Blame ourselves, not our politicians. By Jacob Williams
Nobody trusts politicians. Why should we, when every day we are presented with yet more evidence to confirm our belief that the overwhelming majority are self-serving, hypocritical, backboneless parasites, vapid pawns of the vested interests that control them and concerned only with gratifying their insatiable lust for power and lining their pockets at public expense? We need only turn on our television, open a newspaper, or log on to the internet to find examples of the obviously endemic corruption and incompetence at the heart of our political culture.
But whilst it is only right that we view with healthy scepticism any politician who seeks to blame his or her poor public image on external factors, it is worth stopping to consider the possibility that the low esteem into which politicians have fallen is not entirely their own fault. Few of us have much direct contact with politicians, but when we do, we are strangely apt to rate them far more favourably than we would otherwise. A recent poll by Yougov found that whereas only 15% of voters agreed that Parliament does a good job of representing the interests and wishes of ordinary people, compared to 62% who disagreed, when asked about their local MPs more voters believed them to be a doing a good job than a bad one.(1) This leaves us in the apparently paradoxical situation in which a plurality of voters believe their MP to be acting in their best interests but politicians in general to be doing the opposite.
Certainly there are many ways in which we might account for this anomaly. Perhaps MPs are simply better at hoodwinking their constituents than the electorate as a whole; perhaps people tend to think that MPs are good at representing their constituents in Parliament but that consequently the interests of the country as a whole are lost in conflict between divergent local interests; perhaps constituencies differ in their political complexion such that people vote for a candidate of whom they approve and with whom they are consequently satisfied but think very little of the choices of others. But none of these possibilities have the ring of authenticity about them; they all require the postulation of various implausible circumstances and cohere badly with our experience of politics. Far from being conned by their MPs, fewer than one in five voters claim to have read anything about them at all recently. Most of us vote on national, not local issues, and the Member for Bristol is well aware that he is a Member of Parliament. And the power of national party organisations and our willingness to vote for whomever our favoured party nominates render subtleties in constituents’ preferences near irrelevant.
How, then, are we to account for this damaging lack of trust in politics? If the problem does not lie in politicians themselves, it must lie in the way their activity is presented to us. Certainly the tabloid press makes little or no effort to report on politics in anything approaching a fair and balanced way, but few of us treat it as anything more than a source of light entertainment anyway. More damaging by far is the way even respectable, highbrow media portray politics as a childish game.
All that most of us are likely to see of Parliament are a few seconds of footage of politicians trading insults to the braying and jeering of the backbenches from the fortnightly charade that is Prime Minister’s Questions. Cameron and Milliband are combatants in a futile and pointless battle of wits; ordinary MPs are infantile bystanders, cheering and booing their respective leaders in turn. No wonder so many of us conclude that politicians are short-sighted sophists whose role consists solely of imitating farmyard animals in the Chamber of the Commons and blindly following the party whips into the division lobbies, all at taxpayers’ expense. And this is merely the tip of the iceberg. Scandalous stories of corruption and incompetence make for juicy gossip and interesting news; quietly getting on with the business of government emphatically does not.
But nothing could be farther from the truth. Prime Ministers’ Questions is in no sense representative of the normal activity of the House of Commons. The majority of debate is dry, technocratic, and largely non-partisan. Parliamentary revolts are at an unprecedented post-war high. But all too few of us make the effort to see beyond the misleading portrayal of politics presented to us by the media, and the consequence is a catastrophic lack of trust in our leaders and our political institutions.
I need not repeat the tired truisms about the value of a free and unshackled media in holding politicians to account; but the benefits of a free press in promoting democracy must be weighed against the costs in its corrosive impact on public confidence, yet this appears to be the one aspect of politicians’ relationship with the media that Leveson is determined to ignore. Nobody would claim that politicians are perfect; but it is high time we realised that a large portion of the blame for the lack of trust we have in our institutions must be borne by the media for misrepresenting them and ourselves for blindly accepting this entirely false portrayal. If we fail to recognise this, no amount of administrative and constitutional reform will make the problem go away.