Friday, January 19, 2018

What is it about politicians?

I have just finished reading an article of the same title as my column’s by a Tony Wright in The Political Quarterly, Vol. 84, No. 4, October-December 2013. Wright sets out to discuss two main sources of dissatisfaction emerging from the following findings from a survey (by YouGov) about British politicians:

“Politicians seldom give straight answers to straight questions on radio and TV’ (57 per cent);

“Politicians are more interested in scoring political points than doing the right thing’’ (36 per cent);

“Most MPs have too little experience of the real world before they go into politics’’ (34 per cent); and “politics is a game played by an out-of-touch elite who live on another planet’’ (31 per cent).

Wright proposes that the first main source of dissatisfaction is that “politicians are perceived as being engaged in a kind of game, the rules of which enable questions not to be answered, truths not to be told, facts to be distorted, complexities ignored and opponents traduced, all in pursuit of political advantage’, and the second is that they are perceived as living in a closed political world, without experience or knowledge of real life, which makes them unrepresentative and out of touch.’’ He argues that both perceptions are, in part, well founded.

As I read Wright’s article, I automatically related its claims to our own politicians in Trinidad and Tobago. Are they engaged in a game in which they are focused on advantage for self and party? Are they living in a bubble, out of touch with the people and, consequently, unrepresentative of them?

I think many, many people would say so. But what would be their evidence?

Let’s start with the evidence for the first perception first.

People who are old enough look at the politics over the years and see the following, inter alia: exchange of government between heavily race-based (and, in some respects, ethnicity-based) parties; attempts at inclusive government defeated by the race and ethnicity bogeys; criticism by parties of the poverty of constitutional arrangements when they are in opposition but lip service by those same parties to change of such arrangements when they are in government; charges of wickedness, irresponsibility, and recklessness against the government by a party when in opposition but self-proclamation as a paragon of virtuous and responsible governance when in government; the most virulent condemnation of corruption by the opposition of the party in power but viler levels of corrupt behaviour on their part when they succeed the party in power; self-presentation as the party with the best and brightest people with all the answers for all the problems, including runaway crime but massive floundering when faced with the real issues in government; refusal when in opposition to give support to the government on “critical’’ legislation but denouncement of a lack of support from the opposition when in government.

If this kind of evidence does not suggest a political game in which selfishness, on the part of both self and party, trumps the good of the country, what kind of evidence would?

And now for evidence of the second claim: that politicians live in a bubble and are out of touch “with the people’’.

How else would you describe politicians who 1. Get into office on your vote but fail to represent you afterwards, instead giving their support and loyalty to the prime minister and the party but expecting your continued support the next time around? 2. Give the plum jobs and contracts to friends and family and the crumbs to you who are unfortunate enough to fall outside of that circle, but expect your support the next time around? 3. Listen to you perfunctorily in the constituency office and forget about you the moment you leave the office, but expect your support next time around? 4. Ignore you and your constituency for most of the five-year term, remember you in the last year or so and come back with a box drain and a paved road or two, but expect your support the next time around? 5. Marginalise you because of the texture of your hair, or the colour of your skin, or the misery and weakness of your social class, but expect your support the next time around? 6. Splinter in office and trade accusations of greed, graft and exploitation, but expect your support the next time around? 7. Roundly lambaste the government on practically every decision and action, policy or otherwise, offer little in the way of an alternative programme, but fully expect to be reinserted into office the next time around? 8. Presided over most of our independent political life, have no solutions for constitutionally improving our tottering democracy after so long a time, but expect to be reinserted into office the next time around? 9. Lose four elections straight in one year, hold on to office, but fully expect to be kept in power one year later? 10. Sweep into office on your non-partisan vote, waste no time in implementing partisan policies, but expect to enjoy your non-partisan vote again in the next general elections?

Of course, politicians can live in this kind of bubble and be kept in it by the very people they are out of touch with; bubble living and bubble support are endemic to our political culture. The question is, if it is working for them but not the majority of us, how do we fix it?

The answer is a long story, but let’s give Wright’s closing perspective for British politicians:

“[T]he focus should be on political behaviour. In a whole range of respects, the ways in which politicians routinely behave (and believe they need to behave) just turn people off. What seems clever and necessary to them, as part of the political game, only serves to diminish them in the eyes of everybody else. There is a huge challenge here for the whole political class. The further focus should be on the nature and composition of the contemporary political class itself. There is widespread public antipathy to the idea of rule by a class of career politicians who have done nothing but politics. People want politicians who have a life story to tell and not just a political career to advance. A sharp division seems to be opening up between the career and non-career politician (the recent parliamentary vote that prevented a military strike against Syria might be seen as a victory for the latter), but the balance between them is something that demands attention.’’

• Winford James is a UWI

lecturer and political analyst