Opinion: is a more human, more engaging politics too much to ask for?

I joined the Liberal Party, or rather, the Union of Liberal Students, in 1984, because I believed, as I still do, that individuals should be nurtured, but not at the expense of community, and that people had a right to their dignity and freedom. It was a reflection of my upbringing and a gut instinct. For me, democracy and civic society offered a gateway to liberty for all.

Despite that, I never really wanted to be elected to public office – recognition perhaps that I lacked discipline and the necessary level of commitment. Retail politics wasn’t that attractive, and life offered other possibilities. Indeed, having sought the supposedly soft option of the public sector, I discovered that I could actually help people and make my own, small contribution to civic society by doing my job well and administering the tax code with a degree of compassion and a lot of integrity.

Accordingly, my political involvement is predominantly administrative, not a glamorous choice. Attending meetings so that others don’t have to, that is my motto. And, in that I was lucky enough to find myself, through marriage, with a box seat view of first the US Democratic Party and now the House of Lords, I have had more than enough politics to satisfy even an anorak like myself.

On a personal level, my commitment to the role of political parties in shaping civil society is undimmed. The coming together of like-minded individuals in a common cause, compromising as necessary to achieve as many of your policy goals as possible is still, to my mind, the best way to build a better society.

I guess, therefore, that I am not a natural politician, at least not in the modern sense. I find the blind, soundbite driven partisanship of too much of today’s political dialogue faintly depressing – “X said/did Y! They must be stupid/corrupt/evil (delete as appropriate). “Well, your colleague J said/did K so you’re a hypocrite/idiot (delete as appropriate)”. It is all rather unedifying and, when all is said and done, not terribly informative. And yet, that is how our politics is. But you know something, it isn’t good enough.

And I find the way that politicians and society interact deeply troubling. The sheer hostility of some of the participants towards anyone who dares to disagree, or is imperfect, appears intended to drive out the thoughtful, the genuinely open-minded and the undecided from the political arena, the very people who are capable of engaging the public in a proper two-way dialogue. The lack of respect for others, the seemingly total denial of the possibility that somebody might hold a different view for reasons that may be equally valid in their eyes, debases our body politic, as does the assumption that, whatever a politician says, it cannot be taken at face value. And it isn’t just some of those who join political parties who do that, it’s those people who feel the urge to lecture from outside in an aggressive, intolerant manner, yet offer no constructive suggestions of their own.

I therefore believe that our politics is broken. No, I’m not arrogant enough to think that I have all, or indeed, many of the answers. I do have a lot of questions though.

So, I have decided that I am going to campaign for civil society over the coming year. Yes, it will be liberal in its approach or, at least, liberal as I perceive the word, but it will be curious and questioning. You may have to answer some questions along the way, but I will listen to your answers with an open mind, I promise.

But bear with me, you might learn something…

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22 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 27th Dec '13 - 10:19am

    I have recently taken the approach of understanding we are all human and that entails serious fallibilities.

  • I think this attitude is inbred into our first past the post system because it is a case of winner takes all. The stakes are so high and the cost of “losing” i.e. not taking total outright control is so great that it breeds conflict rather than discussion and co-operation.

    The cultures of both Labour and Conservative parties are so strongly imbued with this approach – I want power and I want it all, so get out of my way – mean that anyone who adopts a less aggressive, conflictual approach is trampled under foot.

    That, sadly, is the position in which we Lib Dems find ourselves as we approach the final stages of the current government. The question is, do we have the strength to fight back, but to do so in a way that makes us distinctive yet still worthy of attention and support?

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Dec '13 - 10:33am

    I agree 100% with what you have written here, Mark.

    This different sort of politics you talk about here is why I joined the Liberal Party, thinking it could provide it. It is why I get so angry about the Liberal Democrats now, or at least its top levels, as it seems to be dominated by slick Public Relations types, who seem to be all about this clever-clever yah-boo-suck politics which I agree are so damaging – to the very idea of democracy.

