Monday, December 14, 2009

The problem with politics

My piece in tomorrow's Morning Star;

If we were to list the most hated professions in the nation we’d probably start with lawyers, journalists (not Morning Star ones obviously), Simon Cowell (who is so loathsome he has an employment category all to himself) and, of course, politicians.

Those with shorter memories put this down to the expenses scandal but this is simply the current manifestation of a tendency that has been bubbling under the surface of society for decades, if not more.

Seen as a class apart, divorced from ordinary concerns, MPs have the misfortune to be one of the least trusted groups of people in politics. Local councilors are, wrongly, seen as too small scale to be genuinely corrupt and no one knows who their European regional MEPs are so they can go about their dark business undetected by those armed with eggs or miniature cathedrals.

Of course this has always been terribly unfair. Most politicians did not enter politics for the brown envelopes, even if they stay in it for them.

As a class they’ve not helped themselves. When the previous speaker of the House resigned it was not simply because he had failed to tackle the expenses regime he was making vigorous use of it and was taken down in the very scandal he should have prevented, possibly one of the first cases of a poacher turned gamekeeper turned pheasant.

Nor has Tony Blair been helping their reputations this week with his revelations that if he’d have thought he could not get away with the WMD excuse he’d have still found another reason to invade Iraq. Confirming once again that there are the stated reasons for government policy and then there are the real reasons, which ministers would really rather you didn’t know.

Even principled politicians, like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, get spattered with the same gore that their coworkers seem so happy to unleash upon the world. It’s unfair but true. All those things that divide politicians from the voting public – high salaries, the press attention to every drunken tweet or misjudged photo opportunity, or being closeted away with special advisors and interest groups – are as true for the best politicians as they are for the worst.

We can undermine those factors by introducing a normal worker’s wage or ensuring that your MP is a real part of the communities they represent, but the idea of electing someone to take decisions on our behalf has a perfidious logic of its own no matter how delightful the individual concerned.

Some want to see more independent minded politicians elected, and who am I to disagree, but perhaps the issue is more about the structures of democracy than the moral disrepair of the party elites.

There are good arguments for electoral reform, abolishing the unelected House of Lords and Monarchy, replacing first past the post with proportional representation and deepening the drive towards more transparent government. All these measures would be a great step forwards that, none the less, do not challenge the ‘common sense’ that ordinary people do not take part directly in political decision making.

You can lobby your MP, write letters to the local paper, demonstrate, strike, even riot, but all of these things, some more effective than others, are simply attempts to influence decisions. Deeper democratic reform would mean we could take those decisions into our own hands, collectively.

While referendums can be useful tools, they are still imperfect because they take place at a time of the government’s choosing in terms that are decided for us. Additionally as the Swiss example of banning minarets shows they can be a method of oppressing peoples as well as empowering them.

The vision of ‘real politics’ as a club of influential people, cut off from those they misrepresent, is reinforced by a political system where the majority are passive observers to a dance whose rules are never fully explained and where the music that dictates the steps cannot be properly heard by those outside of powerful cliques.

Even if we only elected morally pure types, whose love of the people was only outweighed by their love of hair shirts and personal discomfort, we would still find ourselves observing politics rather than participating in it, directly. Naughty or nice, our politicians make decisions for us.

Instead of relying on others we should try to imagine a world where we can make those decisions for ourselves. There are no guarantees that these would always be better decisions, but they would be rooted in the everyday experiences of every citizen, not just those existing inside a particular bubble and who lunch with the most powerful in society.

More than this the definition of what is subject to democracy and what is left outside of it needs to be re-examined. Why is it that the laws on theft are governed by those elected by the people and the economy that drives people to theft is left in the hands of the unelected wealthy? Why should we have indirect control over who we bomb, but not who British companies arm?

Populist sound bites can have a resonance with people but they are no substitute for direct democracy. In a strange way I rather enjoyed Obama’s weekend outburst where he denounced ‘fat cats’, but seeing as he’s spent the last year feeding them the choicest cream it doesn’t amount to much more than a plea for people to like him.

In Britain millions are disenfranchised who want to renationalize the rail, who want a genuinely ethical foreign policy that promotes peace over British economic interests and who would love to vote for a party that taxed the wealthy and regulated the out of control financial sector. At the coming general election there will be precious few places where the candidates who promote these popular values have a fighting chance of winning.

The anti-politician mood is a rich mix of legitimate anger against particular policies and the desire to blame others for the state we’re in. We need to promote a vision of democracy where we have no one to blame but ourselves because power rests in the hands of the people themselves.


Kieran Wild said...

Democracy is pretty crap but I think it is better than feudalism. If we had PR you could vote for a Green or a Socialist and have it count.

Jim Jay said...

Hopefully we have more choices than representative democracy and feudalism!