Russell Brand does have a point. Though at times he seems to confuse a thesaurus with political eloquence (‘autodidact’ looms large in every Brand sermon), he has nevertheless highlighted the real disconnect between most ordinary people and our politicians. With a couple of notable exceptions, political party membership is lower than it has been for a century. And when people do get the opportunity to have their say – casting their vote at an election – increasingly they show their disengagement by abstaining. Our forefathers fought and died for the right to vote that today is so readily surrendered. But it is the politicians who are to blame.
There are many causes of this malaise. Our first-past-the-post system means most elections are decided in a handful of seats by a few voters; those of us unlucky enough to live elsewhere have the distinct impression we don’t matter and that the politicians have stopped listening. The main parties are all trying to occupy the same ‘middle ground’, to such an extent they have become entirely indistinct from one another. There’s actually a broad spectrum of opinion in this country – but when I hear the leaders of the main parties speak I am reminded of Marx (Groucho that is) who said ‘These are my principles. And if you don’t like them I have others.’ Additionally we must look for causes in the types of people we elect to Parliament. Just a generation ago, the Commons was filled with teachers, miners, dockers, health professionals – those who had in fact done a ‘proper’ job – not career politicians with little experience of real life beyond an apprenticeship in media or on a City trading floor so alien to most of us.
While Brand has highlighted the problem, he is somewhat hazier on the solutions. One positive to take from people’s disengagement from formal political dialogue is that they have found other ways of ‘making a difference’ in their communities – by working directly or indirectly with local groups on issues that affect their daily lives. Some of these will be overtly political – campaigning on specific issues. Many however will not be – but still they make a difference.
Politicians need to start listening, and social media should increasingly play its part. People are beginning to rely on social media for their news and everyday discourse; and they rightly expect to be engaged by politicians via this medium. More importantly, though, social media is an open parliament, where its users, not politicians, set the agenda.
And politicians, media-trained to reveal nothing of their personalities or beliefs, need to start having a dialogue directly with the people they serve. For this reason I fully applaud the efforts of the Lansdowne Church, supported by the town council and others, to launch a series of debates on topical issues. Last Saturday it was food banks, a debate that was lively, informative and revealing of the grotesque inequalities of 21st century Britain, with local people showing they were better informed than our representatives in Westminster.