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

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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.

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