People hate politics and politicians for good reason. This will not change any time soon.
There’s been another bout of hand wringing over ‘political disengagement’ courtesy of a new poll which found that most people don’t vote out of anger rather than apathy. “Big whoop” I say. The Power Inquiry, for which I was Research Director, found exactly the same back in 2006. That would be the 2006 that pre-dated all the things currently blamed for popular antipathy: MP’s expenses, Coalition politics, the 2008 Crash, the recession, Damian McBride etc. etc.
The truth is there are two very good, intimately linked reasons why people hate politics and politicians. Neither of them are easy for the political class to swallow.
Politics is hateful
The first is that politics is hated because it is a hateful profession. That doesn’t make it unusual – most professions are characterised by petty politicking, tedious tribalism, gossip and self-interest. The difference with politics is that, unlike other professions, all those frailties get constantly and very publicly dressed up, by politicians themselves, as humble public service. Such in your face hypocrisy is rarely good for anyone’s credibility.
Of course, that’s not to say a lot of MPs don’t work very hard for their constituents and even sometimes in the national interest but a lot of people work very hard for others or for the good of the country and never get a gratis peerage from a thankful nation at the end (or even in the middle) of their careers.
Parliamentary democracy is dying
The second is that parliamentary democracy itself is based on a conceptualisation of the relationship between ruler and ruled that is dead. In that conceptualisation, we the people accept being ruled by a tiny elite as long as we get to choose which tiny elite is doing the ruling. The problem is that the populations of the advanced economies increasingly don’t like the idea of being ruled by a tiny elite whether they have chosen them or not.
Again this is not just a matter for politics. The elitist institutions of authority and power that people are free to walk away from (the Church, the trade unions, the press) have been in decline for decades. Even the biggest, richest corporations have to fight a constant battle now to hold on to their customers’ trust and respect.
Politics is different, once again, because it can’t be walked away from. That’s a recipe for popular frustration.
A centuries old and profound trend
This is no recent trend but is, in my view, the outcome of many centuries of shift away from deference to collective authority towards the free choice of the individual. At one stage, parliamentary democracy was a major consequence of this shift as feudal elites in charge by virtue of force and divinity made way for democratic elites chosen by free voting individuals. Now this historic shift is swamping parliamentary democracy itself.
There are two key conclusions. Firstly, no tweaking of MP’s pay arrangements, the discovery of an inspirational new leader or even ‘radical’ change such as the introduction of proportional representation will resolve this deep systemic contradiction. In fact, anyone thinking of going into politics better accept that “I can’t seem to do anything right” sensation as a permanent occupational hazard.
Secondly, the problem will only go away when a new political system emerges that better reflects a world devoid of deference. What that looks like I am not sure. The Conservative MP, Douglas Carswell, has had a shot with a strong emphasis on more direct democracy using internet technologies. I suspect it may be something much deeper than that based on widely distributed personal power rather than concentrated democratic power.
Whatever it is though it will be driven by the intensely strong desire of 21st century individuals to make their own decisions for themselves not by the nervous, self-doubt of the political class.
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