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.