Chamali Fernando is a civil litigation barrister and a policy advisor to the Coalition for an International Court for the Environment
Repeatedly on the doorstep, in bars and social settings “politics” and “politicians” have become dirty words.
Once upon a time, the mocking jokes were about the public’s inability to trust lawyers, then, the focus of public humiliation turned on bankers. However these professionals bounced back sooner than expected. At some stage in everyone’s life they will interact with a lawyer or a banker simply to move forward with their lives. You also know there is a complaints’ department within the company and an external independent regulatory body which takes pride in the reputation of the profession and will help you when things go wrong.
Politics is different. Politicians are in some kind of elusive club where payment is guaranteed, self-regulation is the order of the day and there is a once in 5 years’ opportunity to voice your opinion and even that can go unheard.
The media can make a song and a dance over a political scandal but at most it prompts a resignation by the MP from his role as a minister or that he will not stand for re-election in the next parliament. We do not have compulsory voting, so a person can live their whole life, make progress, work hard, raise a family, realise their ambitions without ever voting let alone interacting face-to-face with a politician.
There are many highly educated people I know who proudly claim to be in the category of non-voters. They do not vote locally, regionally or nationally. A friend who is a cardio-thoracic surgeon recently said “I have only voted once in my life and that was to ask for the hot meals to be served for longer hours in the hospital canteen.” What goes on in the Westminster Bubble seemed of no consequence to him.
Who or what is to blame for this apathy? When I tell non-voters that people died to give them the right to vote or that to enter a polling booth and spoil their ballot paper is just as important as casting a vote, they simply feel sorry that people died to give us a redundant right.
The problem according to the little yellow birdie is a lack of proportional representation. This is in itself is political naivety. Voter apathy cannot be wished away by a change in the electoral system. It is the face of politics that must change.
I am not referring to the need to diversify the social composition of parliament to include people from ethnic minorities, less-privileged backgrounds and women. I recognise (as do some political parties) that we need decision-makers and politicians who come from all walks of life but are the “people at the top” so clueless as to fail to realise that what the voter really wants is someone in whom they can trust?
Political doorstep canvassers in the 1980s (and I write from personal experience) frequently faced foreboding signs such as BEWARE OF THE DOG, but now there are signs that read NO DOORSTEP CANVASSERS, NO POLITICAL LEAFLETS. How do politicians repair the damage they have caused by a lack of sincerity?
I have got news for you; sincerity cannot be feigned. You either have it or you do not. The televised debates helped put a personality to the policy and connect people with the leaders of the three parties. Giving the Party Leaders the chance to enter people’s homes, be challenged on the same issues and speak freely without the benefit of cuts and edits that televised party political broadcasting offers is invaluable.
A politically astute friend of mine said, “I may not know what reform Barack Obama is seeking to push through right now but I trust him enough to know that he would do what is right for the people of America.” This sentiment amazed me in one sense because the American political process seems driven by money, pomp and personality and often the issues feel policy-light by comparison to the UK. On the other hand, I could understand what he meant, our politicians are faceless and are perceived as insincere.
The tragedy brought about by the Lib Dem U-turn on tuition fees is monumental. 18 year olds went to the polling booths with hope in their hearts and an ability to exercise their democratic right for the first time only to be told after the election: “there’s no easy way to say this: we made a pledge, we didn’t stick to it – and for that I am sorry.”
David Cameron promised a greener government, but has been rumoured to say “cut the green c**p” and Ed Miliband pledges the consumer con: to freeze energy prices up to 2017 knowing full well that utility companies will drive up prices before and after the freeze so any household savings will be lost.
I leave you with this fancy tale:
Twin aligators were relaxing in the River Thames, having a chat. The smaller one turned to the larger one and said: “I don’t get it, the two of us are from the same family, we are the same age, have lived all our lives in the same environment and were the same size as kids, yet you are so much bigger than me”
The big alligator asked: “Well what have you been eating?”
“Politicians, same as you” replied the small alligator.
“Hmmm. Well from where do you get your politicians and how do you eat them?”
“Same as you, I go across to Parliament, lie in wait under one of the luxury cars for one to open the car door. Then I pounce upon him, take him by surprise shake the hell out of him and gobble him up.”
“Ah well that’s where you are going wrong. Being big and strong like me is all about nutrition. Once you have shaken the stuffing out of a politician, all you’re left with is a skeleton and a briefcase.”