Just thinking out loud

DISILLUSION with politics is an issue that all MPs seek to understand on an almost daily basis. We all have our own theories: the perception of broken manifesto promises, the electoral system, the cynicism of the media, the impatience of the “instant gratification” generation.

Governor Mario Cuomo, former Democratic governor of New York, famously said: “We campaign in poetry but we govern in prose.” It’s one of those things that is so clever and true that you immediately wish you’d said it.

And yet, I wonder if it’s that difference between poetry and prose, the contrast between inspirational political rhetoric and the reality of day-to-day government and legislation, that has contributed to the disillusionment with politics.

And as a solution, I don’t believe that the whole “delivery” process ca be speeded up so that government can catch up with the rhetoric that got it elected.

Perhaps, instead, politicians should be a little less… inspiring…?

Let me put it this way: in every national campaign I’ve been involved in, I’ve listened as party leaders promise voters that their election will transform their lives, their communities and their country. And those undertakings are usually made in exactly those terms: “change” is always radical, “reform” is comprehensive and life-changing.

And in my experience it has always been honest; when I first heard Neil Kinnock on the stump in 1987 I was inspired and I believed him because he was honest. The same with Tony Blair during his three general elections in charge of the Labour Party. And in Blair’s case, the transformation he promised did happen. The problem is that for the vast majority of the population, change didn’t need to be radical, and it wasn’t. For those who were already doing okay financially, who had reasonably secure jobs, and whose children were already going to half-decent schools, the change they experienced was marginal – and for the better.

And for the significant minority of our citizens who needed more help, change was necessarily greater, because it had to be. But even for a large proportion of these people, life may have become easier, but it never became easy. Life in Britain is still hard, even if you’re in full time employment, or if you’re living on the minimum wage and trying to balance being a parent of young children with earning a decent living, or living in sub-standard accommodation.

These are the realities of political change: for most people it is slow and marginal. For some it is more radical, although still a slow process and still leaving them a long way behind the more affluent majority.

The priority of good government should be to help those who cannot easily help themselves to do so, and secondly to create the economic and social environment where everyone can attain as high a level of security and contentedness as possible through their own efforts.

But change takes a long time, can be a difficult process and its effects aren’t always terribly noticeable by everyone at the end.

That’s the reality. It’s not poetry, it’s not very inspirational. But it’s true.

I can’t see many politicians winning office by telling the public that, in fact, government intervention in the form of spending, legislation or leadership will have far less effect than you might expect, and, on many occasions, far less effect on your own life than your own efforts on your behalf.

When former First Minister of Scotland, Jack McConnell, said he wanted the Scottish Executive to do less, better, he was much derided for a lack of ambition. But his ambition was noble and right.

As a start, instead of promising to reinvent society and transform the country, we could say to the electorate: vote for us – we’ll make things a bit easier for you. I accept it’s not in the same league as “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”, or “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” And it’s certainly not “We will fight them on the beaches…”

No sensible party puts limits on aspiration – that way lies electoral oblivion. So yes, we still need leadership and of course leadership should inspire. But parties seeking to govern, or seeking to continue to govern, need to find a way of matching inspiration with expectation.

The alternative is to sit back and watch disaffection with the democratic process grow. And that’s an alternative no-one should feel comfortable with.



Filed under Politics, Scottish Government, Society

18 responses to “Just thinking out loud

  1. Doug

    Very good piece Tom. Sometimes (often) party politics prevents credit being given where it is due. Things did get better. But the very nature of progress means that what you achieve is chipped away everyday. So, you have to keep on lifting people out of poverty and helping people to take control of their own lives.

    The challenge now is how to continue to do this in the current economic situation. I would suggest public works programmes, possible tax cuts for low and moderate earners and tax rises for those earning over £200k , and of course the inevitable breaking of the “golden rule”.

    I am one of those 1.79 million who are out of work and I apply for about 5-10 jobs a week. The competition is great out there right now. On a personal level, i want to get back into work. Proper work. So, I will be interested to see how Jobcentreplus responds to an increasing number of people like me.

    A general point about this blog, and I promise not to make a habit of giving too much credit, is that it is a refreshing read. Many head for Westminster and lose touch with reality. More politicians would benefit from discussion and debate about the issues of the day. And Star Wars.

