In principle, I love politics. I love the way it underpins every facet of our existence. I love how it’s entwined with ethics, morality, justice, culture, health, education and all the other fundamental concepts that shape the way we live and interact with one another. I love its global reach and its diversity. I love the passion and debate it provokes. But, as I say, I only love politics in principle.
On the other hand, I hate contemporary politics. I hate the way politicians obfuscate truth, sacrifice principles and recalibrate moral compasses to win votes and appear strong. I hate the spin. I hate the broken promises. I hate how almost all politicians have popped out of an Oxbridge PPE factory and created a professional parliamentary elite. I hate the juvenile name-calling. I hate Ian Duncan Smith. But, more than anything, I hate the way politics has become so dense, so opaque, so convoluted, so confusing that I have little idea about what’s going on – let alone who to believe. In short, I hate how politics has become too political.
These complaints can be easily dismissed as self-indulgent naivety. After all, persuasion, deceit and spin is what contemporary politics is all about. As Ice-T eloquently put it: “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” But I want to briefly touch on just how difficult it is to navigate this complex game of political Battlefield and understand what soundbite policies spewed out by political parties during election campagins actually mean on a real, pragmatic level.
I confess that I am, in the main, completely ignorant when it comes to contemporary politics. I have a strong idea about what I believe in and am committed to certain principles. But, like so many in Britain, I have little to no idea about the best way to translate these principles into policies.
This is perhaps largely down to the centered positions of the mainstream parties on the political spectrum. Gone are the days where even a faint line divided Left and Right. Instead, mainstream parties appear engaged in an elaborate performance of policy “Cha-Cha Slide” where they sliiiide to the Left, sliiiide to the Right and crisscross depending on what they think will win them the most votes. Labour want socialist policies such as Clause IV and mass redistribution of wealth to remain part of its past rather than future, while Cameron recently rebranded the Tories as the “party of working people” – a paradoxical statement given Labour’s historical Trade Union genealogy. In a world where Miliband openly trumpets “I want to reach out to Tory voters,” then surely both Left and Right lead to the same destination?
Some will maintain that there does, in fact, remain distinct divisions between Red, Blue and Yellow. Labour supporters will point to their party’s Non-Dom reforms, Mansion Tax and promise to increase the minimum wage as evidence for more left-leaning policies. They may well have a point, too.
But a deeper, more problematic concern persists. It’s called The Economy. Channel Four’s political correspondent Michael Crick recently quizzed the general public on this strange, indefinable beast. “Who do you trust more with the economy?” he asked bemused onlookers. Now, I completely lack the economic literacy to give an informed, rational response to this fundamental question. I have no idea whether more spending or more cuts will benefit the all inclusive Economy in the long-term and I refuse to buy the hyper-simplified “live within your means” line peddled by Cameron. It’s easy to be seduced by the mainstream parties’ claims that they offer binary approaches to “solving” contemporary economic problems and construct a Labour = borrowing/Tories = cuts equation. But the Tories have, in fact, borrowed more money in three years than Labour managed in 13. No doubt the Tories will put this down to the £160bn deficit inherited from Labour. But, as Tim Harford helpfully explains, even a limp pseudo-recovery hardly constitutes a success for George Osbourne’s austerity-based approach.
But what do I know? If financial experts can’t agree on the best way to run The Economy, then what chance does your average voter stand? Indeed, no one knows for sure whether Labour’s Non-Dom reforms – a sure fire Robin Hood policy if there ever was one – will actually raise or take money from the public purse. Like in so many political debates, a matter of principle has become a matter of economic policy. Whatever the answer, it seems the only thing we can be sure of is that all mainstream parties, clocked in their own shade of neoliberal capitalism, are just in thrall to those with corporate muscle and real financial power.
And so the the finger-pointing blame game continues. Amid such confusion, ambiguity and apathy, the last minute economic policies announced in this election campaign by Labour and the Tories amount to little more than a slapdash attempt to woo the tiny majority of swing voters and marginal seats that will decide Britain’s fate next month. It’s like watching two divorced parents offer more and more alluring and expensive gifts to secure the affection of their confused, disinterested child. The NHS needs another eight billion pounds? No worries. Want more free childcare? Consider it done! These are short-term promises that won’t provide long-term solutions.
And The Economy is just one big piece in a wider bewildering politics puzzle where simple words take on distorted meanings when used in parliamentary contexts. “Immigration,” for instance, has become a bizarre scare-mongering term used to judge people for their economic value rather than their innate worth as human beings. Only 11% of Britain’s population is foreign born; migrants make up less than 2% of those in social housing. But, as the success of Farage shows, who needs facts when the words “HIV” and “international health service” can turn deep-seated prejudices into votes? “Austerity,” meanwhile, is merely code for lower government spending. And don’t ask what position the word “benefits” occupies in our current public imagination.
Then again, perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps I underestimate the political literacy of Britain’s electorate. Maybe most people do, in fact, understand how The Economy works and can easily spot the difference between a Farage and mirage. But I struggle to believe that most average voters would, for instance, be able to clearly define the difference between the deficit and national debt. Nor could they tell me how much of the welfare budget goes to unemployed people (for the record, Jobseekers’ Allowance accounts for 3% of the benefits bill; half of UK benefit spending – £72.44bn – actually goes on state pensions).
This, I think, is why many people – particularly younger would-be voters – are disinterested in contemporary policies. (As an aside, young people are more interested in politics than middle-aged newspaper columnists give them credit for. But, I think, we’re not as engaged as we should be). We have little to no academic grounding in the way our country works. Politics, in its pure sense, is not inbuilt into our early education. As George the poet recently argued: “If you don’t have access to a social context in which you can discuss politics, you are missing out on the conversation entirely.” It’s as if politicians speak in a coded language only the privileged few can hear and understand. Deprived of fundamental knowledge and the tools for contextualisation, it’s little wonder why the word “politics” turns so many people off.
And, finally, in this climate of widespread disengagement (only 61.5% turned out to vote in the last election), politicians are forced to make snappy soundbite claims that both adhere to the party line and sound good on the Ten O’Clock news. Hence the interminable, indefatigable rhetorical repetitions. Considered and rational debate is impossible, for to concede a rival may have a point in a policy battle is to concede defeat in a wider political war.
So, where can we go from here? Much has been made of the rise of more minor political parties such as the Greens, SNP and UKIP. But until Proportional Representation places our outmoded and irrational First Past the Post system it’s hard to see how radical political change can be achieved. More voices may be heard during this election, but the Lab-Con duet won’t be out-sung just yet. In the meantime, I guess the only thing to do is a) read and fact-check all the party manifestos and cross-examine from a wide range of sources or b) go with your gut and hope that the policies of the party you vote for puts your cherished principles into practise. I wouldn’t hold your breath, though. After all, there’s little point in looking for truth in a game where the principal players can spin it out of nothing.