It’s not a new politics we need, it’s a new electorate

by Kevin Meagher

I wrote a piece a while ago criticising the Welsh Assembly’s controversial proposal to introduce “presumed consent” for organ donations. In the comments section, without it seemed a hint of irony, someone wrote “Let’s start harvesting the organs of MPs”. It’s not clear whether they meant while they were still alive (I suspect they did) and probably with a rusty butter knife.

An all-too-familiar vignette from the dysfunctional frontline between the governed and the governing in our cynical, sour, clapped-out democracy? Alas so. It seems we’ve now moved beyond mere suspicion of our MPs. Frankly, we’ve moved beyond despair. We now want to cut them up for spare parts.

A recent ICM poll found 47 per cent of us are “angry” with politicians and a further 25 per cent of us are “bored” with them. A derisory two per cent are “inspired” by what’s on offer; hardly a blueprint for a system of popular legitimacy. The elastic has snapped and this sorry state of affairs – all cold-blooded contempt and disinterest – now seems to be permanent; the default setting of a mistrustful, disappointed public.

For optimists like Ed Miliband, the answer is to create “a new politics”. But what if we’ve got this totally wrong? What if we’re looking through the wrong end of the telescope? What if what’s needed is, in fact, a new electorate?

The one we’ve got isn’t fit for purpose any more. We’ve become a nation of the wilfully ignorant, not borne from a lack of opportunity, but from too much of it. We no longer read enough proper newspapers or watch or listen to enough news. Despite the infinite opportunities to do so, we simply don’t follow current affairs like previous generations did. Ignorance isn’t so much bliss, as standard.

That same ICM poll shows that 86 per cent of us recognise that politicians’ decisions are “fairly important” or “very important” to our lives, but we have simply lost interest in following how and why they are made. More precisely, we have abdicated our responsibility for knowing. We’ve opted out.

We don’t ‘do’ big ideas any more. We don’t understand what’s being done in our name or the alternatives on offer; and, it seems, we don’t really want to. And what we don’t understand we discount. We’re a people hiding our deficiencies as citizens behind our worship of sport and celebrity trivia. Most under 25s couldn’t tell George Osborne from Sharon Osbourne.

It wasn’t always this way. The historian Kenneth Morgan attributes Labour’s 1945 election landslide to “politically motivated servicemen casting their votes in Europe, or the African desert, or the jungles of Burma or Malaya, on behalf of a better world.”

Perhaps the political stakes have shrunk. Nowadays, the notion of voting for “a better world” or for the greater good doesn’t readily compute in a culture where we’re used to having choices on absolutely everything, from which coffee beans we sup to which television channels we goggle at. The problem is we don’t much like the political ones on offer.

The philosopher John Gray recently argued this disengagement may be partly explained by the temptation to assume rights and liberties are a matter for law while “little or nothing of importance is left to the contingencies of politics”. He described this view as “the implicit ideal of the age.”

Yet even if our politics have become devalued, the simple, indisputable fact remains that the morning after a general election either the leader of the Conservative party or the Labour party will be forming the government of this country. Still, even this basic truism fails to convince millions of us to bother participating, with four out of ten of us no longer voting in general elections.

There’s a limit, though, to how dumbed down our political system can become in order to accommodate the intellectual sloth and cynicism of the British public. Politicians continue to ingratiate themselves as best they can but when they do they are pilloried for not being authentic.

Tony Blair dropping his ‘aitches on Des O’Connor. Gordon Brown talking about his love of the Arctic Monkeys. David Cameron sitting on Jonathan Ross’s couch in order to be asked whether or not he had ever masturbated while thinking of Margaret Thatcher. Our politicians abase themselves in the mistaken belief this helps them “engage” with the electorate, only to be held in even more contempt when they try.

Why do none of them ever respond like real people or say what they truly think? Why do they never emote or get angry? Why didn’t Cameron tell Ross he was being an arse? Why didn’t Brown say: “You know what, I’m too old to bother with pop bands and prefer listening to Radio Four in the morning like an intelligent person.” Rightly, the public senses it has been left with a political class merely aping human behaviour. They recognise their leaders are a bunch of phoneys, with every ounce of originality and spontaneity boiled out of them like school canteen broccoli.

Unfortunately, this “authenticity gap” is filled by charismatic outsiders like Nigel Farage or George Galloway, or, most perniciously, by “comedian” Russell Brand. He pops up mouthing a rag-bag of intellectually dishonest nonsense about “a revolution of the mind” and intelligent people start saying “you know, he’s on to something”. No he isn’t, he’s the worst kind of charlatan; the pied piper of the shoulder-slouching and professionally jaundiced. Those who are educated enough to know better but are disdainful a system of government they don’t understand because they are too lazy, too rich or too narcissistic to bother with it – and, so, it must be wrong.

It’s not pretty, but the answer to fixing this sorry state of affairs simply boils down to greater compulsion. People can’t opt-out of working because they are not in their ideal job. We are not at liberty to drive on the right-hand side of the road because we feel like it. I can’t – and shouldn’t – duck out of jury service because it’s important that my fellow citizens have the right to a trial by their peers.

