This article first appeared on Liberal Democrat Voice.
There's been a spate of articles and comments by Liberal Democrat politicians which, at a guess, isn't co-ordinated, but they all address the same themes - the problems with the way that we do politics and lack of trust in politicians and institutions.
Paddy Ashdown told the Times (£), reported also for free in the Guardian that public faith in British institutions was "crumbling into dust" with some very harsh words for the BBC and NHS:
The BBC is revealed as an organisation which can’t manage its own affairs, misspends public money and seems to have been complicit in aggrandising someone [Jimmy Savile] whose proclivities would be rejected by most people.The NHS, we are told, is to be failing right down to the level of doctors. Nurses were angels but some turn out to be witches.
I am normally a big Paddy fan, but I feel very uncomfortable with his words about nurses. Some to me is a word that signifies more than the very few, a tiny minority who turn out bad, and the use of "witch" with its history of medieval misogyny, troubles me, even when this is more of a description of how these institutions are painted rather than expression of a personal view. His remarks also don't take into account the pressures many health professionals are working under, as this article in yesterday's Independent by a midwife who is leaving the NHS shows. That aside, he goes on to warn of the consequences of such distrust in the organisations we rely on:
This decline was deterring some people from voting and pushing others into the arms of “demagogues” such as Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, and Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front in France, whom he brackets together. “I’m reminded of the terrible line in Larkin, ‘England, with a cast of crooks and tarts’. Now I’m not saying that’s true. [However] I think all of these add up to a mood of Jacobinism which I think is quite frightening . . .If this is the age of the collapse of beliefs, the dissolution of institutions, then what you’re going to find is people who find an appeal in answers that are simplistic.
Earlier in the week, Sarah Teather, in an intensely personal interview with the Guardian, talked about how politicians invented problems to make themselves sound relevant.
We get ourselves into our own little spiral. We end up inventing problems to pretend we're relevant, and then try to fix the problems we've just invented. The EU migration stuff is a classic example.The public know it's guff, so their trust in politicians goes down. And then our anxiety about not being relevant goes up, so we kind of get into a cycle of democratic self-harm, so we get progressively more frenzied about chasing wilder and wilder straw men and the public get more and more cynical. I'm not convinced that's the best way of demonstrating we're in touch.
I might be a little more cynical than Sarah, because it appears to me that some of these problems are invented by people with a particular agenda, or vested interest to protect. This doesn't apply to Paddy, but some people who criticise, say, the NHS or the BBC have an agenda that involves undermining them. They clearly aren't perfect, but no less so than many bodies which aren't in the public sector. Banks, anybody? And then when it comes to immigration, the frenzy we've seen over Romanians and Bulgarians, the spectacle of MPs staking out airport arrivals lounges to greet the flights from these countries. Scapegoating groups of people is never a good idea. Solving the problems, like lack of housing that people on low incomes can afford, is a much better, if harder way of dealing with frustrations.
Finally, writing in the Mirror, Tessa Munt starts a debate on what we expect from our politicians. She asks if there should be a job description and how we could measure MPs' activity. She also recounts the sort of effort she puts in:
Shortly before 3am on New Year’s Day my mobile on the bedside table rang. I found myself in conversation with a somewhat incredulous (“is that really Tessa?”) good-natured but definitely tipsy young man who – even though the background noise suggested he was celebrating the arrival of 2014 with his friends - wanted to discuss why I hadn’t voted in a particular debate.
She doesn't dismiss the idea of MPs doing other work, although she wonders how they have the time, but she just thinks they should be open about it when they stand for election:
I don’t mean the doctors, drivers and others who need a minimum number of working hours to keep their skills updated so they stay registered – general elections can deliver a brutal end to any MP’s term, so keeping qualified is fair. He or she may need to return to his or her old job!It should be absolutely clear when candidates stand for election exactly what the deal is.
My worry about job descriptions and standards that MPs have to meet are that such statistics, in any field of work, can often be sterile and misleading. I don't care about correspondence response target times or the number of rings before a phone is answered if, when I do get a response, it's one that takes my concerns seriously and shows a genuine willingness to do something about it. You can't necessarily measure that.
I could write all year how politics could be done better, but I'll confine myself for the moment to just two points which are undoubtedly stating the bleedin' obvious.
Stop the blame game
When something goes wrong, as it inevitably will in the running of anything, there's an unseemly rush to point the finger. How much better would it be if people concentrated on the solution to the problem rather than seeing it as an opportunity for a bit of indulgent schadenfreude. No government is immune from administrative screw ups. There should be a little more humility, a bit of "that could have happened to us, too" and offering of helpful suggestions to fix things. There will be times when people do need to be sacked or disciplined, but let's be professional in the way that's done and get rid of the trial by media.
A bit of empathy
The brattish bunfight of Prime Minister's Questions is all most people see of MPs and then only in passing. Hardly an appealing shop window, is it? And the cynical, angry, spectacle is repeated in a million places on the internet every day. Mark Valladares wrote last week about the need for a more human, engaging politics and he's absolutely right. If politicians can't be a bit more respectful and open in their tone both with each other and with the voters, the disconnect will grow. I was mortified a few weeks ago when two women very dear to me and not involved in politics at all were called all sorts of names in a deeply condescending manner by several young Liberal Democrat men on my Facebook page. I went to bed shortly after posting something and woke up to social media carnage. I threw a bit of a strop on seeing what had been said to my dear friends and at least those concerned had the decency to apologise but it should never have happened. It did not advance a very good example of what liberalism is all about, respect for the individual. And you are never going to be able to persuade people round to your point of view if you don't understand in your own head and heart where they are and why they think like they do. Political conversation needs to have much more heart and soul and appeal to constructive and positive emotions.
When I say we, by the way, I mean everyone who has any sort of involvement in politics, inside and outside political parties. We need to give space to others to contribute, not try to hog an ever narrower pitch to ourselves.
So those are my two pretty simple ideas. What would you do to make politics healthier, better and more engaging?