Illustration by Hannah Robinson
During this election campaign, a number of figures across the board have uttered the same, over-worn and quite frankly unhelpful phrase, “politics is broken”. We’ve heard it from everyone from Chuka Umunna to Nigel Farage and back again. According to them, our political system has undergone serious damage and they’re here to fix it.
We have been veering towards this for some time. It would appear that the situation we currently find ourselves in was catalysed by the inability of the British political establishment to keep up with the times. It has failed to keep pace with a changing electorate, a shift in the way in which we consume political news and analysis, and a complete volte-face in the way in which the British people engage with their elected representatives. British politics isn’t broken, it still works – just not in a way that is conducive to our current standing or demands. No, rather than repairs, the British political system is in need of reform. The Westminster bubble requires a make-over of sorts, one which will see it emerge from the barber’s chair – as Jeremy Corbyn did, just last week – polished, trimmed and ready for the new decade.
British politics is notoriously inaccessible. This inaccessibility is perhaps most evident in the jargon and convention which swirls around the Palace of Westminster, reminiscent of a society that existed long ago. Watch a debate in the chamber and the behaviour of our elected members appears as though it belongs in the 18th century, not the 21st. Howling abuse at one another, behaviour such as this, I would imagine, is very close to that found in an old boys club – rife with fluffed up egos and toxic masculinity. Such behaviour is not conducive to solving the issues which our members of parliament are elected to discuss. One particular example of this saw the Leader of the House of Commons, one Jacob Rees-Mogg, lounging contemptibly across the front bench of the Commons. His body language smacked of a sense of entitlement only housed in the upper echelons of the outdated institution of the British establishment. How can the British public be expected to relate to or engage with such behaviour?
The inaccessibility of politics becomes manifest on another front. The ways in which we siphon out those who will put themselves forward for election is also flawed. A key problem is the monetary cost of running for parliament, which candidates must field themselves in order to run their campaign. A £500 deposit is required, which candidates with less than 5 per cent of the vote do not get back. Not to mention overhead costs such as leaflets, posters and the employment of a team to run your campaign. This is all while taking time off from work in order to conduct said campaign, missing at least six weeks worth of wages. According to an article penned by Isabel Hardman – whose excellent book, Why We Get the Wrong Politicians is a must-read for anyone who enjoys complaining about their MPs – prior to the 2015 election, the average cost of running was around £34,000. How can we expect to obtain a parliament that is truly representative of the vast majority of the country, when the cost of running is so vast? We no longer live in the days when our political classes were reaped only from the wealthy. Running for parliament should be affordable for all.
To add literal insult to injury, the level of abuse which MPs have begun to receive in recent years has become unbearable for some. While the rise in social media has allowed politicians to become more personable, it has not been without serious consequences for elected members. At this election, over 50 MPs have made the decision to stand down, with many – especially female members – citing the extreme levels of abuse that they have been subjected to as the main cause. Although MPs should not be free from scrutiny, there is a clear line between valid criticism and unproductive abuse. Some MPs have been worried for their own personal safety as well as that of their families as a result of excessive threats of violence. How can we expect people to put themselves forward to run for election if this is the reality of being in the public eye? The way in which our members of parliament are treated has a colossal impact on the type of people who decide to run, as is exhibited by the resignation of so many present members. Moulding the role of the MP into one which only the tough can manage takes the heart out of politics; it delivers a politics for the ruthless. In order to make parliament more accessible, we must change the way in which we relate to our politicians. MPs are no longer faceless, untouchable entities. Social Media and increased personal scrutiny have made them tangible and real. No one deserves the horror of a death-threat, no matter their political allegiance. We need a politics of empathy, not of alienation.
Politics is not broken. But in its current state, it is unfit for purpose and must be reformed. In order to do so, we must improve the accessibility of parliament. This will render British politics more representative, more cooperative, and ultimately more effective.