Last Thursday I witnessed something I’d not seen for a very long time – politicians from all the major parties agreeing with, supporting and praising each other. Admittedly the cause was something any reasonable person would support, a debate about how badly banks have treated businesses. Yet someone watching the three hours of parliamentary time given up to this discussion, could not have failed to be moved by how effective and effecting politicians can be when they put party politician differences aside in a common cause.
However, we were soon back to normal and nothing shows the destructive nature of partisan politics than the prospect of the US government being shut down by a budget dispute between Congress and the US President. If you think this scenario is familiar, it is. It happened in 1995, 1996 and 2013 when Republicans refused to back a Budget for a Democrat president (and, of course, in the West Wing in an episode call Shutdown). Now the boot’s on the other foot.
The crisis has presented a classic opportunity for Donald Trump to accuse the Democrats of being unpatriotic – an example of what political spin doctors would identify as emboldening his “base”, those core supporters who think Trump does no wrong. It allows Trump to go back to his election theme of the Washington establishment being rotten and there being a need to “drain the swamp”.
What Trump and his team managed to tap into then was a disillusionment with the political class, something which was also seen as a reason for the success of the Brexit campaign in 2016. And when you seen some of the petty point scoring between parties – and sometimes within parties – you can’t blame the electorate for saying a plague on all your houses.
So what can we do to restore faith in the political process? Here are a few ideas:
Stop treating politics like it’s a sport – tennis or maybe basketball where one side attacks and then the other replies. The media has something to answer for here. News programmes thrive on conflict and the politicians feed that, so that when a Government initiative is announced, the BBC, in the name of the balance that is set out in its editorial guidelines, immediately features an opposition politician slagging it off. However the convention of using the term “opposition” – as in “opposition benches” or “official opposition” – doesn’t help;
Celebrate areas of accord. For the last 70 years, there has been almost universal agreement that there should be healthcare free at the point of delivery in the UK, but politicians disagree on how that is delivered. I’m no fan of Jeremy Hunt but I think the attacks on him by Labour miss the mark because they fail to give him the credit for actually believing in the NHS. The Brexit campaign showed what can be achieved by politicians from different parties joining together, while the Remain campaign was too obviously controlled by the Conservative Party, so alienating potential supporters in Labour, the LibDems and SNP;
Learn to love our politicians. What connects Trump, Boris and Corbyn? They all appeal to a core support who adore them despite all their faults. All of our politicians have failings, yet they give up a massive amount of time for little reward – the basic salary for a MP is under £75,000. By comparison Steve Rowe, the CEO of Marks & Spencer, has a base pay of £810,000 plus bonus, share options and the like. Does he have a tougher job? Instead of moaning about the poor job our representatives do, we should recognise what they do actually achieve;
If we are going to have the sort of politicians we deserve, we need to celebrate consensus over conflict. It might be less interesting, but we’ll all be better off for it.