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Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The axe murderer and the MP

Labour MP Gloria de Piero writes in the Guardian about how she discovered the deep unpopularity of politicians and carried out her own research to learn more. She does so in dramatic fashion recounting how a fan from her TV days asked for a photograph, posing with his arm around her. At the end, she mentioned that she was now an MP. "He didn't say 'what party' or anything, he just went [De Piero goes silent] and walked [she mimes somebody shunning her]. James and I said 'oh my gosh, it's like I'm an axe murderer now'."

She took it upon herself to talk to six groups of people across the country to find out why people seem to dislike politicians so much:

As she talked with mothers, one-time miners, golfers and warehouse workers, the former GMTV journalist turned Labour MP was offered many reasons: the expenses scandal was mentioned again and again; more recently the chief whip's insult to a police officer at the gate to Downing Street. The weekly shout-a-thon that is prime minister's questions was on the list, as was public grandstanding by MPs on benefits cheats, "shirkers", and moral responsibility.

What this all boiled down to, though, was a simple but strong message: MPs were not "like us" and they did not understand voters' concerns.

The consensus was that politicians came from different backgrounds, had more income and job security than was usual, and appeared – almost always on television – to spend their time bickering and avoiding difficult questions, rather than trying to find solutions to everyday problems.

Challenged as to why these critics did not stand for election themselves, to represent their own interests, one person in the aerobics class was blunt: "Because I hate the way you do politics," said Anne, a semi-retired florist.

Her conclusions are not unexpected nor is the feedback she got from the groups, which is worth quoting in detail:

Each meeting started with her asking the group to list the words they associated with politician. The results were not kind: them and us, the old man, upper class, completely different, liars, selfish, self-seeking, privileged and arrogant, spiv, jargon talkers, people who did not live in the real world. When she asked whom the politicians worked for, the reply was "themselves". Subsequent discussions explained a lot about why. Again and again groups believed MPs had special qualifications; many respondents suggested they had mostly been to Cambridge University. "They've gone to different schools that you've not gone to, and they don't struggle with child care," suggested Tanya, 34, from Manchester.

MPs did not reply to adverts at the jobcentre or in the local newspaper. They had different sorts of jobs, said two warehouse workers, and they were not people who would understand what it was like to struggle on the minimum wage or benefits while shop prices were rising.

The perceived difference from their own lives was clear. "As a girl in one of the roughest areas of Manchester there's no way they are going to say 'do you know what, we'll have you in parliament'," said Joanne, 31.

Once MPs got to parliament, the gulf seemed to widen. "They live in their own little bubble … they aren't of this world," said Colin, a butcher at the tenants' and residents' association get-together in a Deptford pub.

PMQs was "like Jeremy Kyle with posh people", said Ross, another warehouse worker.

"Sometimes you see a debate in the Commons and they're just attacking each other," said Leanne, 31, one of the Manchester women. "I just think, it's not about you, it's about the wider people."

Many voters sent in emails when they read what De Piero was doing.

"The vast majority of decent, fair-minded, law-abiding [people] in this country have lost all faith and trust in politicians and the political system, which is confirmed by the low turnouts in general and local elections," wrote one. "The politicians then describe the low turnouts as 'apathy', which could not be further from the truth."

De Piero said: "The most depressing quote I got was from Sharon [one of the Manchester mothers trying to save a local Sure Start children's centre]. She said 'there will never be a prime minister like us'. I just think 'why not?'"

What is interesting, though again borne out by other studies, is that people generally like their local MP, especially if they have met him or her, and this is regardless of party. It is "other" politicians they do not like or respect.

De Piero has written a report for the Labour Leader, in the hope that her party at least will change the way it looks for candidates. However, what her research shows is that people's distrust and dislike of the political class has nothing to do with background, it is how we behave as politicians.

What is worse, is that even though it is an effective tactic, Labour's portrayal of the government as out-of-touch aristos plays into these attitudes and reinforces them. Their problem is that the mud is not just sticking to the government but to themselves and other politicians as well. People do not distinguish between the parties in this regard. If one group of MPs are public school millionaires who don't know how the other half live, then aren't all politicians the same?

If we are to rebuild trust then we need to behave differently as a political class, talk about issues rather than personalities, be more self-effacing in what we think we are entitled to in terms of salary and expenses and build on the good personal relationships that exist between individuals at constituency level.

Speaker Bercow is right when he tries to restore order during Prime Minister's Questions with the assertion that people do not want to see the sort of confrontational, animalistic politics we get week-in, week-out. Robust debate on the issues is one thing, name-calling quite something different.

If De Piero wants to make a difference then she needs to convince Miliband of that essential truth. And I and other politicians need to listen better and convince our leadership of the same.
Happy New Year, Peter.

I happen to believe that the disillusionment with the political class is more complex than simple dislike of politicians and how they (generally) behave.

It's the political system which allows, indeed forces, us to choose between one rotten bunch of politicans or another, equally bad lot, no matter how badly they perform - and indeed they have, all of them, including your lot, performed atrociously badly.

I see no prospect of improvement - ever, unless there is root and branch constitutional reform - something that is anathema to all those in power, or likely to be in power. The failure to reform or abolish the Lords is a case in point, despite a century of talking about it.

The result is that nothing works well in the UK - unless it's the ability of the wealthy to get richer.

Until the so-called sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament is destroyed, and sovereignty is consitutionally vested in the People, with their rights and responsibilities entrenched, things will never improve.

The Scots have a wonderful opportunity in 2014 to break free of the corrupt system which has marginalised them as a country and a people for three centuries. I hope they grasp it with both hands.

The same system has impoverished Wales to the extent of it becoming a dependency, an economic basket case, exploited and stripped of its own resources and denied the power to do anything about it.

By an unfortunate freak of history, England (uniquely), and regrettably the rest of us with it, have been saddled with a political system which gives all the power to the politicians.
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