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In the aftermath of one of the most tedious elections in recent memories I can’t help but feel quite a heavy dose of sympathy for politicians. We are constantly told that we have a huge problem, followed by claims that politicians lie, don’t care, or are corrupt – none of which are rooted in widespread evidence. Instead, common myth and innuendo have seemingly dictated the opinions of many would be voters. Suzanne Moore in the Guardian last week listed 12 things to do to fix politics, but the article was riddled with the kind of cliché we are all too accustomed to hear. She is not alone in this, however. Next week it will be the Independent and the week after some other publication which feels that stating the bloody obvious – that a huge number of people in the country don’t care about politics as much as them – will help the situation.
Criticisms of politicians are as hypocritical as they are frequent. People hark back to the old days while also talking about why politicians should have a strong connection to their local area. These two points are in themselves a great contradiction. MPs of the olden days seem to have been mythologised beyond recognition. This can only explain why it is ignored that Winston Churchill’s desire for a Parliamentary seat took him to Oldham, Dundee and Essex. It’s hard to think of a modern day politician who would have the gall to do such a tour around the country, well apart from George Galloway, but he can be filed in exceptional circumstances. Similarly many commentators allege that we need to stop political dynasties cropping up like the Kennedys or Clintons and have more people from working backgrounds. Yet one of the most dedicated Members of Parliament to people from working class background was Tony Benn, or to give his old title Viscount Stansgate Anthony Wedgwood Benn, a privately and Oxbridge-educated toff who was his family’s third generation MP. It’s become a tired cliché to say that MPs are lazy.
I’m sure that I’m not the only politics student to received rolled eyes and bland comments when telling people what I study. However, politicians today are seemingly asked to do two separate jobs, and the vast majority do them diligently. They have to be a caseworker, responding to e-mails about allotments, council tax and potholes. As well as that many have to sit on select committees, in cabinet or another governmental role helping to craft public policy. When you think about the comparison I wouldn’t blame MPs for saying “sod the allotments, I want to change the country” but none of them do. Instead they work their arses off doing two jobs for which they get next to no appreciation for.
When you consider the hypocrisies and boring clichés which are common place when criticising MPs it’s no surprise that if looking into political disengagement you can often be confronted with more questions than answers. With turnout at elections in the last ten years being historically low, there does appear to be a disconnection between voters and politicians. However, it’s not something that is going to be easy to solve. Opinion pieces in national newspapers – or student ones for that matter – which seem to identify and solve the problem in less than 1,000 words aren’t the answer, and in fact by being based on little evidence and facts they can sometimes contribute to the problem. Analysis often contains political ideology with some right-wingers saying it’s not a bad thing as it means that people aren’t totally reliant on the state, while people on the left may say it shows the way minorities and ordinary working people are being ignored. Both could well be true, but it is detrimental to the process of solving political disengagement.
Instead, we need to think realistically about what we want from our MPs and then really look at if they are delivering for us. Who knows; you might be surprised. If people did that then maybe we could make some headway in solving what is a profound and a much more complex political problem than some people seem to understand.