Engaging people in politics

Posted on December 5, 2011 at 11:23 am,

Last week, I came across a forum discussion on things that are important, but which we simply aren’t interested in. A poster by the name of SilverNemesis mentioned politics, and I asked him what politicians could do to help get people interested. Here’s the response:

Stop talking ¤¤¤¤. Stop taking the piss with privilege. Stop taking politics as merely a game about being elected over your rivals. Stop believing PR is the most important part of being a politician. Stop destabilizing debate with mindless cross party bitching. Stop ignoring facts and experts when drawing up policy. Stop reactionary policy. Start taking the younger generation seriously. Grow some balls and stand up for progress not the status quo

Now, the chances are that most, or all, of these opinions are widespread amongst the 35% of people who didn’t vote in the last general election. So let’s talk about ways that politicians can address some of them.

Learning to act like responsible adults

The expenses scandal isn’t the first time politicians could have been accused of “taking the piss with privilege”. There have always been some politicians who milked the system for personal advantage, and I doubt it’s possible to stop it completely. But what we can do is put safeguards in place. Building in accountability to expenses systems, cutting down on privileges that have traditionally come with some political offices, making sure that politicians are not privileged above the people whose lives we affect, for example. Taking a current issue – if Parliament is demanding that civil servants pay more into their pensions, get less out, and get it later why are they not doing the exact same thing to MPs pensions?

Finally, as politicians, we need to take personal responsibility when it comes to public office. Elected politicians should, if possible, make sure they have some kind of accountability structure in place when it comes to salaries and expenses. Don’t wait until it becomes a news story or election issue to have somebody check up on these things. And get it in place even if you’re just a local councillor with limited opportunities to go wrong.

When it comes to mindless cross party bitching, I agree with that sentiment. Whenever I watch Prime Minister’s Questions, the impression I always come away with is that it is utterly childish. Now, I understand that those of us involved in the day to day of politics will have gripes about the other parties, but we need to keep them in perspective. Yes, some parties may play dirty. Others may have sold out their principles. Others may be hopelessly naïve, or utterly clueless. But let’s remember that, for the most part, they are trying to make the world a better place. Keep the bitching to internal meetings, and only when it’s appropriate (e.g. working out clean ways to counter dirty tactics on the campaign trail).

Unless a particular politician has clearly proven themselves corrupt or incompetent, let’s focus on the reasons our principles and policies are better than theirs, rather than attacking the people. This is particularly important for bloggers, and those who post on twitter. Because the nature of the medium, it’s too easy to get caught up in day-to-day politicking, and make instant judgements, which clear-thinking hindsight should regret. By all means, lambast parties like the BNP, who have no redeeming features – but do so by highlighting their fascist policies, and the way that their councillors and MEPs have proven themselves unfit to hold public office.

In terms of not demonising the other side, one thing that I find particularly helpful is having good friends of very different political persuasions, with whom I occasionally talk politics. For example, a couple of months ago I spent a good hour talking politics with a good friend who is a natural Tory voter. Value getting to understand where the other side is coming from. Be prepared to listen to them. Work out if there are ways to incorporate their concerns into your policies,

Focus on the substance

Whilst public relations are clearly an important part of politics, let’s not be bound too tightly by them. Yesterday, I had a conversation with a friend about this very issue, and he said that the Prime Ministerial debates in 2010 got him more interested in politics because the leaders of the big three parties had to talk policy. – something that is missed in the vast majority of day-to-day media coverage of politics. Let’s aim to appeal to people like that by being more about substance than spin. Yes, it’s harder to sell in these days of soundbite-dominated news. Yes, it doesn’t always fit with the media narrative. Yes, it may sometimes lose you seats or even elections. But if enough politicians focus on the substance, then the media would have no choice but to cover it.

