Saturday, 20 March 2010

A further response to 'Politics - why bother?'

I've had another response to my first blog on political apathy. After Joe kindly sent me his the other day, Josh sent me something adding to it, putting a slightly different slant on it. Anyway, it's great and I wanted to stick it up here!


Steve, I think, is quite right to say that people are beginning to feel othered from politics, and it is barely worth reminding ourselves of the many reasons for this. Chief among these are the discrediting of politicians as a class of people, misunderstandings about the levers of politics, and a series of policies that appear to be against the majority of people’s wishes. Some of these can be alleviated – I don’t say solved – by cosmetic reforms to politics, but fundamentally, I don’t think you can justify politics without making the case for political participation.

There are three arguments for politics, I think. The first is that it is in people’s self-interest. Not only is it the ‘process of power and decision-making distribution’, but it is more mundanely the setting of your tax bill and the management of public services.

Parties aren’t always clear about their politics, politicians often appear to require limited liability before they back policies, but taking manifestos and tone into account, I think lots of people do make decisions based on their personal interests. Furthermore, I think that triangulation and depoliticisation are much more limited than they were.

The second argument is a lot like Steve’s politics as the continuation of morality, but I would prefer to term it justice. The good life, as you both say, is a motivation to vote and a lot of people do think about justice in politics. You only have to look at support for the army, if not the policy, as a symptom of what is acceptable, and if Brown does lose the next election I criticism of his defence policies will cost him a considerable number of votes. The one thing I will say about just politics, is that they require even more considerable advocacy, and a lot of office holders tend to be more cautious.

Finally, we have what I call the liberal argument for politics. An active interest in politics is the small bit of ground between men and women who take what is given to them without regard to themselves, and men and women who take what they want without regard to others. If you state that case plainly, I think you will find that most people will admit that politics is integral to their self-respect and that if they are uninterested in politics, they are probably demoralised.

It just so happens that as I type, I have been watching The People’s Politician on BBC2, which makes the quite convincing case that most people do not know which levers they should pull in response to the issues that matter most to them. The constitution that we really need is the one that tells us where power lies. Unfortunately, it would almost certainly have to be published annually to take reform into account.

I think it is ironic that we look to an age known as the era of consensus as a time when people were more interested in politics and yet criticise our own leaders for their broad similarity. I will admit that this doesn’t help the view that voting doesn’t change anything, and nor do broken manifesto commitments or large protests that have little effect.

These are often necessary, however. The problem, I think, can be offering too much. The vagueness of New Labour’s ambitions have ultimately served it ill. Where broad swathes of people once felt they could buy in, they now feel excluded because the government hasn’t delivered their agenda. Obama has proved much the same. He hasn’t changed the way politics happens at all, and it remains to be seen whether he will change the mood of American politics.

It’s interesting that Steve raises the common identity that Americans seem to feel. Part of the success of their government is indeed that the constitution is revered, and that it has lasted. I’m also glad that you raised the phenomenon of the Tea Party, which is an interesting and important phenomenon and probably more revealing than popular election is in America.

There is a wonderful civic tradition in America that exists outside government. Barack Obama is an example of it when he talks of his role as a community organiser – a novel idea in Europe. But it is the art of association that make citizens out of people. They educate, organise and arouse the passions of people and offer a compliment, but also an alternative to Westminster politics. On the other hand, they are dependent on a certain level of acquaintance with politics and education.

I disagree substantially only that politics happens all in Westminster. In today’s Britain, policy, in contrast to politics, is a fast-developing industry. The contracting out of public services has led to a proliferation of policy departments, all offering more or less informed comment on government. We could see more elected mayors and more powerful local councils. The Internet may provide the transparency and wealth of information that is not afforded by our national system, but it is still a bewildering trail of responsibility.

Talk of the good life does not serve the politics I have argued for particularly well. Instead of grand visions, which are often poorly-defined, politics needs a more pragmatic bent. Low confidence and poor education militate against political-engagement, but they are not irreversible. Otherwise we leave politics to the likes of us who love the intellectual glamour of it. Scary thought.

Some immediate thoughts:

I think talking about politics as justice is a useful way of illuminating what we're talking about. I would say the main problem is there are too few differing conceptions of justice in our politics. That doesn't mean I just want people to imagine 'the good life' and fight for it in a prescriptive, abstract sense. That is just half of it. Fundamentally I mean conceptions of justice in a diagnostic sense, if that's not too arsey. That is to say, how one makes sense of the world. Take the 'Peoples Politician' program Josh mentions. It's clear from the program that people don't necessarily engage on the level of grand ideas; they want drains unblocked, bolders moved and so on. That's perfectly natural. The trouble is they have no story to tell themselves about why their drains remain unblocked (other than perhaps 'politicians don't care') – rather than, for instance, privatisations, sub-contracting or cut backs in public services. Blocked drains or pot-holes are taken in an individual, atomised sense – they aren't thought about collectively, as part of a wider political narrative. These issues are political, but they aren't politicised. Hope that's not putting too fine a point on it, but I hope this argument can take us away from the 'pragmatic bent v. intellectual glamour/grand visions' dichotomy Josh presents at the end.

The decline of trade unionism is difficult to avoid here, given it linked up the 'pragmatics' of politics and the wider, more socialist vision that was predominant in the Labour party until the late 1980s. This isn't a call to revive socialism or a hankering over the old battles of the 1970s per se, but I think we really feel the lack of alternative narratives and beyond the green movement, or some social democratic elements in Labour/Lib Dems, there is little prospect of this changing.

Anyway, i've done that angle to death. I think Josh is spot on to talk about levers. Efficacy is the key word here and it was implicitly flagged up throughout the 'Peoples Politician', too. People have to see that making the effort is worth it. Just how impotent most Mps are to effect the wider problems stares us in the face here, and we need to go beyond reductive ideas that re-balancing power between executive and legislature necessarily equals 'gridlock', but that's another discussion. I also agree that education is vital – what excuse is there to not be taught an overview of the different political ideologies, rather than just institutions, in secondary school or six form? I've heard it said that teachers will foist their own agenda on kids, but I don't see why that is unavoidable – it hasn't necessarily been so in other controversial areas, like RE or History.

That said, I can't help thinking that talk of education is too easy. If we both agree that civil tradition is vital and that the UK has too little of it, can something so deep seated simply be changed through education? I think the problems are fundamentally situated and perpetuated by our constitutional set up, which limits the influence people can have outside the ballot box. The solution is not just teaching people 'where power lies'; I think that fact is actually part of the problem.

On politics happening in Westminster; I disagree that this is really changing. The battles may be fought in ever changing spheres, but the war still unfolds in central London. The way it reaches us, which is what i'm most interested in here, is still predominantly filtered through the political-media class in Westminster. Mark Oaten touched on this – no matter where politicians go or on what platform (real or cyber) they speak, they always stop to think: “How will this play with colleagues, the media”, I.e Westminster. Furthermore that policy is formulated elsewhere doesnt mean people necessarily feel they can influence it there. More elected mayors might help things, but local politics actually has to matter to shift where we get our politics from so to speak, and in the context of huge centralisation, the hardly noble standing of councillors/local organisers and a withering of the local press, I'm not too hopeful. That said, the powers and position the London Mayor has in the cities concious is a source of optimism.

Anyway, i've once again written too much! Really appreciate the response and hope more will follow :-)