Every day we see politicians on our television screens, hear them on our radios, and read about them in our newspapers. Entire programmes are dedicated to them, double page spreads tell us about this announcement or that faux pas. You’d think we actually cared.
But we don’t. Only 65% of us turned out to vote in the critical 2010 general election. Only just over 50% of Scots bothered voting in the 2011 Scottish elections, and less than 40% of Scottish voters showed up at the polling station to vote for their local councillor in May 2012. (Those are the folk who get paid around £16,000 to make decisions about local planning, waste collection, libraries – you know all those every day services we like to complain about when they go wrong. – As opposed to the folk who get paid three times that to bicker on television.)
So why are parliamentary politicians still so prevalent in the media? My theory goes something like this:
The people who still vote, and who say they are interested in politics, and whose vote might possibly make a difference, are also the people who make television programmes, and write newspaper articles, and are involved in broadcasting radio shows. So they think politics is interesting, and that politicians are the representation of that interest.
Back in the real world, the people who don’t vote (so who the politicians don’t care about) are more interested in whether the local school is going to be refurbished, or wondering why an incinerator is being planned for the meadows between their town and the motorway, or are confused about why their benefits have been cut when all they did was seek to do some voluntary work to try and keep their skills current.
They, we actually, are increasingly distanced from professional politics – where today’s promise is tomorrow’s impossibility, where it’s easy to forget how hard it is to get by on a shoestring because you have a decent salary and an inexhaustible expense account, where every discussion is theoretical, and no consequence is ever your fault. How on earth can we be expected to understand these people, or they us, when the gulf between us widens exponentially every day.
Why do we continue to allow people with little or no experience of the lives most of us live to govern us and make decisions about what should be done with our money?
Of the 2010 intake of MPs, over a third of MPs (35%) attended a fee paying school (with twenty MPs educated at the same fee-paying school) and over three quarters of MPs are university graduates (with a quarter of MPs graduating from the same two universities). In 1979 around 16% of MPs were formerly manual workers; in the 2010 intake this was just 4%. For more than half (56%) of the 2010 intake the MP’s salary represents a decrease on their wage with almost one third (31%) taking a pay cut of £30,000 p.a. or more (the average full-time salary in the UK was £26,100 in 2011).
Yes, you read that right. For more than half of the currently sitting MPs, the salary of £65,738 represents a decrease of more than the average full-time salary in the UK. How on earth can someone for whom their new job equals a salary cut larger than the average wage understand what it is like to live on the average wage? Or for that matter significantly less than the average wage. Or benefits?
The only way to ensure that decisions are made by people who understand, fully and comprehensively, the ramifications of those decisions is for those decisions to be made as closely as possible to the people who are affected by them. And by people who give two hoots about those ramifications. And to give those people proper budgets and proper salaries (or find some other way of recompensing them like a sabbatical type scheme).
Additionally, the structures who implement the decisions need to be brought into the 21st century, and their staff should be given enough respect that they in turn show respect to their clients. Because if the government is slowly eroding your salary, your job, nay the very concept of the public state that you work in, it’s kind of understandable that you might not perform to the highest of standards. And if your targets are to ‘move people off benefits’ (with no definition of where you might move them to) rather than ‘improve their lives’ then it’s going to wear you down after a while.
I am talking about a revolution. I’m talking about re-fashioning the way we ‘do politics’ so that we put people at the heart of the matter. I’m talking about embracing the idea that participation and happiness and equality are more important that bankers bonuses. I’m saying that actions speak louder than words, and that right now the words spoken by our politicians are transparent. They are hollow, empty statements, with no achievable outcomes or goals that will result in real change attached to them.
And I don’t blame them for that, it’s the curse of the market economy. Where outputs and expenditure and moving money around for the benefit of the few is more important than achieving change.
So why do only 50% of people vote? Because the other 50% don’t think their voice is important. Because however much people claim to listen, no-one is hearing. No-one is hearing the clamour for revolution, for truly showing respect and for enabling everyone to be the best that they can be. No-one is genuinely challenging the way we run our economy and the constant societal failings that are linked to relying on money as a standard bearer.
If we changed what we value, if we valued discussion and debate rather than blind agreement; if we valued voluntary work and unpaid carers and emotional support rather than share prices and gossip columns; if we valued people not money; and if we could believe our elected representatives valued what we value, and not simply success and power, then, maybe, more of us would take an interest in politics. And vote.
But it’s a vicious circle, because the communities with low turnout are the ones least well looked after by political interests, and vice versa. And so it will continue, unless we somehow stop this insane ride and just get off.