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Why it's hard to be a nice person in politics

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Old 20-05-11, 08:31 AM
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Default Why it's hard to be a nice person in politics

My parents' MP is absolutely wonderful. I say that without reservation, despite the fact that I'm not a huge fan of his party as a whole (he's a LibDem; I'm not totally unsympathetic towards them because it's a bit difficult to see what else they could have done, but disentangling what is their fault and what isn't is probably a matter for another post, written by someone else who is more knowledgeable on the subject than I am). Seriously, this chap rocks. He works his socks off to get the best for his constituents, to keep them informed about what he's already doing and what he's available to do, and for justice and fairness in general. You're David Cameron and you want to sell off the forests? Slash the pay of teaching assistants? Watch it - you're going to have to deal with Tim Farron. Just because he's in your coalition, that doesn't mean he's going to roll over and wave his legs in the air.

I would be praising this man anyway simply because he deserves it, but I'm all the more keen to do so because he's so unusual. Recently I've been thinking a little bit about why he is so unusual. Think about it. You take a group of six hundred or so people at random. There'll no doubt be a moderately significant minority of criminals, psychopaths and other people you wouldn't want to trust, but even if you're feeling particularly pessimistic about human nature you'll probably consider that at least half of them are basically decent. Now you've got about six hundred MPs, and they're not a random sample: they've had to go through the election process. On the one hand, this does mean that you've selected for a disproportionate amount of ambition, which is a somewhat two-edged quality. But, on the other hand, the fact that candidates have to be approved first by their own parties and then by the electorate means that you're also, on balance, selecting out a lot of socially undesirable characteristics. Even if the electorate don't know a candidate, the party does, and the party generally won't want to put up someone it thinks the electorate won't like. (Of course, that partly depends on how safe or otherwise the seat is, but, even in a safe seat, they won't put up someone they don't like.)

So why is it that we usually end up with a bunch of politicians of all parties who come across as generally dislikeable, and people like Tim Farron stand out as exceptions rather than being the general rule?

I've concluded that it is the whole oppositional nature of British politics which does this to people. Mr Farron actually says somewhere on his website that, in his experience, most politicians of all parties are perfectly decent and reasonable people. I'm sure he's right... when they're not being politicians. Get them into the House of Commons, where the whole set-up is founded on there being a government and an opposition who actually have a duty to attack each other as much as possible, and you end up with an undignified grown-up version of a school playground. I would be much more in favour of a model involving smaller parties with more flexibility to co-operate differently over different issues, and moreover I would love to rip out all the old seating in the House of Commons and replace it with something on a circular or semicircular plan. Seeing political views as a spectrum rather than a polarity won't entirely remove the unpleasantness and petty point-scoring from politics, but I do think it's got to help.

(I wrote a longer article about this at the request of a friend on Twitter, which you can see here if you're interested.)
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Old 20-05-11, 10:22 AM
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I don't know much about Tim Farron but, for my sins, worked as a union official for many years. One thing I found constantly, meeting thousands of shop stewards, convenors, branch secretaries, health & safety reps, national officials, etc etc was how the personal and political would split.

I'd regularly meet activists whose political views were appalling - some just heartless right-wingers, others pretty barking mad - but they were fabulous shop stewards.

If a member fell down stairs at work and it was the employer's fault, they'd pursue the employer to the Cracks of Doom. The work was all voluntary, unpaid, and often confidential so no one really knew about it.

I think the same happens with MPs. Many have odious political views but are fantastic constituency MPs. Ann Widdecombe was a good example apparently. She'd cluck after her constituents like a mother hen, never letting go, trying to see justice done. But, at the same time, she was working politically with Michael Howard, chaining pregnant prisoners to hospital beds and defending the policy on the floor of the House of Commons!

The opposite was also true. I met amazingly devious union negotiators, people who'd sign highly complex collective agreements with employers after wrapping the employer's negotiating team round their little fingers. Yet put them in front of an employment tribunal, representing a member fired for whatever, and they'd always lose. They were good at the politics but rubbish at personal cases.

I think, in an MP, the politics is more important than the constituency work. Sure, they must look after their constituents, and build a local reputation for competence and hard work. But it's how they vote in the House of Commons that matters.
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Old 20-05-11, 10:42 AM
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*nods* Yes. When you boil it all down, how they vote is the most important thing. Nonetheless, I do think it matters how they behave too. I get what you're saying about the discrepancy between personal and political behaviour - I've seen it myself often enough - but I still feel that polarising politics results in a lot of avoidable bad behaviour. It also does other things. It creates divisions where there needn't be any, for example. Every now and then you get a case where the two main parties are basically wanting to do the same thing, but they daren't admit that, so they have to find ways of saying "ah, but what we are doing is brilliant, but that amendment the other lot want to pass which may just look like a subtle change to you will actually wreck the whole thing, send the country to the dogs, and probably some small cute animals will die". Exaggeration, but you know what I mean!

