Oh to be a politician… Fifty per cent of the population are completely indifferent to you; of the other fifty per cent half will hate you by default and of the remaining twenty-five per cent: half will think you don’t go far enough and the other half will think you go too far. That’s if they even notice you at all. Anonymity is almost a given as – apart from the awareness of a few local party workers and associated committees; the local press and dignitaries – a member of parliament could quite easily walk down their constituency high street without an inkling of recognition.
Even those who attain the highest office are prone to bouts of amnesia from large sections of the disengaged public. It’s a popularity contest with the inevitable caveat that you will be deeply unpopular and that this particular constituency will grow exponentially with your time in office. A thick skin is a prerequisite and therefore the interested public are always seeking to detect your reasons to willingly take the flak; their suspicion of your motivations clouding your every action.
Whatever your political hue, the death of Margaret Thatcher – beyond opening a debate of polar extremes concerning her legacy; a debate that has swung between vitriol and reverence with little allowance for the middle ground – has prompted much consideration of politicians then as against politicians now. That someone so strongly identified as a conviction politician should begin, accelerate; then achieve the re-imaging of the politician in the public consciousness as shiny-suited careerist on the make is one of the most dubious achievements of her era.
Some might argue that it was precisely the admirable strength of her convictions that shrunk those around her – as she simply pushed the contrast up; or perhaps that it highlights the general ineptitude and weakness of the male wets who came to characterise her cabinets as election and military victories fed the PR legend of the Iron Lady surviving on a few hours sleep a night. Other observers have concluded that it was precisely a democratic weakness flowing from that strength: in that her increasingly dictatorial position – trusting only a closed coterie of advisors against truly cabinet-made decisions while stubbornly refusing to turn her policies – neutered what increasingly became lumped together as the rest.
Surrounding herself with political inadequates or unequals may have been a preferred policy to get her own way. Whether you believe such control stretches disbelief of her hold on events to a maximum and that it might be even beyond her machinations – consider: this is a woman who made explicit plans to break the unions well before the opportunity arose.
The shifts in public perception of politicians are a combination of all these personal character-based elements but also of the forces Mrs Thatcher unleashed – from the privatisation of public utilities, the belief in unfettered big business per se and the accompanying rapid growth in the city with the resulting dominance of this blinkered outlook: whereby the balance sheet became the bible for decisions and accusations of knowing the cost of everything but the value of nothing permeated. The trumpeted share-owning democracy appears a wistful almost naive ambition in hindsight; either that or a smokescreen for the real intentions – goodbye Sid of the gas share sale and hello nameless and foreign investors – given the powerful forces that have led us to the current apocalypse via casino banking and its associated arrogance.
As an electorate it’s easy to pour scorn while letting ourselves off scot-free. Considering wider responsibilities… perhaps the question is: politicians – are we to blame? Was there ever a political golden age? A time when politicians were held up as guardians of morality, accountability and honourable public service? Ahem; probably not is the polite understatement in response. Do people look back with pleasure to certain political ages with the kind of fondness reserved for times in their personal lives? If they do their memories are probably loosely-linked to some ethereal spirit of the times rather than any rote admiration of policies, political personalities and events. To say it probably depends entirely on your politics is the ultimate political answer. After all – the only truly popular politician is one who has as yet no power.
“How can MPs change their image? Would they want to? Who is brave enough to try and do it for them?”
What is clear is that there is a discernibly strong undercurrent that politicians aren’t what they once were beyond the random insults and casual contempt that are par for the course. This goes deeper than attitudes reflected by such as policemen getting younger as you get older. Always blaming politicians for letting us down, false promises, and at worse blatant corruption is really little more than blaming ourselves. They exist in a Westminster bubble but not in vacuum… so why do the electorate attribute arguments of necessary example for those in public life when they lead less than blameless lives – both morally and criminally – themselves? The root of this is the crux of all relationships to politicians – the do as we say not as we do – which directly clashes with the public’s concepts of public duty and responsibility on their part. Lashing out and blaming politicians also reflects what some claim as evidence of less rigorously independent attitudes in society: of personal responsibility being a thing of the past – where it is easy to always blame someone else for the mess you are in. All of this is informed by the negative debates on the influence of the nanny state.