    I think this contributes to a lot of the disappointment with the Coalition. I feel the disappointment comes not just its very right-wing nature, which was inevitable with the party balance in it, though we have messed that up by not making it clear from the start that’s how it would be and it’s not what we ideally wanted, but also from the way at the start it promised a different sort of politics, but it hasn’t delivered that. When people see our party going in for yah-booh-suck attacks on Labour, as if politics was back to the two party system: Coalition v. Labour, they don’t like it not just because it makes us seem we have been absorbed by the Tories, but because it’s the opposite of the sort of co-operative anti-confrontational politics people thought having a coalition might lead to. Sure, Labour did a lot of things wrong, but so did, and do the Conservatives.

  • The problem is that nuanced, considered replies to yah-booh pronouncements don’t grab headlines, particularly where we have a press that is predisposed to ignore and sideline what we are saying anyway.

    Voters have short attention spans and working out how to grab headlines without over-simplifying and sometimes distorting matters is something we have yet to master.

  • Paul Pettinger 27th Dec '13 - 12:48pm

    http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/dec/26/fury-mps-not-voting-poll

    Mark, how do you respond to the findings in The Guardian’s recent ICM poll suggesting that politicians not keeping promises is the most prevalent issue behind political disengagement?

  • @ Paul Pettinger

    I’m not Mark, obviously, but my reply would be that politicians are predisposed to promise things they can’t deliver because if they tell the truth about what is actually deliverable, people won’t vote for them.

    Just look at Ed Miliband, for example, he’s made a big issue out of the cost of living, knowing full well that he can’t deliver any meaningful improvement in the situation because it’s not being caused by government policy, rather by the workings of the labour market and food and energy prices, which are set by world markets. Likewise, Labour’s implicit promise that somehow cuts can be avoided because austerity is really just the fault of the nasty ConDems. Clearly that’s nonsense.

    Yet apparently voters are just lapping it up, ready to vote out the Coalition because they have been promised lots of nice stuff by Labour. They are setting themselves up for the next round of disappointment.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 27th Dec '13 - 6:31pm

    @ Paul Pettinger,

    I think that broken promises are, of course, a key factor, but I would differentiate between well-intentioned but ultimately flawed ones, and those which have no underpinning in workable policy. For one thing, the delivery upon a promise may be conditional on factors beyond one’s complete control, or it may be possible to deliver in part through compromise.

    Coalition offers some major dilemmas. How much of a cake is better than none, what compromises might be offered in pursuit of a better, if imperfect, whole? As a body politic, in a system founded on conflict, such questions are difficult to debate openly and honestly, when the media (with a few honourable exceptions) prefer to couch such things in an oppositional, personality-driven context. No room is left for honest doubt, or uncertainty. Policy X will contribute towards the solving of problem Y – after all, when did you last hear a politician say that they expected policy X to solve policy Y but that it might not?

    At the same time, politicians need space to ask genuinely open questions, to push sensitively against the boundaries of existing policy, without the assumption being drawn that, if they move their lips, they must be lying or be of evil intent. And some of the debate, even here at LDV, does stray into that territory from time to time. Rather than attack the bearer of the idea, why not examine the idea itself, its justification and the theory that underpins it?

    Just a thought…

  • “… the delivery upon a promise may be conditional on factors beyond one’s complete control, or it may be possible to deliver in part through compromise.”

    The most notorious broken promise of recent years was the pledge by individual parliamentary candidates of all parties to vote against any increase in tuition fees. There are no external factors that can compel an MP to break a promise of that kind, and – frankly – no excuses for doing so.

  • Sean O'Curneen 28th Dec '13 - 8:55am

    Good post Mark. My favourite quotation comes from a great Spanish liberal thinker, Dr. Gregorio Marañón, who said in the 1950s: “It is easier to die for an idea, and I would add that it is less heroic, than to try to understand the ideas of others.”
    In other words, the truly heroic thing is to try to understand why others believe what they believe. If everyone took that approach, solutions could be found much more efficiently and with much greater consensus, thereby allowing society to move forward much more smoothly.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 28th Dec '13 - 5:45pm

    @ Chris,

    I was trained not to make a commitment to a specific action unless I knew that I had control over the means of delivery. The tuition fees pledge, to me at least, seemed to assume that Liberal Democrats would form the next Government (extremely unlikely), or be in opposition (realistically likely for virtually the entire period from 2005 to 2010).

