While the media obsess over the latest 'game-changing' poll, there are real issues out there that deserve attention
Public disillusionment with politics is at an all-time high and a number of factors are purportedly to blame. The most commonly cited of these (in no particular order) are: the ‘out of touch Westminster elite’, political parties which are ‘all the same’ and politicians who are ‘on the take’.
These superficially convincing explanations for low electoral turnouts and hostility toward the political establishment are increasingly ubiquitous: if only we could nail this pernicious trilogy then politics would once again regain a semblance of relevance. Or so it is widely assumed.
And there is some truth to this. Labour and the Conservatives are more similar today than, say, 70 years ago – although not because Labour ‘sold out’, as the purists scream, but because it is a great deal harder to be a social democrat today than it was in the 1940s.
Similarly, we do have a problem with out of touch politicians drawn from a narrow pool of gilded Oxbridge PPE students. To some extent this issue has always existed, but there is evidence that things are getting worse. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, 40 per cent of Labour MPs had done some kind of manual or clerical work before they entered parliament. By 2010, that figure had dropped to just 9 per cent.
No wonder, then, that four in 10 people are reportedly ‘alienated’ from Britain’s political parties and say they won’t consider voting for any of them.
But are we not overlooking something? More specifically, for all the pejorative cliches about an ‘out of touch Westminster elite’, is there not a sliver of a chance that people are turning off of politics in their droves because, as well as being the forte of dull establishment types, media coverage of politics has become almost uniformly banal and content-free?
If you require proof, look no further than the nascent television coverage of the General Election. There are still 37 days to go until polling day, yet already politics has become a cacophony of triviality over who is up and who is down in the latest ‘game-changing’ poll. Psephology is the science of bores, and bores appear to have taken over the space where at one time those with conflicting ideas fought it out.
Nor is it only an obsession with miniscule poll movements and Westminster gossip that is slowly murdering politics. Even when politicians and pundits do find the stomach to talk about ideas, they increasingly obsess about the parochial over the substantial. You might even call this the election of things which really don’t matter.
Take deficit reduction as an example. Today, as in 2010, the most pressing political issue facing Britain is, according to a large number of politicians and pundits, the deficit. You know the shtick by now: if Britain does not ‘pay down her debts’ the markets (see: the bankers) will panic and the ceiling will fall in.
Yet five years on from the first round of similar warnings, the deficit is still there (George Osborne’s deficit reduction plans have progressed at a slower pace than those once proposed by his 2010 Labour counterpart Alistair Darling) and things go on very much as before. Despite the histrionic prophesies of right-wing commentators, the apocalypse (financial or otherwise) did not materialise because of the deficit – nor did bankers throw their toys out of the pram in a fit of pique. As the former Sex Pistol John Lydon once put it, ever feel like you’ve been cheated?
In contrast to this cacophony of insignificance, there are a number of issues Britain is facing today which really do warrant attention and which, one might think, deserve a good deal more airtime than tedious know-nothing psephology and deficit-mongering. Here are a few of them:
- The five richest families in Britain now own more than the poorest 20 per cent combined.
- A million people had to use a food bank to eat last year.
- London is the unpaid internship capital of Europe*.
- Just 7 per cent of British children are privately educated, yet their alumni make up 33 per cent of MPs, 71 per cent of senior judges and 44 per cent of people on the Sunday Times Rich List.
- Rough sleeping has increased by 55 per cent in the past five years.
There are huge issues at stake in this election and here is a secret: they are not a 0.0002 per cent swing in South Thanet or the deficit reduction fears of some spiv in a city bank. We say we want the public to take more of an interest in politics; so how about we start talking about politics again, rather than obsessing over the unimportant and inconsequential.
*Inequality and the 1%, Danny Dorling
James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.