In Defence of Politics

In politics timing is key. One of the many reasons why I have never stood for election is that mine stinks.

In 2008 the world banking system collapsed bringing about the greatest recession since the 1930s. We have had five years of ‘austerity’ with more to follow. For many it will be painful. Our political establishment has suffered one of its biggest crises to date: the expenses scandal. Today politicians are trusted less than estate agents, bankers and journalists. Just 16% of us trust politicians to tell the truth. The only reason they do not score better than paedophiles is that a lot of the public probably thinks they are paedophiles. To cap it all MPs, have just awarded themselves a massive pay rise as they voted to reduce benefits. Nice, huh?

Except the last point is untrue - pay is determined by a separate body - and demonstrative of the mythology that surrounds politics. Our understandable frustration has turned to misplaced cynisism.  Politics works. There, I said I had lousy timing.

To defend politics is not to defend every decision by government: I believe that this government has got a lot of the big calls wrong and could present a litany of errors in the case for the prosecution. Nor is it to give the system carte blanche. Clearly there needs to be a debate about continuing reform. But imperfection does not mean catastrophe; and because I - or you - disagree with a policy does not mean the system is broken.

Politics also has to deal with our contradictory demands

Thomas More’s word ‘utopia’ was a deliberate pun on the impossibility of the perfect community. In politics there are no end states. Politics is a process of competing interests in constantly changing and unpredictable circumstances. Colliding departmental demands mean government cannot provide a totally harmonious strategy, events or popular opinion can change priorities. Each of us has a different idea of what government should be doing. We debate in abstract concepts but forget there is an interpretation gap. When Ipsos MORI gathered a group of people together to look at how they would make government decisions, to a man and woman they all preferred that complexities remain with politicians.

Politics also has to deal with our contradictory demands. Immigration is a good case in point. We do not believe that EU citizens should have a right to come here but we do believe that we have a right to go there. How can politicians be expected to deal with such unacknowledged logical non-sequiturs?

A recent study, carried out at Queen Mary University of London, showed that between 1987 and 2005 parties met 88% of their commitments. Of course, a simple percentage is not enough. The Liberal Democrats can honestly say that in government they implemented 80-90% of their manifesto but they failed on their signature tuition fees policy. However, the fact that this is memorable shows its rarity and that they paid so heavy an electoral price that politics does work.

No group could stand the scrutiny under which we put our political classThe glee with which we greet such downfalls is indicative of our sententious distaste as if we want them to fail. When an unpopular measure is proposed we demand it is reversed; when it is we lament government weakness. We complain when they argue but we scream betrayal when they work together. Since Scotland’s independence referendum the term “Red Tory” has become currency in and around the Labour Party. There is of course an irony that the same people who complain there is no difference between Conservative and Labour are those who are arguing most vociferously to keep the benefits the latter brought while in office.

No group could stand the scrutiny under which we put our political class. The politicians I have met are incredibly hard-working and genuinely want to change society for the better. Modern technology means that they constantly engage with their electorate. The days when an MP could take voters for granted are long gone. We do not give them credit even for this. We forget the sacrifices - sometimes financial - that they make to get elected; the fact that they chose a career where they could be sacked, despite doing a good job, by their party leader or the electorate.

why should we expect good people to go into or stay in politics when the minute we elect them we treat them with contempt?Politicians are often their own worst enemies. The language they use about opponents indulges the anti-political idea that all sides are spurred by corrupt motives. They speak of taking the politics out of an issue rather than defending its validity, philosophies and compromises. Perhaps most importantly our politicians are not an out-of-touch elite but craven to voters when they should confidently argue for unpopular truths.

Vigilance is healthy but trenchant cynicism becomes dangerous: why should we expect good people to go into or stay in politics when the minute we elect them we treat them with contempt? We also forget something hugely important. The benefits democratic politics has brought are many and far outweigh the bad. Its flaws lie in the fact that politicians are human and so are voters.

Living in a democracy is immanently complicated. Its purpose is not to give total satisfaction to the individual but partial to the collective. Ideological shifts produce balance. This does not mean we accept the corrupt or bland. The role of politics is to persuade fellow citizens of a world-view. In a social media age anyone can assume that role. And when we do, perhaps we should acknowledge what we already have, not just what we want.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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