  2. Zorro

    Good piece except for the disengenous line “the perception of broken manifesto promises”. The perception of. Sorry Tom the Lisbon treaty was a broken manifesto promise, full stop, no ‘perception of’ about it…

  3. Johnny Norfolk

    Tom all we want is for governments to keep us safe and help us to to help ourselves. Help the old and those that are incapable of looking after themselves. What we have of course is governments that are involved in far too much. Take one Labour example. Brown has interfeared in so much yet he did not put in place a banking code that would have kept us safe. In interfearing in so many things that should have nothing to do with you, you miss the obvious.We need less,less,less not more,more,more.

  4. joe bonanno

    And in Blair’s case, the transformation he promised did happen.

    Congratulations – that’s the funniest thing I’ve read all year.

    Get these donkey ears out of the loft and stick them on.

  5. Jim Baxter

    It’s a problem all right. Perhaps you could go some way toward solving voters’ perceptions of politics and politicians by having party leaders who appear to be a bit more like how voters like to think of themselves. What if a party leader had a natural, easy-going manner but also had steel when it was needed? We still have a steel industry don’t we, even if only just? Such a person might appear to have a genuine sense of humour while being serious-minded and realistic. (I submit, ladies and gentlemen you can’t have a genuine sense of humour and not be serious-minded). Oh, and he or she should be clever. Useful that, especially if you don’t shout about it. So, that gives us Alan Johnson vs. William Hague then.

    I know. It aint gonna happen.

  6. davidc

    kinnock honest ? blair honest ?

    promised transformation did happen ?

    what happened was money poured into schools (over 40 % still leave semi illiterate at best and that hasn’t changed in decades) , hospitals ( ambulances kept in carparks to ensure a & e ‘achieve their ‘seen within 4 hours’ target) , the military sent to war without even basic body armour and as to having suitable helicoptors !!!!

    child poverty !!!!!

    need i go on ?

    no tom, the problem is not public perception of broken promises but our experience of such

  7. Brian Hall

    Ahha, so Jack McConnel wanted Less, Better….

    Surely that is no excuse for delivering zilch?

  8. Sorry, Tom, I like your writing, but this is an apology for inactivity. Labour are failing to rise to the economic, environmental and social crises (and indeed are complicit in all three), so it’s perhaps no wonder you’re making this case.

  9. Chris' Wills

    I’m afraid you live in a different world from those of us who reside in reality.

    Bliar wasn’t honest (ecclestone affair, 45 minutes to launch WMDs, reduce corruption by politicians, less interference in peoples lives, and on and on).

    Reality is less freedom, more quangos, higher bills for poorer services from councils, reduced access to justice for most. Lots of political no-nothings trying to manage the minutia of peoples lives.

    Sorry Tom, you’ve done fairly well and will continue to do so; what with your everything paid by expenses and index linked pension when you retire (either of your own volition or otherwise). I can truly understand that your self delusion is almost rational, sadly the rest of us have to live in the real world.

  10. Nigel Harris

    Hm, interesting stuff, Tom and a subject on which it would not only be possible, but quite useful, to either write at length, or discuss, likewise at length – preferably around a bottle or pint. I won’t take issue with your claims about Blair or Kinnock (there’s plenty of that and I suspect there may be more…!) but a couple of personal thoughts regarding public disillusion with politics/politicians. I speak as a journalist with 25 years of dealing with this at all levels from parish councils to Westminster.

    The many politicians I’ve dealt with personally, locally and nationally have, in general, been sincere, well-intentioned – and rarely anything at ALL like they are portrayed in the media. Byers was much more human than his media image; Alistair Darling is anything but dull and he has a dry sense of humour…..you yourself are not the out-of-touch dolt the ‘why are we all so miserable’ coverage would have had us believe. (The one exception, I have to say, who if anything is worse than his media image – and that’s saying something – is John Prescott who I found unfailingly rude, obnoxious and unpleasant. He’d turned into an art form. A perfectly balanced character – a chip on both shoulders)

    So, why are you all so poorly thought of?

    It’s too simple to blame media cynicism. I think there are at least two key problems at the core.

