Here’s what we should do about political disengagement

If the parties want people to feel closer to politics, they should speak to their concerns – and bring them closer to the process

Share

To get back the trust of voters following their disastrous performance at the local and the European polls, here are some things professional politicians might consider.

Spend more time thinking about what politics is for and then explain this to us. Or does the political class believe, as one experienced commentator wrote the other day of the possibility of the Tories and Ukip working together at the 2015 election, that “principles are one thing: but the point of being in politics is to have power”? Yes, of course, but the power to do what?

For politics must start with values. The first issue a voter wants to understand is whether a given group of politicians shares his or her values and whether they care about people “like me”. Here is Ed Miliband’s statement taken from the Labour Party website. “I believe that we have a duty to leave the world a better place than we found it – that we cannot shrug our shoulders at injustice, and that we can overcome terrible odds by working together.”

Unfortunately this has little meaning at the level of the street. Words such as duty and injustice are lofty concepts that do not speak to people’s everyday concerns. Remember the excellent rule that comes from American politics: “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear”. In this case, what would British voters have heard? That Mr. Miliband is a sort of professor type.

Instead, how about this as a guiding star: “Everybody has a right to the necessities of life –in particular: an affordable home, good schools for their children, reliable health services and proper care for the elderly.”

It is, at least, a bit more concrete.

So start with values but then take care to be always inclusive rather than to exclude people. A good example of exclusion is the phrase, endlessly repeated, used by the Tories and Labour alike, which addresses every policy recommendation to “hard-working people and their families”.

When the Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced his last Budget by stating that it “continues our long-term economic plan to give financial security to Britain’s hard-working families”, he was hardly being original. This formulation has been in use since the mid-1990s in the US and Australia was well as in Britain.

Mr Osborne’s “hard-working families” leaves out the unemployed. It puts to one side those who cannot work because they are disabled or because they are old. It disregards the young. It also ignores single people and single-parent households. If I were one of these categories listening to Mr Osborne’s Budget, I would say to myself, well, what follows is not going to be for me. Indeed, I would guess its constant use by leading politicians alone explains some part of the disillusionment with the major parties felt by many people.

So let’s come to the big test for politicians: how to handle the immigration debate. As this week’s British Social Attitudes survey made clear, many people would like there to be a reduction in the number of people entering the country.

Yet the Coalition Government, despite having every political reason to do so, has failed to meet this demand. It is a genuinely difficult problem.

This is where a third rule that professional politicians could consider comes into play – as well as speaking about your values and being inclusive, be as consultative as possible. For instance, instead of the control of immigration being a matter that the government of the day determines, it would be worth thinking about whether it would be better for Parliament to make the decision on the basis of a free vote taken annually. It is, after all, not really a matter that divides the political parties. The benefit would be that your local MP would, with his colleagues, be in the driving seat, rather than the party whips or the Government itself. As a result, people might feel closer to the decision.

One way of doing this would be for the Government to start off this annual exercise by placing a report before Parliament that describes recent immigration trends and how the existing policy is working. The appropriate select committee would examine this document, taking evidence in public from a wide range of interested parties. It would either confirm the status quo or propose changes. This conclusion would then become a motion for debate in the House of Commons that could be amended if necessary to secure approval by means of a free vote

I can’t help feeling that this procedure would make people more accepting of the realities of immigration than the present system, which has the appearance of arbitrary decision.

The Pope leads by example – our leaders should follow it

 Perhaps the simplest piece of advice to give Britain’s distrusted politicians would be to study the Pope. For he constantly does the unexpected, in ways that make you think that he is absolutely his own man. So he travelled to the Middle East earlier this week with a rabbi and an imam - friends from his native Argentina.

Then when he visited Bethlehem, the Pope invited another Jew and another Muslim to come to the Vatican to pray for peace. Only this time they were the Israeli and the Palestinian presidents, Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas, who immediately accepted the invitation.

So what difference would three old men praying together in Rome make to the war between the Jews and the Palestinians that has raged for the past 65 years? It would not be a hypocritical exercise. I guess Mr. Peres and Mr. Abbas also believe in the efficacy of prayer. It could lead to a restart of talks between the two sides.

Pope Francis stopped to pray at the concrete barrier Israel is building in and around the West Bank. This was also unexpected. In other words it was a spontaneous response to what he had seen. It came after he had called for an end to the “increasingly unacceptable” Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Then in Jerusalem, continuing to hold his hands out to Muslims and Jews, he visited the al-Aqsa mosque compound, where he Pope urged people of all religions to “work together for justice and peace”. He then prayed at the Western Wall, which lies just beneath it, bowing his head as he touched the stones.

Finally he found the right words to speak about the Holocaust when he travelled to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, where he kissed the hands of several survivors in a sign of honour. At a solemn ceremony at the Hall of Remembrance, he spoke of the “boundless tragedy of the Holocaust”, describing it as an “unfathomable abyss”.

Finally, on his flights to Jordan and back to Rome, the Pope walked along the aisle to where the press pack was ensconced, greeting almost every journalist individually.

It is said that true leadership comprises humility, integrity and generosity. On that short journey the Pope demonstrated each of these qualities.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
India's philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist Vandana Shiva arrives to give a press conference focused on genetically modified seeds on October 10, 2012  

Meet Vandana Shiva: The deserving heir to Mahatma Ghandi's legacy

Peter Popham
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home