Thursday, 16 April 2009

Provoking Political Participation

Glasgow City Council is looking to ban political posters during elections, with the Executive due to vote on the measure this Friday. Unlike most things in Glasgow this seems to have cross-party support and therefore will come into force.

The argument behind the move is an environmental one - the ban comes under the Clean Glasgow campaign and is designed to cut down on waste and the cluttering up of public property with tattered signs. In addition it has been expressed that this will help re-engage the electorate with the democratic processes.

I support the measure, but I think that the intention, particularly the belief that it will increase participation, is misguided. My support for it is based on the fact that I don't believe the posters do very much to inform the electorate. Voters do not seem to notice who has put posters up - if anything the focus seems to be on who hasn't put anything up, forcing parties to waste time, effort and money on pointless signage merely so that voters don't complain about a lack of input from them.

However, the absence of posters is not going to stimulate political participation from its moribund levels. Working in the field, I find it depressing how common it is to hear people express the belief that politics does not matter. At all. In any way. Now, I hold that with most people you can find something political in five minutes which affects them, however the disconnect is firm and deep, and is incredibly damaging to our democracy.

This disconnection is only being further strengthened by the ridiculous mess that is MP's allowances. I am honestly hard pressed to think of a way, particularly during an economic downturn, that would be more successful in turning people off politics. The country is suffering, people are losing their jobs, businesses are closing - but it's ok, our politicians are still managing to claim money without receipts or indeed any justification. And we wonder why people are fed up!

The climate of disconnection is a very dangerous one and is helping to fuel the growth of extreme groups such as the BNP. To combat it we are going to need to do much more than simply ban political posters. We need a fundamental reimagining of our entire system of politics.

When I worked in Shettleston constituency (the most socially deprived constituency in the UK) a common response when I tried to get people interested in politics was "it is only for old, wealthy, university educated men". Working with the ethnic minority population in Scotland now, the response is identical except for the addition of the word 'white' to enhance the exclusion. This is a very sad reflection on the state of our democracy. Traditionally one of the greatest strengths of our system has been that it has been open to everyone. Whilst in the US it is virtually impossible to ascend to higher office without vast personal wealth (enhanced with corporate funding), in the UK it has been possible for people (well, if I'm being honest I should say men) from all walks of life to be elected - John Prescott would never have been a Congressman or Senator in the US, let alone second in charge. However, this is dying out. So many of our elected representatives are now professional politicians - coming from middle class backgrounds, studying politics at good universities, working for politicians before being elected.

There always will be this type of politician, and in themselves they are not necessarily a bad presence. However, when they start to become the dominant feature of our elected bodies then it is clear that we have lost our links between communities and their representatives. When voters look at the elected bodies, they seem distant, isolated and elitist structures, swathed in arcane practice and exclusive language - clearly these have no relevance to them. Choosing to become involved in politics is daunting for anyone, but when all interactions are focussed through language which requires a narrow and unrealistic education history to be understood, the vast majority of citizens will be excluded, leaving a political caste to run the country.

We need to increase political education - there is far too much information that is taken for granted. People from all walks of life struggle with terminology and concepts which are regularly used in the media and by politicians with no explanation. This presumption excludes people - if anything, the presumption should be of less knowledge and worked up from there.

We need to create methods for supporting people who wish to become involved in elected representation so that they can be trained and supported. This should be a no-brainer for the political parties. From my own political perspective, if the Labour Party could be encouraging and supporting a wider range of candidates to stand for election (young people, women, ethnic minorities, non university education people) then the bonds which used to exist with many communities in Scotland could be reforged.

We need to reform the expenses system so that every single penny is clearly and easily justified. Politicians do a difficult job but they are substantially paid for a role which, in my opinion anyway, is vocational in nature and should be about more than just money. A complete review of the system, the introduction of online accounts accessible to all of the public, and strict punishments for those misusing or abusing their positions must be implemented to try and restore public faith in politics.

I, for one, won't be upset to see the back of political posters on lamp posts - I was involved in putting them up at the last election and found it a waste of time when I could be knocking doors - but it is ultimately a superficial measure which will not halt the decline in the relevance of our democracy. That is a challenge which will require a new direction and a new politics. This is a task which may be beyond those already elected and embroiled in the system - perhaps this could be the role which the much maligned blogosphere can take as its own, and serve as its greatest contribution to society?


Stuart Winton said...

I think election materials in Dundee have been banned from lampposts etc for a while, but I think the rationale is road safety rather than environmental clutter.

Doesn't stop the council putting huge illuminated and unsightly advertisting hoardings on the lampposts, though, but I suppose different standards apply when it comes to lining council coffers!

But you're right, I doubt if it makes a blind bit of difference to voting, and the rest of your critique is wise words as well, but in view of that, and your closing remarks in particular, I wonder what you're doing in the Labour party, Jamie ;0)

Not a Village in Westminster said...

Well, I'm an unashamed optimist I suppose! On a serious level, despite the criticism/cynicism of my closing remarks (obviously I've been reading your blog too much Stuart!) I do believe in the importance and potential of political parties within our system. Being a member of a political party is always challenging - in my view if there is nothing you struggle with in your party you are probably not thinking enough - however it also presents the potential to make the changes to society that I believe in.

I'm certainly not an unthinking party member - I try to be as open-minded as possible, looking to see what can be learnt from other political perspectives rather than just blindly presuming I'm right. And it can be a struggle. However, I also get the chance to see the positive impact that my party can make (we have done, I promise!) and to be motivated to be that positive change myself.