    Given the declared stances of both Labour and Conservatives in relation to the Browne Report, the pledge was therefore sustainable – it was apparently funded, at least. That was, until Coalition.

    Our politics is designed to cope with one party, majoritarian government. Manifestos never talk about what might happen if that were not to be the case for fear of looking defeatist. As a result, you have to make your compromises later, in the face of accusations of betrayal from those who don’t like, or don’t get, compromise.

    I think that tuition fees have demonstrated the difficulties of the politics of compromise. Do you adhere to a pledge in the face of overwhelming opposition from the two major parties, or do you use your influence to make the inevitable less painful? I think that, having made a pledge, the MPs should have voted in line with it and then returned to the table for a debate. However, that assumes that there weren’t other conditionals in play, and because the priority in the early stages was to make coalition work, we just don’t know.

    If there is one potential consolation, it is that political parties will be less likely to make such pledges in future. That said, is that what voters want?

  • Bit surprised that no-one else has commented as RC did first, about it being the consequence of the voting system that we have. But given that it is unlikely to change even for 2020, what do we do instead? Other alternatives, such as greater diversity among MPs, are even more long term.

    We have a big issue in Essex that shows the problem is not just Parliament. Some of the people unhappy with a council decision conclude it is another reason to not bother voting, rather than that they should engage more with the system and seek to get it overturned.

  • stuart green 29th Dec '13 - 12:00pm

    Hi Mark. I think people who get into politics with high (and honourable) principles (like many LDs) have a rather idealistic view of the electorate. By and large the voters want to elect politicians to solve their problems (and will profess of course that they are society’s problems ad well) and then want them just to get on with it without troubling them again.

    This is fine of course if they make a reasoned choice between conflicting ideas and solutions. But that depends on them being informed and aware of all the facts – which is highly unlikely, give the hysteria-led nature of our media.

    So, assuming they have no principled or gut-instinct reasons to reject a candidate on policy grounds, they make a choice between politicians’ personalities and perceived strengths.

    We now enter the world of modern American hype, glitz, image-making, etc, etc. The candidate with the whitest teeth and who does nothing to upset anybody wins. And that’s because we are electing a Champion to fight on our behalf.

    The image makers will tell you that, in that scenario, people may say they want honourable and principled people, but when the chips are down they want someone to ” lie for England” and if the dragon to be slain is nasty, to be nastier still…… which means signs of too much reasonableness and willingness to compromise can be attacked and portrayed as “weakness”. Obviously this is unfair but instilling in the voters’ minds, however subconsciously, that your opponent will be “weak” in standing up for your interests is usually a fatal blow.

    All very depressing, I’m afraid – and, like you, Mark I have no solutions – other than to be firm in not letting one’s outlook be corrupted by the wicked world.

    PS – I too am a failed politician 🙁

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Dec '13 - 4:24pm

    Mark Valladares

    The tuition fees pledge, to me at least, seemed to assume that Liberal Democrats would form the next Government (extremely unlikely), or be in opposition (realistically likely for virtually the entire period from 2005 to 2010).

    It was a pledge to vote AGAINST something. That is odd, because if you are leading the government, you’re the ones proposing the policies, so you wouldn’t be voting against policy proposals, but if you are in opposition, voting against the government’s policies is what you do generally anyway. So the pledge only makes sense in the situation of we are actually in – of being the smaller party in a coalition. That is, the only way I can interpret it is as saying we would make this the big sticking point in the coalition, and be ready to split from the bigger party in the coalition over it and vote against should it be proposed.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Dec '13 - 4:34pm

    stuart green

    I think people who get into politics with high (and honourable) principles (like many LDs) have a rather idealistic view of the electorate. By and large the voters want to elect politicians to solve their problems (and will profess of course that they are society’s problems ad well) and then want them just to get on with it without troubling them again.

    By and large the voters want to elect politicians to deliver the impossible, and also want them to be honest. So when they don’t deliver the impossible they accuse then of being weak. Mostly politicians don’t tell lies – they just tell one side of the story and leave it to the voters to imagine the other. So, people want bigger and better public services – and less taxation. A party may promise bigger and better public services – and remain quiet on the taxes it will have to increase to pay for it. Or it may promise cuts in taxation – and remain quiet on the services it will have to cut. Now the people IMAGINE the other side of the better services is taxes remain the same, and they IMAGINE the other side of lower taxes is that services remain the same. So they accuse the politicians of being liars when they don;t get what they imagined.

