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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder