Sometimes a casual conversation gives unexpected cause for reflection. The other day I was chairing a radio discussion with a recently elected MP and a former Conservative cabinet minister. While we were waiting to record I asked the MP how she was finding her new job, a polite banality before the taped discussion. She replied that the hardest part was coping with the disdain of the public, in contrast to her previous job working as a senior official in local government.
The former cabinet minister now in the Lords nodded sympathetically. I asked him when he thought that disdain had become more fully realised, the point when even a passing respect had ceased to be part of the complicated range of emotions in relation to MPs. He suggested the late 1980s, without quite being able to specify why. The MP cited the televising of Parliament as a great demystifying moment, made worse by the ritualistic, gladiatorial cheering and jeering that punctuates exchanges in the Commons. He agreed that was a significant contributory factor. The conversation started to look more widely at other reasons for what is a collapse in the relationship between electors and elected.
What is striking was that all three of us accepted without a moment's hesitation that what the MP had said was not remotely strange or unusual. And yet her observation should be shocking: A price for being elected is the contempt of those who vote, or at least have the right to vote; disdain dancing uneasily with our complacent assumption that we are a supposedly sophisticated democracy, a model for those in the Middle East and elsewhere seeking to overthrow non-elected regimes.
The MP is not alone. I arranged to meet a cabinet minster recently inside Parliament. He said to me as we were walking along one of its ornate corridors "I know I shouldn't, but I still get a buzz to think I am elected to this place." I asked why he should not get such a buzz. "Because out there they think we are self-serving shits."
The more recent reasons for such a perception are obvious. The MPs' expenses scandal was a catastrophe, fuelling all the clichéd and largely misguided assumptions about politicians. The fact that the scandal was addressed quickly and replaced with a regime as harsh as any in the Western world has gone unnoticed, not fitting with the now rigidly formed assumptions. The war in Iraq became very quickly an issue of trust and integrity. The tripling of student fees is explosive for the same reasons. I went to speak at a university recently and suggested in advance to the organiser that there was probably not much interest in politics. "Not much interest? They are obsessed with Clegg. He has politicised a whole generation of students". They heard the pre-election commitment and viewed what followed. As I write I have just bumped into an old friend – and in age terms emphatically no longer a student – who was an active Lib Dem. He tells me he has left the party in dismay.
Throw into the mix the fashion for a fairly aggressive media culture and it is not surprising we are where we are. It is a dangerous place to be. Think about the weird sequence. We vote, or some of us do, and then those who are elected are loathed. What would we prefer? Perhaps Prince William should not only get married but rule over us too.
Here comes the difficult bit: part of the fault for this fragile situation lies with those voters who feel indiscriminate loathing. Note the qualification. Of course there should be angry opposition at any time. I agree with the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, who is surprised there is not more anger at the banks and the subsequent austerity. But wider indiscriminate disdain arises from the easiest, lazy route towards anger.
Part of the fascination with politics is its human complexities. Leaders are partly trapped by events, circumstance and their own frailties. I did not support the war in Iraq and oppose the 300 per cent increase in tuition fees brought about by a cut to funding for universities that is recklessly steep and will cost the Coalition as every institution charges the maximum £9,000 fee, one example of many in which a headline-grabbing cut will lead to more expense. But too quickly the focus is entirely on the integrity of those involved rather than looking at the fraught calculations and context that led to the outcomes.
To take the example of Clegg, he was never going to convince his party before the election that they should revise further their policy on student fees; he then went far too far during the election campaign in endorsing the policy, then became trapped when he and his party supported the move to wipe out the deficit in a single parliament, and finally worked ferociously hard to make the new loan system as fair as possible. I do not defend this sequence, but it suggests that Clegg is not simply a lying bastard of the students' perception. In a way the folly is more interesting than that.
Specific examples come and go, but there is a more fundamental reason that explains what is going on. In his column on Tuesday, Dominic Lawson got very close to it by analysing why the term "ideological" had become one of abuse. He pointed out that Labour accused the Coalition of being ideological as if this was a terrible flaw. He is on to something big here. It should be seen as virtuous, not a weakness, that a coalition is governed by ideas and values. The ideology that frames some of the policies should be challenged, but not the principle that a change is based on ideology.
The Coalition's leaders would call their joint philosophy radical liberalism. Some would describe it as reheated Thatcherism. My old friend who has left the Lib Dems, a health specialist, tells me that their NHS reforms are far more extreme and muddled than any attempted by Thatcher. But at least they are based on an idea about markets and the state.
Lawson argued that Labour had given up on the battle of ideas. The reality is more complex. After losing four elections, Blair/Brown turned the debate partly into one about competence. Ed Miliband has criticised them for projecting New Labour as a managerial creed, but shares their fear that with a largely hostile media it is difficult for the centre-left to present policies based on ideology. He points out that he was slaughtered for describing himself as a socialist, whereas David Cameron was hailed as a genius when he said he was the son of Thatcher rather than the son of Brown.
But to base an appeal on claiming to be better managers or more competent is even riskier. It feeds the perception that they are "all the same", suggesting that they are not in politics because of their beliefs but for personal gain.
In the period before the late 1980s, identified by the former cabinet minister as less cynical, there had been a long, loud, clash of ideas. There was less space for cynicism. Let us have another noisy din around values and ideas rather than a false debate about which side is more competent. Into such a vacuum comes an intense non-partisan loathing that makes a new MP feel more valued as an unelected officer in local government.
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