by Ian McKenzie
There is currently a deep and widening fracture between the British people and their political parties, apparently. The chasm is so big that the political party as a concept is in terminal decline. The main two parties are in particular danger because their joint share of the national vote has fallen dramatically in the last 6 decades: it’s all over now, baby blue and baby red.
These assertions have become truths all but universally acknowledged; it’s all a bit boring really.
People do not join parties in large numbers any more. The electorate has slammed its doors on the main parties after saying “you are all the same”. People feel alienated and disenfranchised, believing that politicians are only in it for themselves and only come round at election times when they want votes and are nowhere to be seen during the rest of the electoral cycle. Yada yada yada.
I know all this because I’ve read it, and endlessly repeated variations of it, in newspapers and on Twitter.
It’s pervasive: explicit in opinion columns and covert in the news. The articles are written by political journalists and others and then tweeted and re-tweeted by them and their colleagues. These reports of widespread disconnection from the political process usually include expressions of regret; the demise of the parties is often celebrated. The theme is usually the same “you politicians had it coming, you’ve taken the electorate for granted for decades, the system’s broken and it’s your fault, you feckless, lazy reprobates.”
But the last couple of years have seen a little twist: Twitter has gone mainstream and not just in Westminster either. Hundreds of MPs and thousands of activists, in most constituencies, have continued doing what they have been doing for decades, knocking on doors and staying in touch with electors, only now they are doing it on Twitter.
In fact, Twitter has helped motivate and mobilise activism. Any Labour organiser will tell you there’s nothing like a bit of peer pressure and leading by manifest example to get people off their sofas and onto doorsteps. These days, hundreds of MPs, even those who once swore they would never stoop so low, and their campaign teams post thousands of tweets from, say, Acacia Avenue. We know it’s Acacia Avenue because the team is usually snapped in front of the road sign.
Cue a flurry of articles from aforementioned lobby journalists saying that, contrary to their anti-politician groupthink, MPs aren’t lazy and feckless at all; that they are, almost all of them, actually hard-working public servants doing a tough job that would break most lobby journalists inside a month; and that our politicians are much more in touch with the electorate (who still buy some newspapers, by the way) than most people, including journalists.
Cue a flurry of articles from aforementioned lobby journalists etc…
Oh well, as you were. Better by far, apparently, to post snide, disdainful tweets about the boring nature of all this political activity clogging up journalists’ timelines. The poor loves.
Leave aside, for a moment that they could easily Mute, Unfollow or Block if they chose, does the rank inconsistency not occur to them?
Obviously not, and of course it does double the target area allowing a pop at politicians for not doing enough and for doing too much, for ignoring the electorate and for hounding the electorate in their own homes.
I’m old fashioned enough to think that our parliamentary system is, in essence, just fine. Of course it has flaws, it has had to evolve, and will evolve further. But the fundamentals work well.
Our executive is drawn from the ranks of our legislature; our Prime Minister is one no-confidence vote away from having to face the electorate. Well this one ought to be but, sadly, the ridiculous Fixed Term Parliaments Act has downgraded the electorate’s role for a while until it is repealed. The system is currently open to abuse by the parties, who, closeted in (formerly smoked-filled) rooms would be able, in entirely plausible circumstances, to change the government without an election.
I like our system. I like that we don’t have gridlock between two “branches of government”, as the Americans routinely do.
I like that UK governments are always on their toes even the ones with big majorities. I think it’s fabulous that the administration with the largest majority in history was regularly worried about losing votes and almost did on a couple of occasions (I vaguely recall it even lost one once); that ministers can be compelled to come to the legislature to explain themselves at a couple of hours notice, that they face regular questioning from our representatives on the main floor and in committee, that our Prime Minister endures a weekly direct grilling from our representatives, and that the overwhelming majority of our government have to face their backbench colleagues in the lobbies all the time, and MPs have to address their constituents’ concerns face-to-face two or three days a week most of the year-round.
I love that our constitution is not written down in one place so that lawyers can’t call the shots (and charge us all a fortune for it), that our system has the organic complexity of a map of City of London rather than the brutal, big bang inflexibility of the Washington grid. I love that a beating heart not an inorganic machine gives life to our body politic.
But the executive-in-parliament does need some checks and balances to work properly. The most important of those is free, active and thriving media: press and broadcasters both. The 4th estate has its part to play. It has the right to question and the responsibility to report without fear or favour. And it has to know the difference between not doing enough and doing too much. And report it honestly and responsibly. Power and responsibility. Even the Managing Editor of the Sun.
He said this a few days ago:
Anybody know if politicians go campaigning on a Saturday? Why are they so secretive about it? I’d love to see pics of their great teams.
— Stig Abell (@StigAbell) January 17, 2015
I don’t know Stig from a hole in the ground. He must be very able but he needs to develop more respect for people who put themselves up for election and are assiduous in engaging with their electorate. That’s what they are supposed to do. In setting an example to his paper’s readers and his Twitter account’s followers, he should maintain a standard no lower than that which he requires of politicians. He should save the snide tweets for the politicians who don’t play by the rules.
Stig‘s reached the top of his profession; he must be a bright lad. Who knows, if he put his mind to it, he might even be able to devise a way of telling the mundane story of accessible politicians talking to electors in an accessible, cheeky tabloidy style, and do so approvingly. His readers might even learn something.
Ian McKenzie has spent nearly a quarter of a century working for politicians and has developed a sense of humour by-pass about it.