What politics needs – Part II: Passion

Written by: Marc Stears on 10 May, 2012
Filed under Democracy

Read the first part of Marc’s argument here.

When we think about the people who we most admire in our own lives, we turn almost always those who have a cause. We are continually inspired by those who commit their whole being to something that matters deeply to them. We love most the friends who campaign on behalf of those who cannot campaign for themselves, travelling the country, talking with strangers, filling in forms, always making the case.

That’s the inspiration we all find somewhere in our everyday lives.

But how much of our formal politics feels like this any more? How many among the electorate believe that our elected officials truly think that this is what they are doing? How many people turned out in last week’s local elections because they really believed things mattered and mattered to them?

When I think about those questions, I always turn to my mum and dad. They have always been proud Labour voters. Even in the dark days of 1983, they put a sign out for the milkman on general election day that read “No milk, and no Mrs Thatcher today, please.” But even they now feel suspicious of our politicians. Even they feel let down by the distance between them and their political representatives.

When I ask them why they feel like this, they can’t quite put their finger on what the problem is. Sometimes they put it down to the expenses scandal. Other times they say they don’t like the slick suits, the “on message” faux-professionalism.

But what they really miss, I believe, is the passion, the sense that politics should be about something bigger than competition for office. They miss the unmistakable feeling we have when we know that there is something vital at stake.

If Ed Miliband’s Labour party is to overcome the disillusionment that threatens our democratic life, then, it needs to restore that sense of passion. That sense that it all really matters.

The way to do that is not by turning sharply to the left or to the right. There is no enthusiasm in Britain any more for old political orthodoxies. It is, instead, by showing continuously that Labour is in quick touch with the needs, hopes and dreams of the people of this country and is ready to fight fearlessly on their behalf.

That is why Miliband’s campaign against unaccountable power is of fundamental importance for Labour’s renewal. Taking on Murdoch, the big six energy companies, the executives who pay themselves too much and those who refuse to contribute to our collective life is the vital first step in showing the British public that the party cares and it knows what has to be done.

It is only a first step, though. For the passion the country craves is not only a negative one. It is not enough for Miliband to strive against the forces that blight our lives. We need also to feel the excitement of a vision of a better future. We need a leader who sees a different Britain, one where the elements of our lives that we treasure now are protected and enhanced, but also where things which we don’t currently believe are possible are made so for our sons and daughters.

This is no small task, of course. For decades now, our politics has been predicated on the sense that very little is possible. It is best if the people are kept on the sidelines of political life, we’ve been told. Their expectations continually managed down. “Things can’t get very much better”: that would have been a more accurate theme tune.

Now is the time to turn that around. Labour need to show us once again that if our democracy is to function properly, then our ambitions should be heightened not lowered, our expectations released not managed, our power always strengthened never weakened.

“How do we feel?” Barack Obama used to ask his eager volunteers in the last presidential election. “Fired up and ready to go!” was the expected answer. Of course, it is asking too much for the voters of Britain ever to get to that kind of political enthusiasm. But it is Labour’s job to try.

Marc Stears is a professor of political theory at the University of Oxford.