    We need a different sort of politics which is more honest about the options, and which admits there is a balance, and that the people need to say what sort of balance they want, rather than just opt for one side in ignorance of the implications on the other.

  • I find it quite astonishing that Mark Valladares could write what he did, particularly as he was responding to my comment pointing out that it was “pledge by individual parliamentary candidates of all parties to vote against any increase in tuition fees”. The pledge was nothing to do with the Lib Dem manifesto, and didn’t originate with the party. In fact it was formulated by the NUS, not the Lib Dems, and was signed by candidates of all parties (even the odd Tory or two). Of course it didn’t presuppose the Lib Dems would be in government!

    Shouldn’t a “more human, more engaging politics” start with people actually listening to and trying to understand what has been said, before replying to it?

  • The Party really needs to get its act together on the tuition fees issue.

    I personally do not accept the need for tuition pees to be funded under anything other than general taxation, after all the enhanced education is to the benefit of the whole. However, this has not happened and does not have the support of the larger parties anyway.

    Other than general taxation, the next best, supported by the NUS was a graduate tax. This was deemed unworkable – too many could evade it.

    Lib Dems have to make the case for the virtues of the present system, which is a hybrid of a graduate tax, but more like a loan to those who end up at the top end of the income range. To new students nothing is paid up front: there is no disincentive for the poor. Only those on quite substantial salaries have increased deductions as a component of their tax liabilities: i.e. just like a PAYE graduate tax. There is a sunset clause so that the least well off do not pay a penny and average earners only pay a fraction of the theoretical dues; in other words nothing like a debt to a bank, building society of loan shark.

    This is the case that has to be made. The politically attractive alternative would have been to change nothing and hang this albatross around Labour. This did not happen so the party and particularly those responsible for agreeing to this system need to advocate strongly for its virtues. Nick Clegg has failed us twice on this, because his apology merely compounds the defects of how this issue has unfolded. He along with fellow ministers and party decision makers need to to present a sustained argument to present the positive case.

  • “… in other words nothing like a debt to a bank, building society of loan shark.”

    Except that it is a debt, and all the features that currently make it look unlike a debt can be changed unilaterally by the lender.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 29th Dec '13 - 10:01pm

    @ Matthew,

    Voting against something matters more when you’re the government when, in truth, you more accurately don’t introduce legislation on the matter at all, or in opposition, when you vote against any such Bill introduced by the Government of the day. Ironically, you might argue that it has real power when in opposition to a split Coalition – but are we really likely to be in such a position?

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 30th Dec '13 - 1:25am

    @ Chris,

    Perhaps you should raise the bar in terms of what you consider astonishing. I’m not aware that any other party so actively encouraged its candidates to sign the pledge, one that coincided so neatly with stated Liberal Democrat policy. I presume that the decision to do so was based on some calculation of risk, although that may be a heroic assumption.

    But you make an interesting point about the phrase “more human, more engaging politics”. It does suggest a greater tolerance for others, rather than a hint of contempt. The notion that politicians should show rather more respect for the intelligence of the voters might be well balanced by some restraint in terms of the assertion by some commentors that politicians are basically dishonourable.

  • “Perhaps you should raise the bar in terms of what you consider astonishing. I’m not aware that any other party so actively encouraged its candidates to sign the pledge, one that coincided so neatly with stated Liberal Democrat policy. I presume that the decision to do so was based on some calculation of risk, although that may be a heroic assumption.”

    If you’re now trying to say that when it “actively encouraged” its candidates to sign the pledge, the party was acting on the assumption that it wouldn’t be part of a coalition government, I think that’s been fairly self-evident to most of us for a long time. (Not that that provides the slightest excuse for those candidates breaking their word subsequently.)

    But of course that’s quite different from what you said above – “The tuition fees pledge, to me at least, seemed to assume that Liberal Democrats would …” I repeat, the wording of the pledge was written by the NUS, the pledge was signed by candidates of all parties, and obviously the pledge itself involved no assumption about what would happen to the Lib Dems after the election.

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