Does a perceived distrust of politicians justify redistributing an image meme that was discredited 14 months ago?

Meme debatesThe image meme above went the rounds of social media in November 2014. It was roundly and conclusively fisked by Isabel Hardman on the Spectator Coffee House blog. I noticed that the meme was getting re-distributed a week ago. I pointed out to the people sharing this meme that it had been thoroughly discredited well over a year ago. Interestingly, several replied saying that “most people” think that’s how parliament behaves so it’s not a problem distributing it.

My indignation hit about twelve on the Richter scale.

In fact, I can do no better than repeat the conclusions of Isabel Hardman, a lobby journalist, who wrote:

I suspect that the lack of suspicion about what the graphics purport to show doesn’t just arise because MPs have let us down. It’s also because of a failure to read the internet critically…and a lack of knowledge about what Parliament does and how it works. These memes certainly aren’t doing any explaining, they are deceitfully spreading lies.

It is quite easy to end up writing about the problems with parliament and the failings of politicians. Our assumption tends to be that the problems with politics today lie solely in Westminster. But these memes show that mendacity is found outside SW1 as well as in it. If we must hold our politicians in revulsion – rather than recognising that they’re no more (or less) flawed than the rest of us – then we should at least also hold those who create these totally inaccurate graphics in even lower esteem.

I find it very lazy when people justify abuse of the facts by quoting “most people” or “many people”. It’s a sort of invocation of tyranny on behalf of a supposed large group of people.

Yes, politicians are hardly the most trusted group. But it does irritate me when some generalize about “politicians”. Politicians are just us. They are a reflection of us. In many cases they are extraordinary examples of tenacity and guile. But, by and large, they reflect the failings and strengths of the general public.

It is very misleading to generalize about MPs based on the expenses misadventures of a few, for example. Apart from anything else, a large number of the MPs who were publicized as having abused expenses are no longer in parliament. A fresh lot of MPs has come in.

But when I have seen MPs and politicians working behind the scenes (and in front of them sometimes) I generally see a picture of people who have a high boredom threshold and who are working very hard doing a very unglamorous job for little recognition. Long hours. Grinding travelling. Tedious casework. Low job security.

Yes, the pay is very good and I suppose there is kudos to the role.

But just repeating the “most people hate politicians” line and bolstering it with deceitful images is not going to get us anywhere in properly understanding how our democracy works. If you don’t like “politicians” then try getting elected yourself.

I would suggest having a gander at the Hansard Society’s 2015 Audit of Political Engagement. It shows a much more nuanced and encouraging picture of public attitudes to our democracy than is normally reported.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Politicians put out lots of advertising material and leaflets designed to promote an idea. Often these use completely posed photographs, highly selective “facts” etc. What is the real difference between that and this.
    Maybe the real point is that great chunks of the electorate feel ruled rather than represented and some of them resent paying to feel ignored or even depicted as a mob with a “populist” agenda.

  • Jenny barnes 26th Jan '16 - 5:06pm

    Don’t you mean a high boredom threshold? Ie not easily bored?

  • Barry Snelson 26th Jan '16 - 5:53pm

    In some defence of the meme (whatzza meme?) I have seen several generations of politicians and granted they always had a bit more self-esteem than the average citizen but the current crop (with many noble exceptions) seem to be walking self publicity machines.
    They also seem incapable of leading us out of our economic mess. If they didn’t know what to do they shouldn’t have pushed themselves to the front of the leadership queue in the first place.

  • David Allen 26th Jan '16 - 6:37pm

    Worth explaining that Hardman actually proved that many of these photos were actually completely misrepresented – the crowded House was not in fact discussing pay or expenses at all! Never mind “memes”, these are total, naked, lies!

  • Peter Davies 26th Jan '16 - 9:15pm

    @Glenn: The difference is that if you pulled this sort of stunt in a leaflet, you would be called out by the opposition, the press and the internet. The originator of this meme will probably never be found.

  • And “fisking”, Paul, which I had to look up on Google. By the way, the authors of these internet dictionaries can’t decide whether it was something that Robert Fisk DID, or had DONE to him! Sounds moist unlikely to me. Anyway, who did he work for? The references haven’t told me that. Why not use simple English – less of the blog jargon, Paul.

  • I fail to understand completely the alleged “fisking” of this meme by the Spectator.