If you want to see a textbook example of us getting it wrong, look at the referendum on AV. Instead of being a debate about the relative merits of the voting system, both sides ignored the substance. The Yes campaign went for guff about it “making MPs work harder”, rather than pointing to the advantages – like tactical voting being made effectively irrelevant. The No campaign went for scare stories about it being too complicated for our tiny little brains, and how it would keep Nick Clegg in power for ever. They also made up a massive figure for how much it would cost, rather than defending First Past the Post. Let’s not stoop to those levels of inanity or dishonesty in our politics.

Finally, it’s bad for politics if politicians to always be chasing after the same bit of centre ground. If there are only small and minor differences between the parties, then it’s far easier for the media to focus on the Westminster gossip angle of politics, or to reduce it to a popularity contest between party leaders. Yes, our current electoral system doesn’t help, but lets not blame First Past the Post for the way the big parties have gradually reduced their ideological differences over the last few decades. Let’s ensure that voters are given as real a choice as possible at election time.

Oh, and let’s make sure that politicians are free to voice dissent. If a party has a substantial body of policy, then it’s inevitable that party members (including those holding elected office) will disagree with some of it. As long as they make it clear that’s what they’re doing, let’s not complain about it, or let the media get away with attacking their party. The Green Party’s policy of not having a party whip is a step in the right direction, let’s find more ways to make political debate within parties open and transparent.

Make good policy

Too often policy is made purely on the grounds of how it plays in the media, rather than on the grounds of the actual evidence. I recently came across a guardian article about a book that showed instances of the media playing exactly such a role. Lets not let our drugs or immigration policy be dictated by headlines in the Daily Mail. But, on the other hand, let’s not crack down on the bankers just because the Mirror or the Guardian say so. Now, I’m fairly confident that my party’s policy-making process takes into account the views of experts, and our policy is usually easy to change when there are new facts that come to light (or old mistakes that are highlighted). But there are undoubtedly some areas where we fall short. Let’s keep an eye out for bad policies, and make sure that we do genuinely consult the experts before making policy.

Engaging the young

Now, it’s quite easy to see why policy is often biased towards older people – there are more of them, and they’re more likely to vote. But if we want to draw people in to the political process, then we absolutely have to show young people why it is important, and how it directly affects their lives. The wrong way to do this is to try to be cool. Don’t, for example, rave about the latest band unless you genuinely like them, and it is relevant to whatever you’re talking about. Young people can spot insincerity miles away and you’ll just look stupid. Instead, we need to address their issues, and then stick to what we said.

I’ll take two examples of this. Back in 1997, I was a student and – like most of the country at the time – was very happy to see the back of the Tories. However, within a couple of months, New Labour went from their election slogan of “Education, Education, Education” to abolishing student grants and simultaneously introducing tuition fees. I felt betrayed, particularly as the expert report that came out shortly after the election recommended only doing one or the other and not both. Whilst Labour hadn’t directly talked about an issue that would affect the students in the year below me, they clearly showed that they weren’t interested in my demographic.

Fast-forward to 2010, and the Liberal Democrats had learned part of that lesson. They did talk about tuition fees, and every Lib Dem who was elected signed a personal pledge to vote against a rise in tuition fees. They subsequently voted for the rise, and students – who were rightly angry – took to the streets in their thousands.

If we are to get young people interested in politics again, then we need to avoid mistakes like these. We need to be talking about their issues, and sticking to our guns. I don’t want to be responsible for somebody’s first experience of politics to be a feeling of betrayal. I want their first experience to be of politicians working hard on their behalf to make the world a better place. I want their first experience to be of people who work to make society better for the worst off – whose hearts are in the right place, and who have the skills to make a real difference (or at least to push as hard as possible for that difference).

In short, those of us involved in politics should make every effort to be the kind of politicians who are deserving of the trust people place in us at the ballot box. We should live up to the best hopes of the general public, even though those hopes have so often been crushed in the past. No, we’re not going to be perfect, we’re not going to get everything right. But let’s at least give it our best shot.

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