Daniel Pryor laments MPs failure to engage a predominantly disinterested younger generation.
IN THE dying days of 2012, I found myself relaxing over a pint in a small Devon pub. Surrounded by a group who were chattering excitedly about gay marriage, it dawned on me that political conversation topics were a relative rarity. Many fellow students at my current grammar school appear to be devoid of genuine political interest, and as for my previous school? Mention the word ‘politics’ and be met with a punishingly awkward silence. Maybe I have been particularly unfortunate. Maybe I’m wrong to think that Britain today is a nation stunted by the blight of political apathy. But when considering recent estimates that less than half of the population are interested in politics, it might be the case that my own experiences are part of a wider trend.
Rather than positing one sole cause of this ennui, an examination of the state of British politics today yields a wide variety of contributory factors. One of the most visible problems is that the political class seems to have lost the trust of ordinary voters. Trust is a scarce commodity in 2013. A week may be a long time in politics, but those outside Westminster have longer memories.
The expenses scandal continues to leave a bitter taste in the mouth of the electorate. Seldom does a month go by without revelations of unlawful expenses claims; December last year saw former Labour MP Margaret Moran sentenced to a two year supervision and treatment order after stealing over £53,000 from the taxpayer, and the preceding November will be remembered for the antics of Dennis ‘MacShame’. But benefitting fraudulently at the expense of the taxpayer is just the tip of the iceberg. With the ‘low hum of fraternal intrigue around the Labour leadership, a husband-and-wife team in the shadow cabinet, along with two sisters, and Mr and Mrs Harriet Harman now both sitting in the Commons’ , any notion of UK politics being meritocratic withers before the eyes.
Westminster appears even more out-of-touch when examining the current ‘government of millionaires’. Whilst being a member of the Bullingdon Club doesn’t necessarily render your every word invalid, it can be argued that the Conservative Party have yet to truly ‘detoxify’ their image as the collective manifestation of Monopoly Man. Indeed, privilege pervades all corners of the House of ‘Commons’. In a country where just 7% of people attend fee paying schools, 54% of Conservatives, 40% of Liberal Democrats and 15% of Labour MPs have done so. MPs might even be forgiven for their educational backgrounds, but when the apparent ‘party of protest’ performed one of the most memorable U-turns in political history, any notion of a trustworthy political class was shredded to pieces: particularly for young people who had previously hoped for a fresh new form of politics.
Understandably, this political cynicism can result in outright disconnection and disillusionment. Many see no discernible difference between today’s parties. The existence of the first Coalition government since World War II and frequent usage of phrases such as ‘Lib/Lab/Con’ embody the post-Thatcher consensus, with a gaping ideological deficit perceived as permeating the three major parties. The pitched battles of politics are now, it seems, fought over minor details. Even ‘radical’ newcomers, such as UKIP, are shooting themselves in the foot by removing their Youth Wing Chairman and a prospective parliamentary candidate for holding personal views that diverged from official party policy.
Yet there are possibilities for action that could at least mitigate this downward slide into the mire of indifferent consensus. The National Curriculum for Citizenship bears no mention of students debating their views until Key Stage 4: injecting the excitement of debate at an earlier stage may kindle greater interest in the issues that affect us all. Some have also suggested involving more young people in the political process by lowering the voting age to 16. Introducing open primaries, it is claimed, will ‘shift power from party hierarchs to voters’ and fill the four-year gap between elections with a dynamic ‘invisible primary’.
Yet does this widespread disenchantment point to something deeper – something inherently wrong with the whole system? The advent of social media has decentralised the dissemination of information and helped to contribute to the exposure of the true state of the British state. It may also be helping to facilitate a certain realisation, put in the immortal words of The Thick of It’s fictional Malcolm Tucker. According to him, there exists:
“A political class which has given up on morality, and simply pursues popularity at all costs”.
Has democracy always been like this? Can it ever be anything other than a popularity contest?
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