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.