The case against being "anti-politics"

A system with fewer people voting is often in the interests of the politicians you’re supposed to ha

Politics is not a dirty word. But sometimes it feels like politicians are competing over who can spurn their vocation most. "We’re corrupt! Elite! Insular!" they shout. The concept of the “Westminster bubble” must be the most popular phrase in Portcullis. Anti-politics is the only platform we dare to stand on. We’ve all done it. But it’s too easy. And it sounds false coming from those who remain in the system precisely because they still believe in it. On polling day, we realise that pandering to disillusionment is in danger of justifying voter apathy. It’s time for a defence of politics.

Blanket attacks on the system are patronising. They let people get away with an abdication of responsibility. The underlying premise seems to be that politics is completely divorced from the actions of ordinary people, and that this problem is purely for politicians to fix. The voter, in essence, is a kind of consumer that is being let down by "Government Inc." If they could just provide a better service, everything would be okay. But the truth is that if politics isn’t working, people have a duty to intervene. Yes, our politicians have let us down, but so have those who don’t do anything about it. At the last election, some two thirds of people didn’t show up to vote. Without trying to change the system in other ways, that's complicity in wrongdoing. They’re free-riding on citizens that do bother. They deserve a bit less pity and a bit more anger.

None of this is to excuse politicians from keeping their side of the bargain. Anyone who knows my work knows I am fully capable of mounting my high horse when there’s a problem. Expenses, Murdoch, cash for influence: politicians have let us down. The voting system doesn’t answer our preferences or offer meaningful power between elections. The City rules. But people have a responsibility too. If you don’t like the way a party is going, join it and change it. If you don’t feel represented by anyone, stand independent or encourage someone else to. If you don’t like mainstream politics, try changing it in other ways. Yes there are obstacles here too, but how many people who criticise have actually tried?

“Politicians should challenge people to be better as well as themselves”, says Arnie Graf, co-director of the Industrial Areas Foundation which promotes community organising in the US, who has been working closely with Ed Miliband, “One of the reasons for the breakdown of politics is that people don’t do enough to make sure they’re given what they’re promised, and politicians don’t do enough to challenge citizens. We treat them like customers in focus groups rather than people to work with.”

I first fell in love with politics because it offered power and participation. It meant fighting a campaign in our school for healthier canteen meals and getting our photo in the local press. It meant collaring Ken Livingstone on the tube and asking him why we hadn’t got that skate park. It meant daring to explain why you ate Fairtrade chocolate. It meant arguments. It meant boring meetings. It meant influence. It wasn’t them; it was us, and we got more done because of it. Yes, some people are brought up with more political education than others, but at some point people have to take responsibility.

If my impression of politics is a little romantic, I’m glad I’ve managed to hold on to that. But more sceptical voters may be convinced by a more cynical argument. A system with fewer people voting is often in the interests of the politicians you’re supposed to hate. With such a small electoral base, parties can spot the swing voters and treat winning like a science. Elections become predictable, calculated and easier to stitch up. A large, unwieldy and active electorate is harder to control. So don’t think about skipping the polls today. If you keep your half of the bargain, politicians are more likely to keep theirs.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.