achievements.

However, although Blair and his cronies ought to bear some of the blame, the startling and almost universal unpopularity of politicians across the western world points to a wider malaise. Even when one individual’s force of character and charisma briefly reverse the decline (think Obama, Blair, Clinton or Sarkozy), their inability to live up to whatever they had to promise to get elected inevitably disgusts the electorate. I believe that there are three main ways in which politicians have fuelled their own unpopularity: perpetuating the stranglehold over politics exercised by a certain group; allowing our democratic institutions to decay; and using short-sighted media strategies. This analysis is aimed at the UK, but, with some tweaking, could equally well apply to France or the USA. Furthermore, it is important to point out that the behaviour of politicians is not the sole cause of popular disengagement from politics in general; other factors include – the decline of traditional class identities; an increasing societal focus on consumption; and the failure of electoral systems to keep pace with voter preferences (i.e. no e-voting).


1)      Government by the ambitious

Whenever David Cameron or George Osborne are criticised for their aristocratic origins or familiar path to power, they reply that it doesn’t matter where you come from provided that you’re the best at your job. I have no particular issue with that answer, or their particular routes into Parliament – Eton and Oxford are both fantastic educational institutions in their own right. The problem is more that as a cabinet, as a Parliament, as a political class, they appear to have wanted this all their lives – reflecting a triumph of ambition over merit.

The people in the public eye at large are a relatively diverse bunch, reflecting the fact that merit or talent is fairly equally distributed across the population. However, Parliamentarians are anything but (although which legislature isn’t?). To make Parliament more representative of the nation all three parties are promoting women in place of the white public school boys. However, as soon as you look into their backgrounds (middle class, Grammar/ Private school educated and Oxbridge attendee) the difference appears to be cosmetic. Although that might be a reflection on the candidates that apply to stand as MPs, it does demonstrate the death grip of a reasonably talented but incredibly ambitious group. Whether they are selected as the political class or they select themselves appears to me to be irrelevant.

When I look for patterns amongst MPs, schools and universities are only a symptom of the disease. What is more apparent is the prevalence of ambitious people from well-connected family backgrounds. Furthermore, they appear to have precisely planned their ascent to Parliament. That they pass through the Bar and Oxbridge is significant for the fact that MPs have targeted and attended such institutions to equip themselves for political office – they do not discover their ambition there. Rather PPE at Oxford and the Bar seem to be the quickest route to power in the system as it is currently constituted. So who are these people who grow up wanting to be Prime Minister? Well, they are generally well-spoken, well-educated and are used to stimulating discussion at home. The political class is upper middle class not because of any class-based plot, but because their parents are more likely to say ‘I want you to be PM someday’; or because their dinner party guests say ‘you’d make a great PM’; and because it seems achievable – clearly amongst some that ambition crystallises.

People sense that there is something deeply wrong with how people get into Parliament and how the selection process works. Even worse, it stops people who would otherwise be interested from even applying. In this age of fluid political beliefs, party leaders seem to desire power with a vague idea as to what they’d change rather than seeking power solely to change the country. Unfortunately, we are currently governed by those with the most ambition – I would prefer to be governed by the most able.


2)      The decay of our democratic institutions

Like any big and powerful institution, Parliament has its own-subculture. You can sense it when you visit the place, you can feel it during exchanges in the chamber. MPs refer to ‘the other place’ (instead of the upper chamber, the House of Lords), ‘Erskine May on Parliamentary procedure’ and ‘the mother of all Parliaments’.

A great number of MPs are apparently obsessed with the dignity and importance of their office, which is why many stay on as backbenchers even as the chances of promotion recede. And if you add a tiny bit of power to the mix, you create a dangerously potent mixture – just look at the select committee chiefs presiding over their kangaroo courts as if the whole nation is hanging on their every word!

It’s all a dreadful overhang of empire – the trappings of power remain even if real power is long gone. We are a medium sized nation with medium sized socio-economic and military influence; we need a legislature that reflects that fact. Tradition is great to the extent that it keeps Japanese tourists clicking their cameras, but when it begins to stifle democracy itself it’s time to say goodbye to the Blackrods (the Queen’s steward who bangs on the door of the Commons to invite MPs to the Lords so that she can make her annual speech because during the reign of….blah blah blah).

Parliament doesn’t make laws half the year, it is hard to pass complicated legislation within a reasonable time frame, there is no-electronic voting and it is obsessed with its own importance. And none of that even touches on the reputational and political problems of the unelected House of Lords! The US Congress is in need of reform because time has moved on and its practices haven’t; Parliament is in need of reform because it is choking on bizarre and restrictive conventions.


3)      Short-sighted media strategies

When the Coalition government attempts to make any sort of policy announcement, Labour MPs fall over themselves to tweet that it is evidence of ‘how out of touch’ the Conservatives are. On most episodes of Question Time Coalition politicians ignore the question as asked and instead spout a list of their achievements; Labour then comes back with a list of how their ideas are in fact better. This all stems from the at best dated calculation that the average voter will only remember easily digestible information and that these sound-bites really get through.

What they don’t seem to grasp is that the viewer doesn’t give a toss about these nonsensical lists; they are instead annoyed at no-one answering their questions and left with the feeling that all politicians are as bad as each other. Surely the benefit of any memory association is vastly outweighed by the general disgust that the practice incites? Our system has always been adversarial, but I believe that the petty, party-political point scoring is a modern inception. The tiny minority of MPs actually speaking their mind have either already been blacklisted or are not seeking promotion, leaving a large group of apparently intelligent people refusing to engage in reasonable analysis and instead accusing the other party of wrecking the economy. 

The culture of briefing in order to shape newspaper headlines is complex enough to be the subject of a blog by itself. I would say though that such a process – even if it is as sordid as the Leveson inquiry portrayed it – is a more secret affair between press officers and journalists. It is less obviously irritating and damaging than television interviews and appearances.

To conclude, although I never blame people for disliking politicians, there is a distinction to be made between politics and political thought. One can dislike the former without renouncing the latter.
© Amarjeet Johal 2014 All Rights Reserved.

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