    To my eyes, the meme demonstrates something I’ve seen a good number of times: the House of Commons sitting with fewer than twenty members. However, this is NOT a demonstration that MPs are lazy with their noses in the trough. It may well be the case that “MPs pop in and out of long debates because they have other business to attend to”. No doubt they do.

    Quite simply, though, none of this justifies the HoC sitting with so few members. Any other organisation would have a rule on its quorum. It is simply WRONG for the business of the HoC to be structured and conducted in such a way to make those images appear at all. It’s wrong for debates to be dragged on by fillibustering. It’s wrong that MPs can’t conduct enough of their necessary business without missing half of debates.I say that without accusing any MPs of being lazy, corrupt, self-serving or otherwise. I would, however, criticise any MP who turns up to vote after a debate without having attended more than half of the debate.

    So, maybe the meme has been “fisked”, but I’m afraid it’s been fisked for completely the wrong issue.

  • Peter it’s a meme.
    A lot memes are pretty much jokes. I could easily see photographs like this being used on Have I Got News For You in a very similar way. The difference between this and election material is that it is not put out by a political party trying to gain support So there is no equivalence to say misleading voters for political gain.
    In all honesty, I think rather than get worked up about an image used by some wag, why not address why other people circulate it. So I stick by the main thrust my point which is that a lot of people feel ruled rather than represented which is IMO why politicians are “hated”. Maybe, instead of constantly praising politicians who “bravely” undertake decisions that annoy or adversely impact on the people who elected them we should be asking why people should vote for them. I think this cuts to the heart of why Labour lost Scotland and why the Lib Dems lost on the scale we did, as well as why turn outs are so poor.

  • Excellent post Paul.

    I am appalled at how many people defend these lies. There are plenty of rubbish politicians, but we have to pick them out one by one, this blanket smearing gives bad politicians cover and harms good ones, that is a recipe for a deteriorating situation.

    We have to start from the truth, the world as it is, regardless of how much less fun that may be.

  • Michael, you do indeed fail to understand, suggest you read the Spectator article. The crowded house pictures were identified as having been taken during popular debates which had nothing to do with the alleged subjects of pay and expenses, indeed happened years away from the dates claimed. The empty house pictures were deliberately taken at low points when debates had run out of steam so that most MPs had left.

  • OfC the lib dem press office has tweeted this meme several times

  • Absolutely right to lambast any outsider giving selective, biased and misleading information from parliament…After all, the elected members can do that without any outside assistance..

  • expats
    We must also lambast the MPs who do it too, as that is how bad MPs are weeded out. But sweeping untrue memes about all MPs gives cover to those MPs who do make misleading claims. It is also terrible that the LibDem press office has used this.

  • Psi 27th Jan ’16 – 10:56am……….expats……..We must also lambast the MPs who do it too, as that is how bad MPs are weeded out. ….

    Where to start, Psi?…………………. PMQs? Ministerial statements on almost everything? etc. …
    I listened, a short while ago, to a government statement on flooding…Had I believed even half I’d be convinced that that, if necessary, money would be provided to move the UK atop the alps….

  • expats

    I agree that it is a massive task, but we have to start somewhere. I personally would ignore PMQs are they are so vacuous, but picking out ministerial statement and hitting them repeatedly for being misleading will eventually change the balance of incentives, it mis harder work than branding all but it better approach. Perhaps we could also recognise when ministers we dislike reverse bad decision too (a bit of carrot as well as stick).

  • David Allen, I haven’t failed to understand anything. That the photos were taken “were deliberately taken at low points when debates had run out of steam so that most MPs had left” exactly makes the point I was making, which was that the meme doesn’t show what certain people have tried to make it show, but in fact something else which is just as important, as I explained quite clearly, I think.

    I perfectly well understood how the Spectator article proves that the photos do not represent MPs as only being interested in debating their pay rather than other important matters.

  • Laurence Cox 27th Jan '16 - 1:57pm

    I understood what you meant by “fisked” (being an Independent reader) although I had not seen the word before. A quick search on Google revealed it was used in a Spectator article in 2003 (and probably was not original in that). However, you had several alternatives available: you could have said she refuted the meme (or used one of its many synonyms like squelched, crushed, demolished, exploded) which would have been intelligible to everyone. Urban slang may seem ‘cool’ but it can get in the way of communication, particularly with your older readers.

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