A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

A More Damaged State of Affairs

In Home Affairs, The Media on February 21, 2010 at 11:07 am

By Stephen Wan

I applaud James Langford for his excellent piece on the MP’s expenses scandal, which argues well the positive effects that have come out of the affair, reaching the conclusion that the “expenses scandal has been good for us”. Unfortunately, whilst I do agree with many of the points he has raised, I think several important points have been overlooked that might not paint the expenses scandal in such a positive light.

Firstly, the expenses scandal is a symptom and a catalyst, but not the cause, of growing public apathy to politics. The trend of an increasing ‘distance’ between the electorate and MPs began a long time ago with ‘New’ Labour (see graph), and their increasing emphasis on spin and media control. This led to a growing distrust of politicians and their apparent willingness to win votes more than follow their own convictions. The expenses scandal just highlights this distance, and has definitely made it worse, as British Social Attitudes show only 16% of people trust the government to put the country above their party all or most of the time. There are many other reasons for high apathy to politics, but the expenses scandal has made it worse, and the direct ‘solutions’ to it will not reverse this trend, percisely because they do not deal with the underlying problems; perception of spin, lack of perceived difference/competitiveness between parties, and arguable an electorate increasingly uneducated in politics.

In the long-run perhaps, the shake-up of the audit system, the injection of new MPs into Parliament, and even the prosecution of MPs for fraud (which I doubt will do much good as I’ve mentioned before) might have positive effects. However, until these supposed good effects materialise, and in the face of current evidence that trust in politics has decliend, it would be premature to call the expenses scandal ‘good for democracy’.

Indeed, I belive that the expenses scandal has highlighted one of the worst aspects of our modern democracy; the control and power of the media. A strong, independent media is of course the cornerstone of any liberal democracy; however, the ability of those few who control the national publications, and their willingness to pursue their own political agenda (the Sun is a case in point) shows the elitist nature of our supposed pluralist society. The expenses scandal has tipped the balance in favour of the media, as the politicians are now even more at their mercy of relentless media onslaughts.

I’m sceptical of “Tower Block of Commons” having any positive effect in re-connecting MPs and their constituents, having horrible flashbacks of George Galloway acting as a cat. Whilst I certainly see the difference between in a tower block and in the Big Brother House, ‘reality’ TV is not the place for elected representatives of the United Kingdom. George Galloway said, “I’m a great believer in the democratic process. Big Brother is watched by millions“. Ironic that he made so many others lose their faith in democracy at the same time.

I also firmly disagree with the idea that it is at a local level that “parliamentarians must now focus their time”. Politics may be coming to life at a local level and that is a good thing and important for our democracy, but we must never forget the importance of decisions made at a national level. That is the primary role of MPs. They must make decisions that, at times, goes against the interests or wishes of their constituents for the good of the country; that is how representative democracy works. For political action at a local level, we have elected councillors, people who live and work in the area everday for the people there, and who thus know best what actions to take. It makes no sense to dual-purpose MPs roles, when we already have elected politicians whose focus “is on the doorstep and in the community”.

It is a worrying trend to think politics only occurs on a national level, in Parliament, because that tends to understate or undermind the local, active politics that always occurs in councils across the country. MPs need to focus more on national politics, with an ear to the needs of their constituents, and councillors need to make their presence more well known. This has been made all the harder by the expenses scandal, which has been both good and bad, for democracy both nationally and locally. The fact is, the constant cry for ‘local politics’ before the ‘national scene’ has always assumed a false dilemna; you cannot have one without the other. We must focus on both, understand the problems underpinning them such as the media, comprehend the respective roles of all our politicians, not just the MPs. Then, maybe then, we’ll have a working democracy.

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  1. Good article – but can I pick you up on one assertion: “Firstly, the expenses scandal is a symptom and a catalyst, but not the cause, of growing public apathy to politics.”

    The ‘catalyst’ bit is throwing me. For me the expenses scandal was a catalyst OUT of apathy rather than into it. I personally had largely switched off from politics and was happily getting on with business until that happened – it got me active again! Anger and disgust with politicians is actually better that apathy – it at least gets people engaged again. Proof of the pudding will be in the turnout – but I’m backing turnout being UP on last time. Time will tell.

  2. […] Wan talks in his latest article, in reply to James Langford, of the co-incidence of a more serious decline in turnout with the rise […]

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