    1) Westminster Village Syndrome. Numerous respondents here have commented on, and enjoy, your down-to-earth view. They’re right. And it’s the total absence of this amongst those who live, breathe and exist in the heady atmosphere of the PoW and come to believe that the priorities, routines and ways of that place are the same as those in the real world. They are not. It is no coincidence that the most popular and charismatic MPs are usually those who, rightly or wrongly, are perceived as the most ‘real.’ Examples include Vince Cable, Dennis Skinner, Austin Mitchell….the more removed from our reality you are, the less respect there is for you in the wider world. Hence the surprise when you come seeking our votes! (I use the term ‘you’ here to denote MP’s, obviously). To choose extreme examples, Ken Clark, with his love of jazz, real ale and his grubby hush puppies was – and is – more real than Vulcan John Redwood! I rest my case on this aspect.

    2) Nose in the trough syndrome. Derry wotsisname’s damned wallpaper at a zillion pounds a roll. The abuse of expenses…by which I mean real abuse. I’d had a meeting at PoW not long ago and the cabbie told a tale of picking up a VERY well known MPs wife, who haughtily ordered him to Sainsbury’s behind St Thomas’s hospital, made him wait while she shopped and then returned to Westminster at a cost of £70. The cabbie didn’t know whether to be irked at the waste of taxpayers money on MP’s expenses or delighted at such a good fare. The dilemma taxed his vocabulary and blood pressure to the limit.

    Those two issues I believe, lie at the heart of the problem you outline. And, God help you, where MPs suffer from both problems – Westminster Villageitis and greed – then the damage is greatest. Maybe only a few qualify – but the damage is done to all of you.

    Maybe this explains why the many politicians I’ve met are sincere people who want to make a difference, while the public perception is at odds with my personal experience?

    The media cynicism you mention does then indeed kick-in to make the problem worse, because at the first mention of the John Lewis list the world at large thinks you’re all ‘at it.’

    ‘Simplify and then exagerrate’ is the tabloid golden rule and it makes an out-of-touch MP taking the mick with his expenses look very bad indeed. And you all then are tarred with this brush.

    Just a thought. OK, time to do my own blog.

    regards to one and all.

  11. You’re quite right Tom. Improvement in services is difficult for people to see (and apparently impossible to acknowledge for many of the people who comment on your blog!).

    Most of us use public services only occasionally. Some examples, and back to my hobby-horse of big numbers:

    – the NHS treats millions of people each year but there are tens of millions of people on these islands and the people treated are far more likely to be elderly. Most people are healthy for most of their lives and rarely even have to visit a GP.

    – now that my children have left school I have no direct experience of state education and even when they were there I hadn’t little to compare it with as they hadn’t been there a decade before.

    – 2 million pensioners benefited from tax credits, 58 million people didn’t.

    – etc. etc.

    Many people don’t really understand statistics or performance measurements. The clear evidence of improvement is often ignored in favour of anecdotes which suit the listeners’ prejudices. Journalists are often innumerate and/or too busy and/or too much in awe of their proprietor’s prejudices to seek out the truth. Bad news also makes better stories – see how the BBC presented the NHS statistics (which show a continuing improvement) this morning. Pro-government bias your commenters shriek – they’re ‘aving a larf.

    What to do about it? Don’t know except that on a one-to-one canvassing basis I find it useful to acknowledge that the politicians I’m canvassing for are only human and can’t work miracles.

    No wonder Tony Blair and his team were apparently terrified on May 2nd 1997 that they’d raised expectations too high…

  12. Adam

    Good issue to raise and an intelligent viewpoint. I think there are two problems that you don’t mention:

    1) Most policy making is dull and technocratric. This creates frustration/boredom; how many people do you think paid attention to your work on Crossrail, despite its huge cost/importance?
    2) Most government action involves compromise and trade-offs; the balancing of competiting interests. Joe punter sees this cowardice and spinelessness, which again brings frustration.

    I have no idea how you get around any of this…

  13. Andrew F

    You start with the premise that people should be interested in politics, and then later go on to point out that limits of what government can do to affect people’s lives.

    Maybe disengagement is simply fair – people are as engaged with politics as they should be, given the impact it has on them.

