I have a sad admission to make!
I have a sad admission to make. One of the highlights of my week is sitting down on a Thursday night to watch Question Time. I don’t know what it is that appeals to me the most: I suspect the prospect of not only political debate but also seeing politicians actually engage and interact live with (shock, horror) “normal people”.
This week though, I finished watching feeling profoundly depressed. A fiery and quite personal exchange between the dashing Tory, Julie Kirkbride, and the tenacious Labourite, Rhodri Morgan, over the exact details of who was giving how many freebies to pensioners was followed by a love-in of sneering by the other panellists. CBI Director-General Digby Jones declared a “plague on both your houses” and Sandi Toksvig, Liberal Democrat comedienne (neither description necessarily consequent on the other!), trotted out the standard Lib Dem line that all this bickering is unsightly and nobody wants it, but that that wouldn’t stop her leaping in herself with a bit of one-upmanship and a sneer about the poll tax.
As if this wasn’t enough to kickstart my weekend I woke up this morning to the chilling headline that 8 out of 10 voters don’t trust politicians to tell the truth and only 16% of those questioned thought that MPs aimed to do the best for the country.
As someone interested in politics this is a pretty sad state of affairs. If this is the genuine and real opinion of those asked then things look scary: how far are we from being ruled by an untouchable elite? That said, we’re surely partly responsible ourselves. If we allow ourselves to be swayed by our own short-term benefit, rather than seeing the bigger picture, is it any wonder politicians now specialise in pandering to this?
Then I cheered myself up a bit. These attitudes seem to have been around for a long time. In 1944, a similar survey showed only a third disagreed that politicians were all out for themselves, and that was during World War II! Politicians have always tried to concoct sweeteners for voters. The fact that it’s not a new phenomenon made me oddly optimistic; perhaps the public’s political pulse is not stopping, it’s just slowed.
What I put it down to is the lack of what George Bush Snr almost intelligently called “the vision thing”. The problem is that people don’t feel the parties can show how they’ll change Britain. People are influenced by single-issue groups and non-party-political political bodies because they see a vision and know what they’ll push for. When political debate is as impenetrable as the recent scuffles over percentages of GDP and a decade of politics when each election has seemed a foregone conclusion, perhaps it’s the lack of the “vision thing” which accounts for disillusionment with politicians as a group. We don’t mind it all so much when we feel there’s something bigger at stake.
Come a close-fought and engaging election, when people feel there is much at stake, then we’ll see this scepticism about politicians tempered by the instinctive interest most people have in where we want Britain to go and what we want it to be. This is the greatest pity of the Labour-inspired scrap about Conservative spending commitments. The last few weeks have seen some debate about the real visions each party had for the country and the election seemed to have more competition to it than at any point in the last ten years. This is now overshadowed by personalities, pettiness and details which ordinary people can’t see impacting on their lives. This is also why Labour’s pre-election campaign has been such a disappointment so far. With an odd twist of fate though, if this makes the result seem closer it might just help us reconnect with politicians and them to reconnect with us.
Aside from this prospect and on another tangent, football may hold a different glimmer of hope for Michael Howard, who’s recently played up his support for Liverpool. The draw for the FA Cup Semi-Finals, earlier this week, means that a Man Utd – Arsenal final is still on the cards. Why could this be symbolic? The last time Man Utd met Arsenal in the FA Cup Final was in 1979, the same year the Tories last left opposition for Government. The result? Arsenal lead 2-0 with 5 minutes to go, before Man Utd scored twice just for Arsenal to score a last minute winner… maybe not such a promising omen after all!