First, an apology.
I originally set up this blog to be a site where I could talk to people about my experiences working for Save the Children in Tunisia and Libya, where the charity is attempting to bring some normality back to the lives of children and young people in refugee camps or ruined cities following the Libyan Civil War.
While I was in Tunisia, this was relatively easy, but for many reasons (lack of internet coverage, sheer weight of work), it became impossible when we were transferred to Sirte, Ghaddafi’s birthplace and the place of his ‘last stand’ (though stories at the time suggested he was killed after being found hiding in a drain, this is disputed by former supporters and opponents of his regime).
Those of you who have seen me in the time since I returned will be aware I have a fair amount to say about Libya (apologies for that) but at present I’m writing it for a book which I expect will enable me to experience rejection by publishers first-hand (another of the things to do before you’re 50 list crossed off). I will post it as and when, but possibly not for a little while.
In the meantime, I have been re-acquainting myself with UK politics and generally winding up and annoying people about it on facebook and several newspaper comment sites. While also writing a book about national politics/recent UK history (I’m really determined to get that rejection thing boxed off) it’s been a way to sound off about stuff, and weirdly also to take a break.
But one thing which has occurred time and again, in researching the things I’m writing, talking rubbish online and having conversations, is that someone will pop up and deliver the line ‘It makes no difference what you do or say. Politicians are all the same. They’re all corrupt, lazy or inept, and even those who aren’t are consistently stifled by those who are. It makes no difference who you vote for, nothing ever changes because they’re all the same.’
Now most of you are well aware of my own political opinions, and I make no apology for them here. At first, I wanted to present this view as being particularly damning for the current government, made up of two parties promising ‘change’ and ‘to do things a different way’. But that would be spectacularly unfair, as it would completely overlook the actions of Her Majesty’s Opposition while they were in government (not just the last time, either) and they deserve just as much credit as the Tories and Lib Dems for the hard work they have put into helping this be the overriding view of national politics.
There is more to being in government than waving a wand and changing everything to the way you want it. We must bear in mind that there are businesspeople – and to some extent unions – who for very different reasons oppose different policies aimed at ‘change’. This is not a value judgement in either case, just a statement of fact. And those interest groups hold power and sway outside of that granted to governments by the electorate.
We must also understand that if we exist in a globalised monetarist system (there are many many conversations to be had about that. I promise I will have as many of them as possible until one of you strangles me to death) politicians simply can’t have control – or even very much influence – over some of the issues which affect people’s daily lives, particularly when it comes to employment of those working for multi-national companies, or firms which are bought by others based overseas.
But these things are only part of a much wider problem – fundamentally, people don’t trust politicians.
Some of the reasons include the fact that a small number of politicians ARE corrupt (a small number of people in every profession are corrupt) while others are willing to ‘push the boundaries’ of corruption, to see what they can get away with. Sadly, the latter is human nature, and in all honesty the legal system has to take some responsibility for the amount of time the ‘grey area’ is encroached upon by politicians and others without consequence.
But in far more cases, politicians have actually lied, or are guilty of gross negligence and/or ineptitude. In making this allegation, I refer specifically to the parties’ seeming inability to hold to their manifesto promises.
In covering the last election, I was lied to twice by the current PM, and promised things which have not been delivered by the leader of the Lib Dems – including policies they have enacted, but not in the way they told the electorate they would.
Again, I do not, under any circumstance, want to fail to applaud the Labour Party for its own breathtaking manifesto failures and U-turns, it’s just that they have not been in power since 2010 to go back on the promises they made to the electorate, so the sting of deception is less raw for me than that practised by the coalition to date.
Either these people deliberately sat there and lied through their teeth so I, a journalist, would pass on a message to the people whose votes they wanted, or they were so inept, indeed lazy, that they had failed to research the state of the nation’s finances before striding out to offer the country an improved education system, NHS, police force, Navy, indeed anything they could think of.
And the latter would be ineptitude and laziness, as every single member of parliament, from independent backbencher to government minister, is entitled to the same information about the topic of their choice, by law. There are no ‘hidden facts’ kept from MPs, as all they have to do is ask, and the information must be provided to them, by law. The excuse ‘things were worse than we thought’ is, therefore, simply an admission that in opposition, a party has failed in its most basic duty – to use the facts to hold the government to account.
As a result, far from attempting to defend the system from accusations of laziness, ineptitude, and a lack of ability or desire to keep the promises made to the voter, I have to conclude that the people who make this point are correct: the system isn’t working, and politicians are at least in part to blame for its failings.
But the result of this has been for people to turn away from politics. Voting figures are falling to such a level that the current majority party in government received 10,703,000 votes from a possible (based on registered voting figures) 47,000,000. The party in government in this country was voted for by just over a fifth of the population of voting age.
This is in part because the voting system in this country is designed for a two- rather than multi-party competition (though AV was a pale imitation of the system with which it should have been replaced) but the fact remains that out of 47m people who could have had a say in the governance of the UK in a period of international crisis, just 29m actually did so.
And the election does make a difference. The coalition has tripled levels of student debt, and its economic policies have caused the country to fall into a second recession (now realistically a depression) with rocketing unemployment. Again, decisions like this were taken by the previous government, which took us into two illegal wars, risking the lives and health of thousands of UK-born troops. Government DOES matter.
Not only that, refusal to take an interest in politics is not only damaging – allowing a tiny minority of energetic voters to change the face of the UK for at least five years at a time – but also of direct benefit to only one group of people: the politicians themselves.
If the view of the electorate is that politicians are lazy, inept or corrupt, then turning away from them only allows them to continue to be so. If you say ‘it makes no difference who we vote for, when they get into power they will only do what they always do, lie, cheat, seal and/or fail’ and that’s the genuine expectation, then nothing happens when they DO lie, cheat, steal or fail, and who benefits?
Politicians are paid huge salaries to represent us. I don’t begrudge them that, as it’s a difficult job, and as is often trotted out many of them could earn more in business. But they’re paid that by us. To do the things they promised to do, which we told them to do by voting for them. So vote, and then hold them accountable.
If someone lies to the electorate, or fails to do what you voted for them to do, tell them. And call for them to be removed, or at the very least to explain themselves at a by-election.
On a grander scale, the system should be altered so that, if a party reaches government and fails to live up to its manifesto promises, or if, as in the current (and some previous) case actually does the opposite of what it promised to win your vote, we should be able to extend the current ‘petition’ system (in which if 1m people sign a petition, the matter they raise must be debated in parliament) to include the following: if 4.8m people (just over ten per cent of the current UK voting population) believe a government is not doing what it said it would in its manifesto, a General Election must be called. This gives the party in government a chance to explain its actions, and the opposition a chance to tell people how it would do things differently (if indeed it would).
We keep preaching about the benefits of a democratic system over all others (actually a view I generally agree with) and even going to war to ‘prove’ we’re right.
But politicians of all stripes are failing in their most basic duty – to do the things they promised they would if they were elected. Don’t excuse them by saying ‘they’re all like that.’ You pay them. Demand better.