Leading Article: How cynicism about politics threatens to weaken democracy

"WE CAN'T be like the last lot," the Prime Minister and Peter Mandelson agreed, as they reluctantly went their separate ways on the eve of Christmas Eve. Easier said than done, Mr Blair.

Of course, the fact that the Foreign Secretary has provoked his wife into making unkind personal observations about him has no bearing on his ability to serve the public. As a public servant, Robin Cook deserves to be criticised for many things, including selling arms to repressive regimes and talking tough while acting weak in defence of the people of Kosovo. But, whatever one thinks of the unfortunate conduct of his private life, nothing in Mrs Cook's book should count against him in public office.

However, there is much else on the charge sheet against ministers to encourage public perceptions of them as precisely "like the last lot". Just as with Mr Blair, no one questioned John Major's personal integrity, but he was always two steps behind public opinion in laying down the ethical rules for the conduct of ministers and MPs.

The sex scandals involving David Mellor, Tim Yeo and Piers Merchant may have reinforced a general impression that politicians were "out for what they could get", but most voters understood the distinction between sex and money, which are too often wrapped up by journalists into the single word "sleaze". What really hurt the Conservatives was taking cash for asking parliamentary questions, being secretive about the sources of their party funding and trying to block Lord Nolan's rules for open disclosure.

Now the well polished ministerial shoe is on the other foot. Mr Blair has to explain why Jack Cunningham as Agriculture Minister found it necessary to fly all over Europe by private jet when cheaper scheduled flights were available. It is up to New Labour to explain why so much of its informal core was in hock to Geoffrey Robinson. Above all, it is up to the Prime Minister to explain why, having promised that politics would be different, so much has turned out to be the same.

"Strong leadership", the theme of the Prime Minister's article in The Independent and his speech in Cape Town last week, is the wrong message, and the photo-opportunity in the cockpit of a Tornado the wrong image. There is an awful familiarity about the policy announcements, the "put it behind us" and the "business as usual". What was striking and hopeful about Mr Blair's election victory was his declaration that "the people are the masters now", and that Labour ministers and MPs asked "only to serve" - the epitaph of his predecessor, John Smith.

The Labour MP Austin Mitchell recounts how he was asked how much he paid for his house when he ventured out in his Grimsby constituency. Labour's private polling shows it is increasingly seen as "arrogant and out of touch", according to an internal memo revealed by The Independent last week.

"Politicians, they are all the same," is one of the most corrosive assumptions of the popular mind. For democracy to function, it is essential that political leaders offer the realistic prospect of change. Fortunately for Mr Blair, the Conservatives offer no viable or even visible alternative, which could be an opportunity for Paddy Ashdown. But it is negative and foolish to rely on the weakness of the opposition.

Bill Clinton - another politician who promised a new beginning - said he was getting on with the "people's business" so often that the American electorate is probably beyond cynicism. But getting on with the people's business, serving the people and striving to be - and to be seen to be - purer than pure in their ethical standards is the only hope Mr Blair and his ministers have of genuinely delivering the new politics they promised.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?