How to do politics

The people of this country are let down by its politicians: the people tasked with ruling The UK are, to a man, venal, grasping, superficial, self-interested, over-educated, under-experienced fools who are not fit to exercise power. The Scottish independence referendum proved it – the forces of idealism rode in from the Scottish glens and were dashed on the rocks of Westminster cynicism. This is the narrative we’ve been seeing for the last week or so, and I’ve no doubt that as we travel towards the next election we’ll see more and more of it – the gist? Politicians are crap and the system is broken.

I have a couple of problems with this – the first is a practical one, if everyone’s so bankrupt in the House of Commons, where on earth do we go from here and where is the hope in that pronouncement? But the other major issue is that, well, the current narrative, for all its omnipresence, is total bollocks.

It’s possible that the electorate is disengaged, and who would have the courage to declare that anyone else other than the politicians are to blame, but really, if you want better politicians there are several ways of getting them – ‘wishing’ doesn’t count by the way. For example you can vote the bastards out, get involved in your local parties and insist that they choose someone better, or be that person yourself. Nope? Too hard? Whining at the margins more your thing?

Let’s take those options a bit more slowly: vote the bastards out is the simplest and most obvious, but people are simply not turning up to vote. The average turnout for a general election is around 65%, which means that 35% of the population have voted…with their feet. In turn this means that any government which polls around 38% in a general election win (as the Tories did in the last GE) have received a nod from a minority of the voters and a firm shake of the head from the population at large. When the ruling party tell you they have a mandate, that’s more of an aspiration than a statement of fact. Here’s a thought experiment – what would happen do you think if all those disaffected non-voters turned out an voted for one of the existing parties or maybe one that they invented themselves – change, that’s what.

The next option is to join your favoured party and get involved so that you can feel engaged with the process. UKIP, the SNP and Green parties, are seeing their the members go up in unprecedented levels, but for Labour and Tory membership rates are about the same – the Liberals are seeing their numbers fall year on year. Oddly this is good-ish news for the Labour party – historically the poor relation in member numbers, but bad for the Tories whose membership has plummeted. The difficulty is that only around 1% of the population is a party member. If you want to get involved, I’ve no doubt that your party of choice would love to have you! Making policy, choosing candidates and raising funds are what the party does. If you do think that there are too many ‘wonky’ faces in the House of Commons, you need to be a party member to change that. And that brings me to the third point.

Why shouldn’t that new face be yours? Join the local party and at some point they will need a decent new candidate for a forthcoming election. In the first instance that will be a council position or perhaps a seat on the Parish council, but who knows, you might just have what it takes to be the shiny new face in the next government. And frankly why not? If you have an educated opinion on politics, have some knowledge of how the world works, and a set of transferable skills you could be an MP. I can hear you chortling – but why is that funny? MP’s are not a breed apart (or they shouldn’t be), they are simply people who care enough about politics to get involved – you might call them a ‘wonk’ and tell them frankly at the door that you “don’t vote, you’re all bloody same’, but if you don’t step up, exactly who’s fault is that? It’s not really theirs is it?

The other claim is that politicians are all the same – are they really? Well, they’ve all been to university and haven’t done a real job. Well going to university shouldn’t be considered a disadvantage for anyone in my book, but what about the claim that they’ve never done a proper job? Well there is a significant proportion of MP’s who have had previous political experience – around 13% in 2010, but by far the biggest group by occupation is business (at 25%) the professions (doctors, lawyers, teachers publishers journalists) by far outnumber the ‘wonks’, and there was still a sprinkling of farmers and manual workers at the last election. I know that sometimes if you hear the same line repeated time and time again, it feels like the truth, but evidence is better. The majority of politicians have had a proper job.

And here’s the thing, even if you were right (and we’ve established that you’re not) why would that be a bad thing – when you have a cold you alert someone who knows something about medicine, it would be a fool who asks a gardener to maintain their central heating and it’s usual for experts in a field to be consulted. And yet knowing a thing or two about politics is now a bad thing. Apparently we want our MP’s to come straight from the shop-floor, factory or hospital ward and get straight to business deciding on how often your roads should be repaired. Ok, I’m being facetious, but I don’t think that its sensible to argue that all our MP’s should be political virgins.

The media is probably to blame for propagating much of this misinformation about the current crop of politicians – the print media in particular, much of which is owned and run by the millionaire sons of the establishment who have no interest at all in radical change! According to them, immigrants are stealing healthcare and benefits, scroungers are living it up on your taxes and Europe is taking over your life. So you end up telling the nice chap on the door that you’ll vote UKIP at the next election, even when there is not a shred of evidence for any of these headlines. (Immigrants are no significant cost to the NHS and are less likely to claim benefits, our benefits in any case are some of the meanest in Europe and provide, at best a poverty lifestyle and Europe is not a daily influence your life: in terms of government spend it’s a tiny fraction.) Don’t trust a newspaper for your news – and take a slightly sceptical view of anyone involved with print journalism – the hacking scandal should have alerted you to the dirty deeds these guys are capable of.

The Guardian is by no means the worst offender: it tacitly supports the LibDems and that occasionally makes it a wee bit short-sighted about its favourite sons, but compared with the Daily Mail it’s a model of evidence based, moderate journalism. It’s the paper I read, but nobody should read a paper without considering these facts: the paper is a business and driven by profit, and the writers are workers with mortgages to pay and families to support – they must get their work printed in order to pay the bills, and in order to see their name in print they must work around the agenda of their boss. And if their boss is Paul Dacre (the Mail), they will have to write tripe, and if their boss is Alan Rusbridger (The Guardian) they will have to balance an article that is largely lefty, with a “balancing’ side swipe at the Labour Party.

John Harris at the Guardian is typical. He has a rolling story along these lines – he takes himself off to a working class area and asks them if they’re happy with the Labour Party and they say no. John is a disenchanted radical himself so he agrees with them and then they have a good old rant and then John goes home and turns it into copy. John is happy because he’s turning into a sad old cynic, Alan is happy because he still believes in Nick Clegg. But this isn’t fact-based journalism and John is a wee bit dishonest when he tries to justify his writing by saying that he’s simply a reporter of the news. Nope, not any more. Feature writers in all newspapers are there to air their grievances and those of their boss, sometimes they add in a few facts, but mostly its just a paid version of what I’m doing now. BBC TV news is nearer to simple reporting but you don’t have to be a member of the SNP to know that they fall short of un-biased reportage some of the time too. If you want facts free from opinion, dream on, or read the news with a slightly jaundiced eye and the question in your head, who is reporting this and why?

So if you really want to change the shape of British politics, you don’t need a suite of new shiny politicians, you need to get off your backside, stop complaining, read a better newspaper, watch the news a bit more, turn out to vote, join your preferred party, get involved, make a personal stand, make a difference. It isn’t down to them, it’s down to you. If you want to see the difference politics can make, look at Scotland. Ok, so the Yes vote didn’t win, but the ones who wanted to retain the Union did, and for all that the result is being painted as a crushing defeat for idealism, for many people, a solid Union and a safe future was the ideal. And they turned out to vote.


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