Politicians and people

It’s clear that the people as a whole have become disengaged from politics in recent years. There’s no need to multiply examples – from falling turnouts around the world, to endless polls showing politicians and journalists vying for last place in the trust stakes. People have become less interested in taking part, and less trusting of those who speak for them.

If you’re interested in politics, as I am, it is hard to understand how people can fail to appreciate the central importance of politics, and beyond belief that people can’t see the difference between George Bush and Bill Clinton, or Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher. But then, I love cricket, and I can’t see why people don’t appreciate the attractions of a game that lasts five days and takes breaks for lunch and tea. The truth of the matter is that for me, politics is a career and an interest. My interest in it is no more surprising than the interest of a doctor in medical advances, or a computer engineer in a new operating system. The general mass of people, who don’t have politics as part of their working lives, have many other competing interests – their own careers, their families, football, computer games, music. Politics is just one hobby among many – and not a popular one, at that.

Those involved in politics, whether politicians, journallists or civil servants, feel that they are involved in the decisions being taken – or, at least, that they understand the reasons and the manoeuvring behind them. For those outside the political class, their involvement is restricted to an omnibus vote every four years or so, and perhaps a focus group or opinion poll in between. Even the interested layman can’t really feel like an insider just from reading the papers or watching the news.

The irony is that at the same time, the political class want to understand the people, but can’t. As a result, they commission opinion polls, focus groups, and other anthropological research to find out about the strange and capricious people they serve. One of Tony Blair’s closest advisors is a pollster – Philip Gould. Blair has been criticised for this, but how could it be otherwise? Representative democracy has taken us this far, that the people’s desires must be sated, but those whose job it is cannot know what those desires are from day to day.

Two changes have deepened the division between politics and the people over the last few years. The political involvement of those outside the political class has shifted away from mass-politics towards single-issue organisations. At the same time, the political class has closed and become more self-contained.

Low-level political involvement has shifted from party and trade union membership into single issue movements. Parties and trade unions are inherently part of the Parliamentary process. Single issue lobbies are inherently outside it, trying to influence the processes in their direction.

Second, the political class has become more closed, and politics more a life-long career path. It is a common point, but in the ’50s and ’60s, it was usual for people to come into politics late in life, after a career in unionism, industry or the law. That still happens, occasionally, but a look at the front benches of the two main parties in the House of Commons today shows that the majority of them have been politicians for most of their working lives. As politicians grow younger, they remain in politics for longer – closing off the political world from everyday experience of life outside. No-one expects Stephen Twigg or Ben Bradshaw to leave politics and become union convenors at a factory. They will remain – one way or another – in the political world and for all their undoubted skills, they will understand the rest of the world less.