So it should be with our democracy. Compulsion – or duty – is the defining characteristic of adulthood. Pay attention, because that’s what grown-ups do. Contribute, because it serves the common good. Vote, or face a whacking fine.

Let the face-pullers spoil their ballot papers if they must, but the act of participation is at least assured. Indeed, the inconvenience may be cathartic. Perhaps, for a fleeting moment, a flicker of recognition of what is at stake will be enough to jolt the indolent among us from their juvenile posturing.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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17 Responses to “It’s not a new politics we need, it’s a new electorate”

  1. David Pearson says:

    It is difficult to take seriously anyone who refers to “proper newspapers” as if they contain any more informed or valid content than social media.

    I am unconvinced that compulsory voting leads to any more significantly considered result than the number of people who claimed on their census forms that they were “Jedi Knights”.

    Your article did compel me to identify its shortcomings in predicting the responses to being told what to do by the fifth estate.

  2. steve says:

    It was bound to happen sooner or later – those who are incapable of inspiring interest would eventually blame the uninterested.

    Yet the video of Russell Brand’s Newsnight interview gained more than a million viewers within days and now stands at 9 million+. It must surely be the most popular political interview ever broadcast by Newsnight.

    How our Westminster clones must feel hurt and rejected – after all those years of perfecting spin, of sterile triangulations, of communication consultants tepidly grinning, of new suits, puffed up chests distracting from boyish shoulders, open-collar, tieless shirts and carefully chosen subjects about which it is permitted to be “hugely passionate”. And they are now despised.

    And they have been knocked into a cocked hat by an upstart comedian.

    Oh dear.

  3. Henrik says:

    There’s the germ of a good idea in this, but it’s overly defensive of the political class.

    Using techniques which derive, ultimately, from mass marketing and military psychological operations, political dialogue in the UK has become bland, anodyne and, in the quest for the middle ground, dull, dull, dull.

    The folk who engage in politics seem… well, “odd” would be a good description. Farage and Johnson get massive recognition because they’re people you could imagine having a pint and a crack with – whereas pretty much every other politician, with a careful eye to his or her image and media profile, comes across as the sort of person you take care not to make eye contact with at a party and sidle away from if they stand next to you.

    Kevin is absolutely right when he talks about real emotion, rather than synthetic pap produced for a sound bite.

    If politics is infantilised, which I rather think is the tenor of the piece, it’s not the electorate’s fault. If all you can buy in the shop is candy floss and you don’t want candy floss, you won’t buy it.

  4. paul barker says:

    The old Labour slogan – “Everything which is not Forbidden is Compulsory”.
    Every Politically involved person gets grumpy sometimes but we cant “dissolve the People & Elect a new one”, thank God.
    We just have to find new ways to talk to the Voters.

  5. aragon says:

    The people who don’t do big ideas is the politicians, and the idea that Ed Miliband represents a new politics is ridiculous, especially with Ed Balls controlling the economics.

    Politicians are all the same, whom ever you vote for the same policies are pursued. A self-selecting exclusive political club with out a clue between them.

    The only way compulsory voting could work is with none of the above as the last option, to allow the public to express our contempt, a role which UKIP current fulfills.

    We are angry with politicians because they are ineffective and useless, and often actively mendacious.

    Imposing your juvenile will through compulsory voting on the public would lead to greater resistance, you do not govern by consent but through apathy. Perhaps this lunacy would provoke enough resistance to force change. How ironic.

    How can the public make it any clearer, politicians are at best tolerated? The public hold politicians in contempt (which appears to be mutual – See Lords debate on Europe/Immigration etc).

    “Because I think membership of the EU is absolutely fundamental to British interests and therefore we should be very wary of putting our membership in the hands of a lottery in which we have no idea what factors, completely unrelated to Europe, will affect the outcome of that lottery.”
    – Lord Mandelson.

    So much for trust in the voters.

  6. Madasafish says:

    So voters are ignorant, politicians are not authentic and apathy rules except where people are angry? And it’s the voters fault?

    Perhaps you should turn it round and look at what politicians have said and done over key issues of the day and then understand why voters feel disenfanchised:

    In no particular order and just at random I pick a few examples:

    1. MPs have en masse conspired to defraud us of significant amounts of money by fiddling expenses. Most of them remain unrepentant despite a few going to jail. Those who have gone to jail have emerged not broken people but ended up richer than before.
    2. The Iraq war was justified by shameless and bare faced lies. The enquiry on it has still not been published due to the need to ensure one of the major contributors to those lies has his input into it. (And no comments please about it not being lies – “45 minutes” was a shameless lie).
    3. Politicians of all parties at the last General Election making promises they had no intention of keeping . See LD’s education fees and Labour and Conservative promises on EC referendum
    4. The clear contempt many leading politicians have for voters – see Mandelson’s comments on a EC Referendum, “bigots” and Cameron’s comments on UKIP supporters.
    5. Despite the shambles of Iraq and Afghanistan, you would have thought leading politicians would recognise voters concerns and refuse any more foreign interventions – or at least engage with us. Instead, we nearly engaged in a Syrian internal war.
    6. The clear and utter posturing on austerity – there is none – and its economic effects where frankly many leading politicians have merged looking like loud mouthed fools.
    7. The lies told about immigration policy and its impact.

