No wonder politics is nothing to rave about

In the House of Commons the fray itself is not a pretty sight. It is not just the overwhelming maleness of the place that does you in, it is its fundamental staleness ... in fact not a lot happens
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The Independent Online
I have a dream. The date of the election is announced, posters are unveiled, speeches are made, split ends are gelled down, splits over Europe are smoothed over, the tired old process is cranked up once again, the press gets excited - but come the day, no one else does. No one turns up to vote at all. The polling booths are empty. No one wins the election. No one loses it. Except those seeking public office. As you can tell, I'm with Swampy, or Mr Swampy, as Jeremy Paxman insisted on calling him on Newsnight. Swampy thinks we shouldn't vote because it only encourages the politicians, and who in their right minds would want to do that?

This is an infantile position. "Yeah, register to vote and naff up your voting papers en masse", a cri de coeur of a disaffected generation for whom adolescence has been prolonged by the material affects of Tory policies, whose politics have been formed precisely in opposition to what is on offer.

Direct action comes out of a legitimate frustration with the inertia of traditional political processes. Young people, we are told, have never been much interested in politics. As they get older they become more enamoured. They grow up. Or, you could say, they give up. If maturity means a sudden interest in a declining institution that still operates as it did in the 19th century, then there is a strong case for euthanasia for anyone over 25.

It is not just the young who have lost faith. A recent poll found that black people were four times less likely to vote than whites. Three in 10 blacks are not registered to vote. Seven out of 10 women believe that the political parties do not pay enough attention to issues that are important to women. The same survey also showed deep dissatisfaction amongst the core of female voters aged between 25 and 54.

None of this is particularly surprising. What is shocking is that all the main political parties continue to ignore it. If women, if black people, if the 18-30 generation do not feel inspired or represented in the political process, who is it for, exactly? Parliamentarians may suggest that this is a question of education, and that if only people understood what goes on in our great democracy they would be more impressed. This is not the case. We are not stupid. As consumers we are used to more and more choice; as voters we are offered less and less.

Indeed, when you watch the faces of people who have queued for more than an hour to get into the House of Commons to see their representatives perform, you can see the disappointment. For the first five minutes it is enough for them to see in the flesh those they are used to seeing on TV. "Ooh, isn't he tall?" they say of Tony Blair. Soon, however, when the chamber empties out and a mere eight members of the Labour party are listlessly debating the NHS with three bored Tories, you can see them thinking, "Is that all there is?"

The lack of trust in all professional politicians articulated by Swampy and his gang of swamp fighters is symptomatic of our lack of trust in all kinds of big institutions. The quickest way these days to garner political credibility is to appear to come from outside the dirty world of politics - like the moral campaigners, the animal rights activists, the single issue groups. Coming from below, they soon position themselves above the fray.

The fray itself is not a pretty sight. It is not just the overwhelming maleness of the Commons that does you in, it is its fundamental staleness. You can smell it. The trouble is, once you have been there a few times the mustiness gets into your clothes and you don't even notice it any more. Just as you don't notice that grown men walk around with swords, that there are thousands of rules that pertain to nothing but "traditions" that no one is able properly to explain to you, and that in fact not a lot happens.

"Oh well, it's great theatre," its apologists will claim. But most of the time it's not even that. If this is theatre, it's fringe theatre of the worst kind, which has survived only because of various subsidies. Every single person you meet there acknowledges the poor state of the place. No one thinks this is the right way to run a railroad, but it doesn't stop them getting on the train day after day.

Perhaps it will change if there are more women, they say. Perhaps better pay would attract a better class of MP. Perhaps it would be better if the constitutional edges were tweaked slightly. Perhaps it's the fault of the building itself, whose history weighs too heavily. And perhaps it's the responsibility of the electorate, who just aren't interested enough.

Yet this system could not operate without a notion of public passivity. This institution survives because the great majority of us ignore it. Politicians follow an agenda that rarely matches the real issues of the day or corresponds to the subjects that many of us express an interest in. On issues as varied as child care, the legalisation of certain drugs, help for the homeless and all sorts of environmental concerns, it is widely acknowledged that politicians have not got a lot to offer.

When one of the poor creatures dies, and one constituency or another is left unrepresented in the months before a by-election, life, as they say, goes on. Some analysts claim that globalisation makes politics as it is currently practised less important, but the other way to look at it is that it underlines the truism that all politics is, in fact, local politics.

If people feel that huge economic but faceless forces are controlling their lives, the result for some is moral drift. For others it is also the moral indignation that governs many of the protests we have seen lately. Swampy's take on all this is that if we ignore the politicians they may go away, because they will feel less powerful. This is naive: we already ignore them, and they have not gone away.

Voting, whichever way you do it, is an affirmation of faith in this congenitally deformed version of democracy. The numbers of people who won't vote this time around are read as a sign of electoral apathy rather than political failure.

Many of the disillusioned will in the end find themselves agreeing with Richard Neville's statement: "The difference between voting Tory and voting Labour may only be half an inch but it's the half an inch in which we live", and hope that their X marks the right spot. Others, who don't register, or mess up their ballot papers, will be yet again written off. But not voting is a mute protest against the system itself. If voting is a rare chance to have your say, then not voting is one of the only ways of saying what you really think.