However, beyond this clamour and political noise… if you take the time to examine the make-up of the cabinets of the 1960s and 1970s for example – many of these were mavericks; comparative intellectual giants – men and women on a mission; many had fire in their bellies and a grand passion for what they believed in: you might not have agreed with them but by god you usually respected them. These were people with a cause; people who had lived: had a career – seen what the world had to offer.
Now we have the careerist politician… the one who attaches themselves to politics to see what they can get out of it: from expenses, to subsidies, to ministerial office; to directorships. These directorships and their considerable extra earnings are predicated on the MP’s job, the hinted or explicit use of parliamentary power, access and special insight.
They haven’t lived – slipping from holiday internships at Central Office or Millbank to research positions post the right university – to streamlined safe-seat candidacy to high office. Where’s the experience? Where’s the connection? It’s a running sore as to why we have such a huge disconnect to problems of everyday people and the poverty of their existence.
The problems and challenges have got no less huge. In many ways we’re regressing to social problems and wealth accumulation of levels considered conquered, addressed – or previously in the popular consciousness – explicitly a thing of the past. The romantic and noble notions/days of the social reformer may be over but to claim an acceptance of the uneven and unjust society we have now – that has been put into even sharper focus by the actions of the liberated self-seeking few – lays bare the shrill triumphalism of those who say all the old isms and conflicts are dead and that the battle ground is solely now sub-divisions of global capitalism as a result of Mrs Thatcher’s social, economic and political victory.
It makes prime minister David Cameron’s recent claims that we are all Thatcherites an extraordinarily smug statement. And reflects the stultifying political desire to have everyone sing from the same hymn sheet. If there is a shared text it is in our attitudes… in that we have all become more cynical as a nation and simply expect and therefore allow politicians to act in this manner. We can’t stop the system so we wash our hands in contempt.
Parliament seems to be populated by pygmies – in comparison to the past – no more able to see beyond their £3 claim ticket for a Prêt-a-manger sandwich and calculated desire to live on the job, away from the uncomfortable noise in the constituency, so that the aggravations do not impinge on the good life. They want the spoils but none of the cares. Have they diminished as people in the way that all professions have… as we have come to know more and more about them in the shifting media landscape of intrusion – where there are few secrets or any gratuitous or lingering respect? In trying to keep pace have they let standards slip – or have they always been as cavalier, as greedily self-seeking but we just weren’t that clued up on it previously? Did previous social mores prevent us from engaging with the truth?
What is the motivation of the current crop? Have we ultimately got what we deserve? Remember the lacerating criticism of Michael Foot in opposition because of his age and for wearing the wrong jacket: a donkey jacket that became a beast of burden on the rest of his political career. He was an intellectual giant in political terms and had engaged with the world and its wider problems yet was seen as out of step with the sharp-suited style over substance that became predominant. Is this expression of media-driven acceptability and political snobbery part of the reason so few ordinary people are subsequently able to get on in the system?
It’s not just the clothing that has become more streamlined – everything is about fitting in: acceptable visions; the triumph of marketing; anodyne and rehearsed TV appearances; the proliferation of advisers and spin doctors. There has been a revolution but only with the invention of whole new layers of associated gurus and experts at using the media; prompting – literally – limited debates, sound bites and their dead-hand influence. All reflected, as previously mentioned, in all parties signing up to the common ground – as if there is no alternative: contributing to the safe atmosphere of a club tuned to the lie that there are no great motivating challenges anymore.
“For politicians to do a level of humble when they seem to think they know what is best for the rest of us is hard to imagine.”
The lumpy stuff has been removed by the huge egos of these unelected spin doctors and a population that has been turned off despite there being more ways to connect with the message than there ever were – the result is it has all become more cloudy and the old adages of more equals less (engagement) have been routinely dusted off. It’s impossible to deny the growth of marketing and PR in reinforcing the general line while relentlessly ignoring the question. Emphasising the requirement to be on message – where one member says the same buzzwords on TV as another and where character is defined only from a few poses with the wife and kids to show you are of the human race.
It’s a huge game and it shows – the trouble is that this is a game with serious consequences for others. Those ignoring the very real fury in the country at their perceived flippancy and air of detachment distort any attempt at confronting the criticism head on. Yes; in many ways they’ve done it themselves: smug, isolated, careerist, arrogant and selfish – and with the unquestioning following of the gravy train. Where are the great orators in amongst the braying sharp-suited sheep? Not the heavily scripted one-liners with timing issues at prime minister’s question time but the off-the-cuff genuine wit and banter from sources of righteous anger?
