The Problem with Politics – perhaps we should look within?

By - Thursday 25th July, 2013

In his first article for the Citizen, James Thompson questions whether as a population we should be more constructive than critical to our MPs

Should we offer solutions, not criticisms? Photo by Davide Simonetti. Image used under Creative Commons License.

No one goes into politics hoping to make friends or become a celebrity. Usually it’s a case of quite the opposite – expect your life to come under enormous scrutiny, work exceptionally long hours with little family time, and get little credit for what good things you do achieve.

This was evident during former Croydon Central MP Andrew Pelling’s absence from parliament in 2008, where Croydon South MP Richard Ottaway and former Labour Croydon North MP Malcolm Wicks both stepped in to ensure all constituency requirements were met, working very long hours in the process, with little personal reward coming from it. With that said, the amount of work that MPs do can vary hugely. Sinn Fein MPs controversially refuse to turn up to parliament, despite claiming expenses for both themselves and their staff.

Indeed, it is the issue of expenses that has caused much of the recent antipathy towards our politicians. The expenses scandal was not the first matter to damage politicians’ reputations; Cash for Honours and Cash for Influence debacles also caused quite a stir. But its impact does seem to have been the most long lasting, seemingly made worse as the scandal hit in 2009, right in the middle of the financial crisis when the country was in a horrendous downward spiral as banks were bailed out – controversial in itself. The idea of politicians protecting the rich city bankers was not taken lightly by the public, and to be followed up by the revelation of their own money grabbing was the final nail in the coffin for their reputations.

What does all this mean? The Conservatives and Labour have long been established as the two main parties of power across the UK, and indeed within Croydon. Despite Labour’s supposed allegiance to the poor and working class, they have been no less immune to these aforementioned and numerous other scandals than the Conservatives who are often perceived with a far less positive eye when it comes to such topics.

The riots can be attributed to various reasons, but what stood out for me was the lack of feeling represented by politicians and the concept of social exclusion

What of the Liberal Democrats? Well, this seemed to be their opportunity, and in the 2010 General Election after Mr Clegg’s rather less Punch and Judy-esque performance during the live televised debates, they made enormous electoral gains. The fact that Mr Clegg became so popular because of his lack of engagement in the traditional opposite party bashing is interesting in itself because it points even further to the concept of the public being ‘turned off’ by the natural political establishment and wanting to seek a different option. Yet what of them now? A coalition government seems to have done little for their fortunes, and whilst it could be argued they lost a lot of their vote due to their stance on university fees and other matters, their image as a party firmly ingrained in the establishment seems to be rather more revealing to me, as they could no longer garner the protest vote as they once had.

The consequences of all this should not be taken lightly. There is much talk in the media of a new political age and that politics needs to evolve from its stuffy establishment with closed doors rules to be more in touch with the social media driven modern era. The Speaker may no longer wear a wig but much of the pomp and bluster is still in abundance. In Italy, Beppe Grillo’s Five Party Movement, which positions itself as anti-establishment and believes in the idea of a ‘direct democracy’ with online referendums on all key issues, won 25.5% of the public vote in their 2013 General Election, a startling achievement.

The riots of 2011 hit cities across Britain, including Croydon, with the tragic images of Reeves Corner on fire emblazoned in many local residents memories. The riots can be attributed to various reasons, but what stood out for me was the lack of feeling represented by politicians and the concept of social exclusion. If your voice isn’t heard often you shout louder to make sure it is, and in these circumstances the shouting turned violent. Voter turnout has declined since John Major’s shock victory in the 1992 General Election. Croydon North saw turnout fall by 15% in the 2001 General Election, with an average fall of 12.5% across all of Croydon’s constituencies, a dramatic fall. It may have recovered slightly recently, but it still points towards the idea that the public no longer feels engaged, and that politicians are not in touch with them.

Many MPs took significant pay cuts to enter politics only to then subject themselves to the critical eye of the public that is rarely forgiving and always quick to judge

Do we have a fair perception of politicians? Are we giving them enough credit? MPs have attempted to engage more with the public – many can be seen posting regularly on Twitter, and the fact that televised debates occurred during the build up to the 2010 General Election was because of attempts to get people thinking more about politics and trying to make it more accessible. Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell can regularly be seen hosting public political discussions. I attended one such event a few weeks ago on the Health Service, and there were views from across the political spectrum in the room. However, it is quite telling that on a recent episode of the BBC TV programme Pointless only 44 people out of 100 knew that the chancellor was a cabinet position.

If people aren’t politically aware of what is going on they are less likely to feel engaged. One of the core problems that politicians face is that if they are doing a good job, you won’t hear about it, whereas quite the opposite is said to be true if they are doing a bad job. It is difficult to suggest a sure way that they can address this image problem, but what the public needs to realise is that for all their faults politicians are only human, they have entered into a service of public duty and generally speaking are doing their best to try to improve the lives of their electorate. Some may question this and think more cynically that many MPs are in it for their egos or to take a cushy job. This may be the case in some instances, but it is important to remember that many MPs took significant pay cuts to enter politics only to then subject themselves to the critical eye of the public that is rarely forgiving and always quick to judge. Innocent until proven guilty is a luxury rarely afforded to politicians.

Rather than criticising our MPs so freely it is up to us to engage and try to get our politicians to listen through realistic and pragmatic means. We should offer solutions, not just problems. It is all too easy to put someone down and say they need to do something better, but it is far more rewarding and creates thought if we propose an answer. Perhaps this is idealistic and requires people to know about politics more, but that in itself is wherein I believe the problem lies. Opinions are all too easily formed through sensationalism with little evidence or understanding. It is time we started taking a more realistic approach towards our public servants and helping them in their jobs of working for us.

James Thompson

James Thompson

James has lived in Croydon his whole life. He is a firm believer in open and honest debate and currently serves as Conservative Councillor for Coulsdon East

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  • Anne Giles

    Excellent article!