Why Westminster must put its house in order

June 15, 2007

When even politicians don't trust themselves, says Colin Hay, is it any wonder voters are so disillusioned?

Politics, it seems, is not all it was once cracked up to be.

Although almost universally accepted as the best form of government, democracy motivates an ever smaller proportion of the electorate to exercise its right to vote, particularly the young. Worse still, each successive cohort of new voters has a lower propensity to vote than the last. Nowhere, it seems, does politics animate electorates consistently to enthusiastic participation in the democratic process.

This is depressing enough in itself. Yet such trends are merely the symptoms of a more worrying condition: a near-universal contempt for politics and the political. Politics was once a term with an array of positive connotations, associated in particular with public scrutiny, deliberation and accountability. Yet today it is an increasingly dirty word, typically synonymous with duplicity, corruption, inefficiency and undue interference in matters both public and private. To attribute "political" motives to an actor is now invariably to question that actor's honesty, integrity or capacity to put anything above the blind pursuit of material self-interest - often, all three simultaneously. How has this come to pass? Why do we hate politics and politicians so much?

To start with, it is useful to reflect on why we need politics in the first place. Put simply, politics responds to the need in complex and differentiated societies for collective and binding decision-making. In the language of political science, contemporary societies generate "collective action problems". A collective action problem exists whenever the common interest of a group or society clashes with individual self-interest.

Consider the question of environmental degradation. In the absence of a collective and authoritative decision-making body, the pursuit of profit by businesses will result in the ever-growing exploitation of the natural world. No individual corporation can afford to impose on itself the costs of environmental sustainability unless it is entirely confident that others will do likewise. Politics is, in theory at least, capable of providing a solution to collective action problems like this - here in the form of binding collective environmental regulation. And as examples like this show, as collective action problems proliferate so our need for politics grows rather than diminishes.

Putting the argument for politics in this way suggests why we need politics and why that need is unlikely to diminish. Yet it also helps to explain why it is that we are less and less inclined to see politics as a solution rather than as a problem in its own right. For if it is to resolve collective action problems, politics must be capable of putting the collective interest above individual self-interest. In short, politics is possible only if we feel that we can trust our politicians to put aside their partisan affiliations or self-interest. And as all the evidence shows, in increasing numbers we no longer feel that we can. We seem to hate politics because we project on to politicians purely instrumental motives.

And if we are right to do so, we are entirely rational in hating politics.

But are we right to project such assumptions on to those in whose election we increasingly fail to participate?

This brings us to the crux of the matter. It is unlikely that politicians today are more self-interested and less innately trustworthy than they were in the past. But what is very clear is that, judged by their own words and deeds, politicians today do not trust themselves. Moreover, and somewhat ironically, the source of such distrust lies in the instrumental motives they project on to each other. This is precisely why so much of the agenda of contemporary politics is about depoliticisation. Consider the remarks of Lord Falconer, cabinet minister and Lord Chancellor, in 2003: "What governs our approach is a clear desire to place power where it should be: increasingly not with politicians but with those best fitted in different ways to deploy it. Interest rates are not set by politicians in the Treasury, but by the Bank of England. Minimum wages are not determined by the Department of Trade and Industry, but by the Low Pay Commission."

This is an extraordinary admission and it is far from unrepresentative.

When our own politicians see politics as a disease to which depoliticisation is the antidote, is it any wonder that citizens become disaffected and disengaged? Electoral politics is reduced to the selection of functionaries whose sole task is to assign policymaking duties to those they see as more qualified, more proficient and more competent. In the process, the link between the voter and the decision-making process is severed.

So what, if anything, can be done? Well, if the above analysis is correct, then two points follow immediately. First, political elites need to be far more conscious of the often unfortunate cues they give to the electorate in the motivational assumptions they project on to other politicians. Second, in office they need to take, and be seen to take, tough decisions rather than subcontracting their responsibilities to others.

In this context, Gordon Brown's reputation for being "all substance and no spin" may be an advantage over his predecessor. Yet it should not be forgotten that it is Brown who has been the architect of much of the depoliticisation in which new Labour has engaged since 1997. If there were ever a time for repoliticisation, it is now. The future of our democratic political culture may well depend on it.

Colin Hay is professor of political analysis at Birmingham University. His book Why We Hate Politics is published by Polity Press, £50.00 and Pounds 14.99.

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