Friday 18 October 2013

Anti-Politics and the Problem of Listening

By-election fever grips Stoke-on-Trent! Well, that might be egging the pudding a bit. But it's true enough that the biggest ward in the city, Baddeley, Milton and Norton is being put through its campaigning paces. This contest came about after the resignation of a Labour-turned-Independent councillor over serious fraud charges. Needless to say Labour are fighting to take back the seat and have a great candidate in the shape of my energetic and indefatigable comrade, Candida Chetwynd.

But it's not the by-election per se that interests me here. I can't say a great deal anyway as my new job and its delightful commute has ruled me out of most campaigning. But what does is a question asked of the Tory candidate, Sam Richardson by the March on Stoke group. They ask "What assurance can you give that you will listen to, and respect, the opinions expressed by members of your electorate ? If elected, do you undertake to represent these views in any and all council discussions, whether or not they may conflict with any ‘party’ view?"

Kudos to Sam for not saying what MoS would no doubt like to hear. But this question encapsulates so much of the anti-politics sentiment that sloshes about town halls and the wider political system like an open sewer. It is populist in that a pure mass of people are opposed to an irredeemably corrupt set of political institutions and parties. And it is a protest against the lack of dialogue, of "not listening".

In the first place, political parties are not de facto corrupt institutions. Parties remain, as they always have, as expressions of certain collective interests or, at least in the British contexts, alliances of interests. The Conservative Party is often referred to as the preferred party of the British ruling class, and that is because of its long-standing ties to various business and landed interests. But in addition to that it is also allied with a section of the middle class, the military, small business people, farmers and a layer of working class people. The Labour Party is a similar alliance. Officially it is the political wing of the labour movement, but it has always been an alliance between it and a section of the 'progressive' middle class. That is its bedrock, but it too encompasses sections of classes and class fractions straddled by the Tory party.

Anti-politics isn't the result of a few eternal misanthropes having a moan in their local paper. It is a phenomenon that is the direct result of a partial breakdown in 'traditional' communities of solidarity based around employment focal points, and the collapse or decline of institutions that used to thread these together. This reached its extreme point in the last decade when, qualitatively, there was comparatively little between the Tories and Labour in the sense that politics was about managing capitalism, not about what kind of capitalism (as it is presently). With little to choose and a palpable sense that core supporters were being ignored, many grew even more cynical toward and alienated from mainstream politics. To win people back to politics parties have to start taking their interests into account, and this, in my opinion, is what the Labour Party has started to do in earnest.

Hardened anti-politics types, however, are not that interested. And nowhere does their lack of interest manifest itself more in their protestation that they're "not being listened to". For example, in my previous job one of my duties was to reply to the occasional letter that bemoaned the state of the world - which usually extended no further than the city limits of Stoke-on-Trent. I remember a series of letters in which a number of criticisms were ventured of the local party's record which I responded to comprehensively and with supporting evidence. These were not point-scoring rebuttals. Nevertheless it didn't surprise me to see those replies being bandied about on local fora as proof their MP "wasn't listening".

And here is the fundamental error. Our anti-politics types cannot or refuse to differentiate between listening and agreement. In those letters I, on behalf of my employer, listened to what they had to say, thought their concerns were mistaken and unwarranted, and replied back stating the reasons for disagreement and supplying an alternative point of view. Likewise when I've stood on doorsteps listening to anti-immigration rants. I listen, then state why I disagree, and reply using the power of fact and evidence. The same is when the press goes on a populist binge on some issue or another and claims "no one's listening". Chances are they are, it's that they simply disagree.

Perhaps if they are genuine about mending politics and get their head round this simple point then anti-politics people might contribute something positive to a widespread and much-needed democratic renewal.


James O. Gibson said...

Definitely agree that anti-politics is a very dangerous thing, especially as it allows career politicians hundreds of miles away in Westminster to literally ruin peoples' lives.

Electorally, it's also interesting. There's a huge untapped base of disinterested voters, and engaging that audience will really be key for the success any working class party in the future - a role that the Labour Party could very well be taking on over the next decade.

I'm glad to see that Labour's campaign/strategy office is now thinking about focusing on grassroots activism and community politics. This is what need. This is the type of thinking that brought Labour into power post WW2.

Great article as always Phil.

Speedy said...

I think you are missing the point(s) here Phil - I believe people are disillusioned because:

- a series of outrageous, largely unapologetic abuses of power
- a political culture in which hypocrisy and deceit has become routine (Blair's Iraq/ LibDems neo-liberal coalition/ Cameron's everything)
- an electoral system designed to quash dissent: it is virtually impossible for the true will of the people to be reflected or react to change. Like UKIP or not, their national election vote will in any way reflect their support.
- this helps explains points 1 and 2
- the loss of power (and therefore a sense of empowerment) to supra national bodies, from Europe to the WTO

No wonder people are pissed off. The electoral system I think is the key however because if it was more representative then many of the other issues would not loom so large.

Like democracy itself, the electoral system was developed to control the people not to empower them. In no other European country is this so starkly illustrated.

Phil said...

Thanks James.

I agree with you Speedy. I know these factors well because they sum up exactly how I felt for the majority of my political life. Which is why I spent so long on the far left.

Thing is anti-politics is now a diffuse ideological stance in its own right, drawing together a series of observations and "common sense" assumptions. The best way to tackle it is through politics - Labour at least now grasps that. But those of us who want a better politics need to critique anti-politics instead of holding up our hands and saying "you've got a point" or "don't blame you". Anti-politics has material roots, but its reasoning is often shoddy - therefore it needs putting on the spot.