Christina Patterson: More than ever, politics really matters

No wonder people who don’t call an argument a ‘narrative’ are beginning to think that politics has little to do with them
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The Independent Online

It won't be much comfort to his family, but Christopher Shale was right. I don't know if he was right that members of the Tory Party in his constituency "come across as graceless, voracious, crass and always on the take". I don't know if they are "not always a group of people to whom many of our potential members are going to be magnetically drawn". I'm not sure that I've ever met any Tory Party members, and I've certainly never met any in Witney. But I do know that David Cameron's constituency chairman, who died at Glastonbury over the weekend, was right to say, in an internal memo leaked to a Sunday paper, that 98 per cent of the population is "politics light" and finds "politics heavy" a "big turn-off".

Under David Cameron's leadership, membership of the Conservative party has fallen from about 259,000 to 177,000. Membership of the Labour party is now about 156,000. Membership of the Lib Dems is 60,000. So, actually, Christopher Shale was being optimistic. The proportion of the population in this country that cares enough about politics to join a major political party is less than 1 per cent.

If the Tory Party members who, Shale said, need to "look different" and "sound different", and who all live in "fine country houses", or at least enough of them to be able to offer fundraising events at a different one in his constituency every week, don't seem like a hugely appealing lot, nor do their Labour counterparts. They can't, I suppose, all be like Bob Crowe, Mark Serwotka, and the other trade union bruisers who control big chunks of the Labour Party, and who tend to bring the political sophistication of the kindergarten to their discussions of the deficit, but if there are large numbers of sensible, nuanced Labour party members out there, with good ideas about how to solve a massive economic crisis, they're keeping awfully quiet.

And that, of course, is before we get to the professional, and I mean professional, politicians. Politics in Britain is now dominated by people who clearly spent their months in the womb hatching plans to read PPE at Oxford, become a researcher in the House of Commons, and then a special adviser, which is what you call the kind of adviser who's never done a day's work outside politics, and then an MP and then prime minister. If any of them had any idea what they were going to do when they became prime minister, or deputy prime minister, or, pulling the short, but, they hope, temporary, short straw, leader of the opposition, it isn't all that clear what it was.

These politicians all grew up in nice, middle-class homes. They went to public schools, or, if their parents were left-wing intellectuals, carefully selected comprehensives. They have a house in their constituency they sometimes go to, but their real home is a nice, smart house in a nice, smart part of town. They have nice kitchens. They have nice children. They have nice wives.

These politicians all believe in reform. Some of them want to reform public services. Some of them want to reform the electoral system. Some of them want to reform their party. All of them want to reform the country. All of them believe that they're the only person who can reform the country. They believe this so much that they're prepared to make sacrifices for this reform: sacrifices like friends, colleagues, former bosses and brothers.

They wear dark suits. They like bright colours. They like to talk about Orange books, and Red Tories, and Blue Labour. They like to have clever people advising them, clever people who used to work in advertising, and dress for work in shorts and T-shirts, or media-friendly academics. And what these politicians all have in common, and what the people advising them all have in common, apart from the fact that they're all under 50 and think that being over 50 means that you probably haven't got any brain cells left to speak of, is that they're all male.

No wonder support for political parties amongst women is dropping. No wonder party memberships are dropping. No wonder older people, and younger people, and working people, and non-working people, and women, and men, and people who don't call an argument a "narrative", and people who don't think that all families are "hard-working", and people who think that "progressive" is a word you use about a disease, not to describe a policy you think should get you a big pat on the back, are beginning to think that politics doesn't have much to do with them.

They are, of course, wrong. Politics will decide what kind of cancer treatment they get, and how soon they get it, and what kind of rubbish collections they get, and what kind of school their child will go to, and whether their streets are clean, and whether there are policemen around if they're mugged, and what kind of help they get if they lose their job, or get dementia, and whether their country will go bankrupt, and how big a debt their children, and their children's children, will inherit.

Politics will decide the size of their pension, and how long they have to work before they get it. Politics will decide whether their pension will be much, much bigger than the pensions of most of the people who are paying it, and who will have to work much longer before they get much, much smaller pensions of their own.

Politics, in fact, matters more than ever, because we're living through a period of history where the world is changing very, very fast. It isn't just that the history we're living through has cost us £150m in Libya in the past 100 days, and £20bn in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's because we're living at a time of a global economic crisis, where we're not as lucky as the French or Germans, but we're an awful lot luckier than the Irish and the Greeks.

Like the people dying on the streets of Damascus, and being slaughtered by their leader in Tripoli, and accidentally bombed by us in Tripoli, we are all casualties of history. Unlike those people dying for the right to say what they like, and vote for the government they like, we can shape our response to it. We can strike, as the Greeks did yesterday and as 750,000 of our public-sector workers are planning to do tomorrow, but while a strike might give some people some satisfaction, and an awful lot of other people an awful lot of inconvenience, and make a big economic problem even bigger, it won't provide much of an answer.

The question, unfortunately, isn't what's fair. It isn't fair that much of the Middle East is ruled by murdering dictators, or that much of Africa is ruled by greedy big men always greedy for more. It isn't fair that people are being killed by their leaders, or that Greek workers are paying the price of rich people who refused to pay any tax. It isn't fair that greedy bankers wrecked the economy. But nobody said history, or life, was fair. The question is what you do when history has happened.

How do you continue to pay public sector workers the pensions they were expecting, when everyone's living longer, and the country is in debt? How do you get bankers to pay more tax, when they say they'll move abroad to pay less? How do you get anyone to pay more tax, since most people won't vote for a party that wants anyone to pay more tax? How do you pay for public services when no one wants anyone to pay more tax? How do you build an economy when nearly everything you used to make can be made much more cheaply somewhere else?

These are the questions we all have to ask, and not just ask, but answer. This is politics and it really is far too important to be left to the politicians.