Parliament has always had the real work – the tedious minutiae of the committees – going on behind the scenes… however, what the people see now is that the show debates resemble a convention of middle-managers with the same mind set of one eye on the party prize. Whatever you do – don’t make waves: this is characterised by toadying to the pm and other cabinet ministers; the overt careerism manifest in the lack of dynamism and low intellectual carry.
Does anyone believe in any of those aforementioned isms anymore? If they do they’re depicted as the weird bastard off-spring of the wild-eyed party fringes. Similarly, to change one’s mind these days is a sign of weakness to be attacked mercilessly by the opposition and nothing sets the party PR machine running more quickly than a step out of line – yet blundering on as the much overrated conviction politician can be more damaging. Being strong enough to front up and admit a mistake – and ultimately change course – is better, braver and sign of a bigger politician surely? It’s what we would want of our own children yet is a political straitjacket to common sense redress and mea culpa.
The dominant opinion of politicians is also fundamentally formed from scrutinising issues of choice. Every Saturday night the population of Britain finds it easy to believe that this country hides singers and performers as good as anything already in the public eye and yet when it comes to politics; the profession and the cabinet in particular is made up of a micro-percentage of the population. Explicitly from two universities who apparently have the absolute monopoly of talent that uniquely in human history all comes together in the same place at the same time. Even Simon Cowell couldn’t manipulate this situation in his wildest dreams and yet it happens in a political party on your behalf ad nauseam. This boy’s club – in this case of not even the brightest and most able representatives of those elite universities – is an ongoing insult to democracy: the triumph of tired tradition and networking and establishment virtues. Like anal-retentive opposites to Springsteen… Baby we were born to run the country: born to rule. In any context – born to be a politician is scarcely a compliment.
How can MPs change their image? Would they want to? Who is brave enough to try and do it for them? In a profession that demands a certain self-regard in the first place how on earth would it be possible to cut back to the humble again. Things have moved on for better or worse and the genie cannot be put back in the bottle… For politicians to do a level of humble when they seem to think they know what is best for the rest of us is hard to imagine. However, it is always possible on a personal and party level to limit the exhibitions of two-faced, brazenly ambitious behaviour that the electorate choke over every couple of years at local and general election times.
Some necessary elements to consider should include the following…
• To change such deep-rooted perceptions you need to start with a shift from the bottom up – the grass roots.
• Be seen to be working – especially when parliamentary attendance is now just over 150 days a year.
• Cut silly expenses at both ends of the spectrum: the single stamps and sandwiches: the obvious luxuries/claimed ‘necessities’ – the large screen TVs and mortgages on second homes.
• Let someone else decide pay rises – if any – given the current situation we all find ourselves in.
• A politician is for life (of the parliament) not just for elections. Go out on the knocker more than just once every four or five years – people have opinions beyond those few streets in the equally self-regarding capital.
• Taking a cue from the above – temper the London-centric nature: okay you can’t help the geography of government but maybe politicians on tour would be a concept easily understood by the populace of places seen from both sides as largely out of sight: out of mind.
• Don’t expect constituency surgeries to be the be all and end all: mainly, don’t expect people to always come to you – be proactive in seeking people’s opinions; you are supposed to be representing them and with all those tools for social media you can’t help claiming as a necessity it is easy to get instant vox pop.
• Amazingly… try voting with belief and conscience contrary to the party line. The boogie man won’t get you – okay the Whip will and there goes the career peaks – but just imagine how it will feel to finally grow a pair? There is a huge disconnect between politicians who use their constituency as a stepping stone to power and influence yet forget to represent where they purportedly came from.
• Live in the constituency – genuinely be seen there using local businesses; drinking, eating and at events: in other words behave like a regular human being.
• Do ‘good’ works by all means but put it out on a local basis not with Central Office party spin applied.
• On a personal character level: empathise – don’t just despise.
• Look for yourself… don’t just snaffle up the perks and lazily rely on what you are being sold by your leaders – or spoon fed by civil servant reports.
Will it happen? Of course not. This conclusion simply adds to the already overwhelming evidence of just how far the negative is ingrained in our voter’s psyche. However, if something doesn’t happen sometime soon then the cynically dismissive government of the rest by the few will make current levels of political apathy amongst the public a cause for fond memory.