Doing politics in plain sight

Written by: Emma Burnell on 8 November, 2012
Filed under Democracy

This is a post about political engagement. Except it really isn’t. Or at least it really shouldn’t be. The fact that we in politics actually use terms like social mobility and political engagement shows how far we have to go before we achieve any such thing. Because people at the sharp end don’t talk like that. People who don’t vote don’t think like that.

This isn’t the language of the street and the supermarket, of the pub and the park, but of the think tank and the select committee. Using language that doesn’t reflect ordinary conversations simply acts to exert our separateness. Even when talking about bringing more people into politics, we do so in a language that highlights our otherness.

For as long as I can remember, we’ve been looking at this debate from the wrong end. Too often we’ve discussed well-meaning initiatives to bring people into our world. But instead of looking at ways to get more people involved in our politics, we should be looking at more ways to get our politics involved in people’s lives. To make thinking politically a natural part of people’s day-to-day experience, linked to the things they care about.

People think politicos are all the same, because in many ways we are. We all look the same and dress the same; We speak this bizarre language of social mobility and macro-economic policy; we talk of policy reviews and implementation strategies. When I talk to my sister and her friends about why they have no interest in politics they tell me “it’s because they don’t talk like me Em”. They think we’re separate and self obsessed, talking to each other in a code designed to stop them understanding or getting involved. They’ve never discussed social mobility in their lives. They just want to get on. They’d be astonished to hear that what we call getting on.

What is needed is plain English politics. Not to patronise voters. Not because voters aren’t more than capable of assessing what we’re offering – it’s a very foolish politician who thinks that – but because we should be talking about our ideas in the same way everyone else will. That way lies conversation rather than speechifying. We should be talking in a way that isn’t mediated through the comfort of jargon but that everyone agrees feels relaxed and normal. That we can all understand without an interpreter.

At present, Westminster can be a really forbidding place if you haven’t got the right networks behind you. If you didn’t go to public school or to Oxbridge, even if you didn’t get involved in politics until later in life, so have no background in student politics, some of the meeting rooms of Westminster can be the loneliest places in the world. I may be reasonably well connected now, but I constantly struggle with feelings of “outsiderness” without any of these networks of support to fall back on. If I do, imaging how much worse it is for those without the connections I do have? If you don’t have an academic career or a string of publications behind you, it can be a struggle to have your voice heard, or even when heard, valued. What chance is there for someone who left school with a few GCSEs but a real practical passion about making a difference?

There are practical measures that can – and must – be implemented that widens access in the first place, such as paid internships, political apprenticeships and support for up and coming candidates.

But we must change the culture too.

Supporting those trying to break into politics isn’t just about getting a diverse range of candidates, but of having a culture that recognises that politics isn’t everything. In fact when it becomes all-consuming, it loses touch with the way most people are living their lives. For example, how many times have think tanks held seminars running late into the evening to discuss the work/life balance or the costs of childcare (thus ensuring we have no time with our family and friends and have to pay the childminder extra)?

We all talk about wanting politicians with some experience of life outside Westminster. That shouldn’t be simply the first act of your life before giving oneself over to politics completely. All politicians should have the option of having a normal life outside of politics, and we need to look at how we change the way we do business to make that happen. If we don’t we will only be represented by – and representative of – the obsessed. Making politics a more attracticve option will also help to reduce the barrier between those who involved and those they represent. At the moment, few people can see why anyone would want to put themselves through it, other than for financial gain.

Jargon-free politics is not just about making our communication with the electorate better, but about changing the very nature of our relationships. Let’s all start a conversation we’ve been avoiding for so long, with the people we’ve always needed to talk to, on their terms and on their turf.

If we are going to create a One Nation politics, it must be one which everybody can speak the language fluently. No more barriers. No more buzzwords. No more hiding.