If there is one thing I hate with a passion in British politics, it's the consequences which result from people not being allowed to agree about issues which ought not to be contentious, and sometimes also from not being allowed to disagree about issues which are (but the other party has taken position X, so we must obviously take the opposite position Y, and you will toe the party line on this! ). I think the first is more damaging than the second. To have a political party at all, you have to have some degree of compromise among its members, though I think it would be helpful if parties were more open about the fact that there was internal disagreement. But the current system forces everything into black and white, so there is this tremendous pressure on politicians to paint themselves as angels of light and the opposing party as the hordes of darkness, so you get all this appalling mud-slinging going on in public. It's a national disgrace, if you ask me, but it still takes a very brave politician not to join in.
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Old 20-05-11, 04:35 PM
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I totally agree that this polarization is really terrible. The most important issues are usually those where the majority of the population is affected, and where the majority will agree on what's needed. It's not fun to see how the right/left divide will somehow turn this agreement into disagreement.

A conspiracy theorist would probably say that it's a "divide and conquer" plan devised by the new world order, or some secret society, or something like that. I think there's no need for an evil mastermind to do this, it sort of happens on its own.

An utopic ideal for me would be democratically voting every single issue. I'd vote "left-wing" on most issues and "right-wing" on a few, but I don't think need to label myself as belonging to any camp and to put a wall between me an those I could potentially agree with.
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Last edited by Alex Daniels; 20-05-11 at 04:41 PM. Reason: to add: "and to put a wall between me an those I could potentially agree with."
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Old 20-05-11, 04:42 PM
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Yes, it does - as you say, no evil mastermind required.
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Old 20-05-11, 05:28 PM
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At the risk of opening up a can of words, I'll write a U.S. version of this.

It will probably be while ya'll are asleep before it's finished though.
I'm out of some medicine and have to go pick up that and a couple of other things first.
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Old 20-05-11, 05:38 PM
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That would be really interesting. American politics seems to be even more drastically polarised than ours is, so from here it basically looks like : blowup:. You may be able to make more sense of it!
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Old 20-05-11, 06:44 PM
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Hurry up haydnguy. Tomorrow's Rapture.
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Old 20-05-11, 06:46 PM
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This is politics. More rupture than rapture, I'd say!
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Old 20-05-11, 07:18 PM
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This is a fascinating discussion. I, too, have a fantastic MP in Caroline Lucas:



She has made a huge impression in the year since she was elected, managing to combine being both an outstanding constituency MP and Green party leader (admittedly leading a party of one at Westminster). Brighton has become the first borough in Britain to elect a Green-led council and there is no doubt that Caroline is a superb electoral asset.

I also spent more than twenty years in Whitehall as a moderately senior civil servant, dealing with Ministers on a regular basis (and keeping my personal lefty politics completely under wraps). They are a mixed bunch - I have worked with three Ministers who were barely candidate members of the human race (two Labour, one Tory); a handful who have been an absolute joy to work with - and most of the gamut in between. One or two have been utterly barking, and not often in a good way. And their behaviour has not always gone hand in hand with their reputation - I recall one Minister who came to us via Robert Maxwell's empire and Labour politics in the West of Scotland, where her reputation was such that even in an environment where politics was played hard and dirty she was known as "Stalin's granny" - but treated her civil servants with exemplary courtesy and respect.

I think a large part of the problem is the Westminster bubble. Many MPs are not at all grounded - the problem is worse for Ministers with their huge workload - and live in a rareified environment. An increasing number have done nothing outside politics - the decline in Trade Union representation on the Labour benches is a particular problem - and MPs come from an increasingly narrow and privileged range of backgrounds.

A further problem is tribalism. I mentioned Caroline Lucas earlier - the Brighton Labour Party hate her and the Green party like poison, because they feel that they should "own" the non-Tory vote. I've written at some length elsewhere about the tribal problem on the left, but, faced with what I would argue is a deliberate and ideologically-based assault on the living standards of the most vulnerable in society, those on the receiving end of the treatment have the right to expect better of the politicans who represent them.

That in turn reflects the fact that so much political debate is false - in Britain we have three main parties who all advocate fundamentally the same economic vision of society, based on privatisation and the market, and an aggressive foreign policy abroad. We have two parties actively implementing cuts and a third arguing for slightly smaller, fluffier cuts. Not only does it mean that much of the debate is ritualistic and passionless, with point-scoring and personality politics driving out the exchange of ideas, but it is increasingly irrelevant to the growing number of people who are outside the mainstream. Fewer people vote and many fewer are active in politics. Organisation in the workplace is largely confined to the public sector.

I think in Britain we face a huge crisis of democratic legitimacy, with political debate focussed on increasingly narrow ground and increasing numbers of people opting out or taking refuge in the politics of extremism. And I also believe that the incredible nastiness of much of our media is responsible for some of the problem, too
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