In defence of politics

It is still too early to draw any significant conclusions from the terrible, sickening murder of Jo Cox MP on Thursday of last week.

It is worth noting, however, that when asked to provide his name on being charged with the murder, Thomas Mair gave the response: ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’.

This, alongside various other pieces of evidence that have yet to be fully substantiated, indicate that the murder was politically motivated, albeit potentially alongside a history of mental health problems (as with many violent extremists).

Much has been said over the past few days about the noxious political atmosphere in the UK – which has intensified during a divisive and hyperbolic referendum campaign – and the human consequences of this for our representatives and those supporting them. But no-one believed the consequences could be this dire.

Demos’s chair of trustees Phil Collins, who knew Jo, had a moving and compelling tribute to her in the pages of Friday’s Times in which, in addition to an account of her remarkable character, he described the mood music of cynicism and animosity that surrounds our politics:

‘When do we ever stop to applaud the manifold virtues of our politics? Why are we so receptive to the calumny that politicians are habitual liars?’

So without wanting to place too much emphasis or give too much oxygen to the language of a violent extremist, it is important to address and deconstruct this idea of ‘betrayal’ – the idea that politicians and other officials are self-serving, do not represent the interests of the people or the nation, and are therefore traitors.

The difference between this belief system, and the conventional view, appears to rest on two fundamentally different understandings of democracy.

The conventional view has as its two pillars a respect for the expertise and individual judgement of one’s representative, as well as a sustaining liberalism. The first pillar has been best expressed by Edmund Burke in his speech to the electors of Bristol:

‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’

In this view, your MP is not a delegate, but a representative. This is supported by an acceptance of the ‘rules of the game’ of liberal democracy: the rule of law, freedom of speech, equality and the rights of minorities, and the fundamental point, best expressed by Bernard Crick, that civil disagreement, compromise and a willingness to accept temporary defeat is necessary and expected in a complex polity.

This is countered by what Cas Mudde has described as the populist understanding: that democracy proper is the will of the people, and that this can trump any and all pre-existing constitutional commitments.

This is supplemented by the claim that the ‘political class’ or ‘elite’ are all the same – out of touch, venal, self-serving and conspiratorial – except the populists who take on the mantle of the ‘voice of the people’, uncowed by political correctness. A corollary therefore is that direct democracy – which eliminates representation, expertise and deliberation – is a purer and more legitimate means of decision-making.

Across Europe we have seen the populist view take hold and achieve significant electoral gains, as we discussed with European colleagues last week as part of our ongoing work on ‘the politics of fear’. Confusingly, even when parties have gained power – Hungary, Poland – they have maintained their anti-establishment rhetorical appeal while rolling back democratic freedoms in the name of the people.

But as a rhetorical tool this populist understanding of democracy has not been the preserve of the far-right – one example being the anti-establishment, Eurosceptic Five Star Movement, who last night won the mayoralties of Rome and Turin.

Similarly, anti-elite sentiment has been stoked throughout the referendum campaign, suggesting that a range of business and economic voices (including the CBI, the IMF, Goldman Sachs, the Bank of England and the majority of economists) are in hock to a Brussels elite, and for good measure claiming that the British people are sick of experts. It has been accompanied by a looseness with the facts and claims approaching conspiracy theory – foremost in the suggestion of secret meetings regarding the accession of Turkey to EU membership.

Indeed the holding of a referendum itself plays into the populist account of democracy: as declining trust in politicians generally and an increased emphasis on a ‘purer’, simpler form of democracy has led to more referendums across Europe. In the 1970s, Europe averaged just three referendums a year – the Economist estimates that figure to now stand at eight.

The drivers behind the growth of this populist, anti-elite idea of democracy, and its interaction with extremism, are complex and difficult to parse. Despite the strengths of our democracy there is clearly more to do to open up political opportunities to those from all social backgrounds, to enhance civil participation and transparency in decision-making, accountability at the supra-national level and to further reduce political corruption.

But there is also an important gap to close between perceptions and reality. In the most recent data available from the British Election Study, there is a significant difference in whether people trust MPs in general (only 20 per cent) and their local MP (33 per cent). This difference may be due to an actual human connection they have had or an awareness of work they have done locally – as MPs are more accessible and connected to their constituencies than popularly imagined. Previous research conducted by Demos has shown that 63 per cent of MPs are local in one way or another.

There is a vital role for the media in closing this perceptual gap, as the means by which the image of individual politicians, and politics as a whole, is conveyed. When asked as part of the Audit of Political Engagement in 2012, the public were damning on the role of the certain parts of the media, with 63 per cent saying both that tabloids ‘look for any excuse to tarnish the name of politicians’ and ‘focus on negative stories about politics and politicians’, while 68 per cent said tabloids ‘are more interested in getting a good story than telling the truth’. Tabloid readers themselves agreed even more enthusiastically.

We need to work harder to sing the praises of politicians doing difficult and unrewarding work, more frequently remind voters of the labours of their local representative, and in so doing contest the populist narrative of an out-of-touch, self-serving elite which tends the public to apathy or worse. This can go alongside a recognition that politics mediates conflict, and therefore that we won’t always agree or be satisfied, as Andrew Gamble summarises of Crick:

Since a conflict of interests is inevitable in any state, the processes and institutions of politics are required in order to find out what those interests are, and to show citizens the impossibility of all interests being satisfied simultaneously, and therefore the necessity of negotiation and compromise if social order, pluralism, diversity and freedom are to be sustained.

In the discourse of our politics we need not return to deference for our politicians, but we should at a minimum be able to show respect.