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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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.