The recent Fabian Society/YouGov study painted a revealing picture of public perceptions of politics and politicians. It was striking that almost a third of people surveyed agreed with the statement that ‘Politics is a game played by an out of touch elite who live on another planet.’
This is a statement which I think underlines the real problem – in that the concept of ‘the political’ has become narrowed to mean either Westminster decision-makers or devolved elected representatives. But in fact, politics in its most fundamental sense is about participation in society, and the social and economic processes which affect everyday lives. For the ordinary citizen outside the Westminster bubble, the main concerns are the economy, job security, the quality of schools and healthcare – and even on a local level the public often does not see politicians as the answer to these questions. The issue here is not reconnecting people with politics, it is reconnecting people with each other.
In tough economic times, there is also the danger that political narratives serve to pit social groups against each other – public sector employees against private sector workers, for example, or a cohort of young people facing insecure job prospects against an older generation facing an insecure retirement. Our current politics propagates competing self-interest rather than mutual social goals.
‘Politics’ cannot be seen as a matter of elected representatives alone. Party politics can act as a channel for participation, but so can other membership groups, faith bodies, voluntary activities, sport, women’s institutes and other activities through which people can make a difference and achieve change which is relevant to their priorities. Being an active member of society does not just mean being represented, it is about participating in social and economic processes and being able to achieve tangible results relating to things which matter. This is a point about decision making for everyday life.
By no means am I suggesting that the political party system should not exist. But, in a society where new media opportunities and instantaneous access to knowledge mean people are increasingly involved in social causes, we need to be aware of all the other productive ways to bring people together over shared interests and concrete goals. Party politics – ie engagement with Westminster and local government – should not be prioritised over other forms of social and economic participation. A more meaningful account of citizenship also means extending representation and participation to issues such as employment, financial institutions and community activity. We need businesses which engage with local residents and give employees a genuine stake, and market structures which enable people to be producers and owners rather than consumers of goods and government services. Co-operative business models, democratised financial intermediaries, mutual models for education and healthcare, and community-owned assets all map out the potential for a resurgence of the civic.
And this is something that I do think speaks to all three main parties – Labour principles of social ownership and economic participation open to all, the Liberal Democrat tradition of community politics, and Conservatives who believe in civic association beyond the state. Party politics should be a conduit for the social, civic and economic interests of individuals and communities. And if politicians themselves remember this, then they can once again be seen as inhabiting the same planet as everyone else.