  14. Martin Cullip

    Firstly, Chris Wills, “Bliar wasn’t honest (… less interference in peoples lives)” – did he REALLY say that? Good Grief!

    Very good post Tom, it’s wonderful to read someone who seems to care about the lack of involvement by the general public about things that directly affect their lives.

    The solution is within your writing though. We don’t need massive upheaval of our lives, just a few tweaks will do. Britain is a hugely successful country, yet Labour have been very much guilty of changing for change’s sake, mostly to grab a headline. It almost seems as if there is a different directive each day that your Government MUST get onto the morning radio news. Life doesn’t need changing that much, after a while it becomes overload and the electorate give up listening.

    One of the most depressing comments I have heard recently was on my pet subject (you know to which I refer) and with a whole host of people angrily giving their opinion, I ventured the idea that they should write to their MP and complain. One person said “You can’t fight the Government, Martin”, and murmurs in agreement followed.

    There is a tangible feeling now that people can no longer make any impression on those that run the country, so why bother voting?

    I couldn’t argue at the time although I will never stop trying. But why? I have sent 5 e-mails in the past 2 weeks to elected officials and had just the one reply, and that was from a Secretary acknowledging receipt. One of those I wrote to has replied 3 times previously in less than 12 hours after I wrote, but as this particular message was on a subject on which we disagreed, they simply ignored me. (don’t worry, there will be a follow-up)

    2 million people marched on London to try to stop Blair going to Iraq and he ignored them. A whole bunch of the Countryside Alliance came to London and were similarly ignored.

    The Jarrow marchers are a thing of the past, modern Government have cut those with a point of view out of the equation. Why bother voting? The politicians will do as they please anyway. (ref: DoH ‘consultation’ with other DoH funded bodies on anything the DoH wants)

    It’s desperately sad that people are now more disposed to paying money to vote on the bloody X Factor than they are to exercise a free vote on who runs their country.

  15. James

    It’s a good post. And Adam, among the respondents, sums it up very well. Policy is indeed technocratic, and people aren’t generally very interested in it, while the culture of compromise = weakness is horribly wrong-headed. The public respects people who never “u-turn” or “flip-flop”, but it’s much braver to be open-minded and willing to change your view on the basis of argument or new information.

    I’m disappointed, though, that you (Tom) think government should do less and better. Labour’s meant to have faith in government. If you don’t, who does? My experience of government is that it’s made up of a lot of capable, passionate people trying to do good things, but with very difficult challenges to overcome. Whether it’s in education, health, tackling crime or poverty, government has to do the jobs nobody else wants to do – thankless tasks. It would be good to hear some recognition from politicians once in a while for someone other than nurses, teachers and the armed forces.

    And one thing’s missing from the discussion of why people are so disillusioned – the media. Ours is extraordinarily poisonous. Go on, Tom, admit it – they’re a load of snakes and scaremongerers. Be it Paxman and Humphries or Murdoch and Dacre, they push their agendas and they drip poison. They sneer and they sneer until the only attitude left is distrust.

  16. Auntie Flo'

    Nope. Poetry can be real. Remember the war poets? Wilfred Owen:

    “Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
    Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
    But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
    And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
    Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
    In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
    He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

    If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
    Pro patria mori.”

    Trouble is, Tom, all the politicians’ poems give the world that lie.

  17. Chris' Wills


    Glad to see that you agree that he did say the other lies I mentioned.

    The less interference was a paraphrase of his continual bleating about increasing personal freedom/responsibility/choices etc.

    If the law forces you to only use one bin (I know this is local councils byt the goverment allows and even encourages it) or taxation steals more of your money for goverment quangos and general waste (flying 1st class instead of cattle or flying when a train is available as well as paying for MPs second homes) then the freedom of the hoi polloi is severly restricted we can add total surveillance and draconian anti-liberty laws to the mix.

  18. I make no apologies for not reading all of the post before commenting … I need instant gratification!

    political disillusionment?

    I’d suggest it’s largely to do with politicians talking s***e, lining their own pockets, and attacking each other at every opportunity … what is the purpose of PMQ’s and FMQ’s anyway?

    Personally I’ve been scunnered by the whole thing recently … even going so far as to write a post about it.

    Anyway, not been about for a while and will (maybe) be catching up over with what’s going on in the big wide world.

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