Sunday, 2 September 2012


"Politicians" has become a dirty word. However, no state that got along with an element of free participation by at least some of its citizens has ever donw without politicians. Even in the direct democracy of Athens there were political leaders.

So those who rubbish politicians as a class must stand for one of these two things:

*EITHER some kind of dictatorship

*OR much more honest and better-behaved politicians.

I do suspect that some of the anti-politician and anti-politics culture is whipped up by right-wing media because the more people distrust politics and politicians, the more they will be happy for decisions that used to be taken openly and democratically through the political process to be left to corporations and (which is not quite the same thing) to the market. I've posted on the limitations of the market before, but just remember two things about the market: it doesn't think far ahead; and if you have a thousand times someone else's spending power, for the market, you have a thousand times the power. Forget one person one vote.

However, even the most ideologically pure free-marketeers admit some room for collective, democratic government, for which you still need politicians. I think hardly anyone in stable democracies wants dictatorship. Still politicians, then, but maybe better ones?

That's a perfectly reasonable aim and the U.K. parliamentary expenses scandal gives it force. But that scandal related purely to NATIONAL politicians (control over local expenditure is much tighter) and yet it's tarred local councillors with the same brush. As for the sort of honesty that means sincerity rather than decent behaviour over money, people say they want that kind of honesty in politicians yet those who display it are often pilloried for putting their feet in it.

It's also worth remembering that opinion surveys over nearly fifty years have shown that U.K. voters have a very low opinion of M.P.s and councillors in general, yet often like their own local representatives. In other words, there is an anti-politician assumption which is unaffected by positive experience of your local person.

There's a widespread assumption that local elected politicians are paid careerists - yet if you look at the allowances U.K. councillors get, they vary between about £1,000 a year and £10,000 (excepting what a few people like a leader of the council get for what's maybe half a full-time job), not big money especially if you consider that being an active councillor will involve expenses (driving around a lot, for example, and very likely some of your election expenses) and many hours of work, not only meetings but taking up problems for people, talking with people, researchiung issues and so on.

Someone posted on a local paper discussion board that their council would be better if the councillors were all independents instead of "political careerists". Well, look at the typical local council and you'll find many of the councillors are retired people who've had careers and now want to do something for their area and promote things they believe in. Others have good non-political careers they may well be damaging through the spare time and mental energy they take on council business. Out of 50 councillors you might find about eight or ten who had national political ambitions and maybe two of those would be elected to parliament, not necessarily for more than a few years.

As for independents, there are some good ones, but here are some of the minuses:

- they're all well-off. Political parties can pay the election expenses of relatively poor candidates, but independents pay their own, unless of course they have rich friends who may expect favours in return.

- you generally have very little idea of what they stand for or how they'll vote on key issues: there's no manifesto, for a start.

- if they do express a commitment, there's no mechanism to stop them going off in a completely different direction, whereas a party candidate elected on a manifesto who completely ignored it would probably be in trouble.

- very often they're party loyalists in disguise, so you get the party rule without the honesty of knowing you're voting for the Conservatives (say) to run the council. In a recent town council election not far from me, seven people were standing as independents yet were endorsed en bloc by the Conservative district and county councillors and behaved like a party slate.

Sometimes it seems the anti-politician mood is so strong that people forget that the vast majority of local political activists are volunteers who believe in something.

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