Dave Penman: Politics is in crisis. Only politicians can fix it

Written by Dave Penman on 15 November 2019 in Opinion
Opinion

Next month’s election is an opportunity to fix the nation’s broken politics, but politicians must rise to the challenge by remembering the reasons they chose this job in the first place 

Photo: PA

It says something about the chaotic and dysfunctional nature of our politics that just 24 hours after defeating a motion for an election on 12 December, parliament voted for an election on 12 December.

I imagine I’m like most people in that I have mixed feelings about an election. I’m not looking forward to the endless repeated news cycles of pre-manufactured, focus-grouped sound bites being fed daily to the press and endlessly pored over. There is, of course, the chance that something significant might actually happen, with journalists lining up to say how unpredictable it will all be. But it all feels a bit like Formula One commentators talking up the race in advance of the Monaco Grand Prix. For all the talk, it’s impossible to overtake and bar an act of self-destruction, the pole sitter usually leads a procession to the podium.

I think I’m just desperate for something different. I can’t imagine anyone – except news editors, of course – who wouldn’t consider donating a kidney if it meant we never heard the word Brexit again. You can see the political strategists playing on this fatigue and I know how critical Brexit is for the future of our country, but increasingly I don’t click on the Brexit-related stories or follow the Brexit-obsessed tweeters.


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Brexit may have had a toxifying effect on our political discourse, but on reflection I think it has just intensified a deterioration that was already well under way. Politics feels more than a bit rotten at the moment. Ipsos Mori’s Veracity Index, the one that measures trust in professions, has effectively concluded that politicians cannot sink any lower when it comes to public trust.

That’s such a pity, because there are so many dedicated, talented politicians who are trying to make a difference to people’s lives. Unfortunately, they’re operating in an environment where many of their peers – and increasingly the parties themselves – have consistently failed to live up to the standards and ideals that are supposed to have motivated them in the first place. No party is immune from accusations of cover-ups or delays when it comes to addressing numerous scandals regarding personal and institutional failings.

“I can’t imagine anyone – except news editors – who wouldn’t consider donating a kidney if it meant we never heard the word Brexit again”

Ambition has always played a part in politics, but it would seem that too many politicians look in the mirror each morning and try to convince themselves that their principle-free naked ambition is actually a testament to their commitment to public service – and it shows.

It feels like we’ve come through a period where politicians and their cheerleaders in the press will do or say anything to advance their own particular cause. The civil service, judiciary, each other – all are fair game for condemnation and dismissal using increasingly emotive language. There is no middle ground, no common cause and opponents are painted as two-dimensional caricatures, to be cynically ridiculed and abused as enemies or betrayers.

Increasingly hostile members of the public, facilitated by the anonymity that social media brings, have taken their lead from the language used by political leaders. They now routinely abuse and threaten politicians, political commentators and journalists. Is it any wonder an increasing number of politicians from across the political spectrum have had enough and are choosing a life outside of this maelstrom? Whatever your thoughts on their politics, it’s clear that we are losing a number of serious, dedicated public servants. Equally worrying is the proportion of women MPs who are leaving mid-career, citing the culture of abuse.

Our politics is in crisis and, like many crises, we need a moment to recast, recalibrate and recover. I don’t know if that will be this election – much may depend on the outcome – and, of course, we may end up like 2017, with the stalemate hard-wired into the numbers in parliament.

Despite all of this, I still think the vast majority of politicians, in all parties, set out on a path of trying to do good. They choose politics to make a difference to people’s lives but get blown off course and become prisoner of a system that rewards loyalty and discipline rather than principles and leadership.

Our political leaders need to step back and consider whether this is the manner in which they want to lead. Is this really what they hoped for when they rehearsed their speeches in the mirror as a child? If not, they must consider what needs to be done to fix our increasingly polarised politics. Who else but them has the power to effect change?

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Dave Penman
About the author

Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA union. He tweets as @FDAGenSec

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