    Put all that together and to blame voters is risible. The political establishment has acted like a self serving incompetent bunch of liars.

    If you want voters to change their minds and not be cynical, I suggest politicians adopt a more measured and truthful approach to policy and try to educate the electorate .

    I have no expectations that any such move will happen.

    Politicians get the voters they deserve.

  7. Tafia says:

    ‘Presumed Consent’ should be mandatory on taking out a driving licence or a passport. Further, burials should be scrapped – cremation only.

  8. Tafia says:

    However you cannot make somebody vote. Instead it should be compulsory registration and compulsory attendance. They can then choose not to vote once they are there.

  9. Ex-labour says:


    I think people tuning in to Brands Youtube vid are just seeing what an arse he makes of himself with his inane drivel.

  10. uglyfatbloke says:

    How can we fail to be inspired by our wonderful and lovely political class? They have shown us- repeatedly – that lying and stealing works well for them, so why should it not work well for the rest of us? And even if it does n;t work for us, surely it is our duty to do as we’re told? Fortunately the political class is spared the dangers of democracy by an excellent electoral system which can easily generate well over 50% of the seats and 100% of the power for a mere 35 or 40% of the vote….that’s a bargain if ever there was one. Any failure to have an influence over the way we are governed is our own fault for not choosing to live in the handful of constituencies that decide the outcome of a General Election.

  11. swatantra says:

    Time after time the electorate lets us all down; they are not to be trusted.

  12. Robert says:

    I do not agree with compulsory voting, which is dealing with the symptom rather the cause. It is depressing that turnouts have declined over the last two decades but I am not convinced that there was ever a golden age of political participation.

    The best way to increase political participation is to give voters choice and in 2015 voters will have a reasonable choice, so hopefully the turnout will increase to about 70%.

  13. David Carter says:

    Compulsory voting is an affront to democracy itself. Forcing people to make a decision is not a true democratic ideal. People should have the right to engage or not engage with public life. That is their choice and their right. They should have the freedom and liberty to do as they wish. Your solution to a corrupt political class turning voters off isn’t to change that said class, but instead it is to just force the disengaged to vote or face a fine, fully ignoring said corruption. That is a pathetic solution and response. As said above, the voters are angry and bored. They see politicians on the fiddle, bare-faced lying, doing U-turns, not sticking to manifesto commitments that got them voted in, paying family members to staff their offices, having high expense bills, having long parliamentary ‘recess’ periods, filled with career politicians who are ignorant of working life etc. Change all of that; make politics a noble profession as it once was, then people will listen and become involved. You have to inspire action, not command it.

  14. Rallan says:

    What an article! Wow! I’m sure this is very much what the political class choose to believe! I heard Ken Clarke on an interview saying how the electorate were cynical, and that the political class needs to “lecture” us.

    Politics has ended up as a miserable choice between two rancid turds – red or blue. The turd that governs is simply the one that flushes last. But even that isn’t working any more because everyone really wants rid of both the Red and Blue turds, so now there’s a little bit of yellow slime to keep one of them from flushing by sticking the turd to the side.

    I am so looking forward to the next General Election.

  15. Tafia says:

    @David Carter
    “Your solution to a corrupt political class turning voters off isn’t to change that said class, but instead it is to just force the disengaged to vote or face a fine, fully ignoring said corruption. That is a pathetic solution and response. As said above, the voters are angry and bored. They see politicians on the fiddle, bare-faced lying, doing U-turns, not sticking to manifesto commitments that got them voted in, paying family members to staff their offices, having high expense bills, having long parliamentary ‘recess’ periods, filled with career politicians who are ignorant of working life etc. Change all of that; make politics a noble profession as it once was, then people will listen and become involved. You have to inspire action, not command it.

    Exactly. Sadly the detritous and general rancid trash knocking around Westminster and staffing the parties have yet to realise this.

  16. Rallan says:

    “For optimists like Ed Miliband, the answer is to create “a new politics”. But what if we’ve got this totally wrong?”

    Or, what is it’s cynical bullsh1t?

  17. Madasafish says:

    I note the EC debate has sprung up again.. I say “debate” but i’s more just yaboo politics..

    And who is laying out the sensible well thought out and carefully argued economic arguments for staying in or leaving?

    No politician is or if they are they are keeping very quiet about it.

    MANY – indeed almost all the arguments made by voters betray a staggering ignorance about what the implications of either action are. Where are the politicians spelling it out for us?

    Answer there are none.

    And this article seeks to blame VOTERS for their ignorance? Sums up the arrogance and incompetence of our political elites . They think they are our masters rather than our servants..

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