Gloria de Piero wants to know why MPs are hated. The roots of it go back much further than the expenses scandal
Labour MP Gloria de Piero has just concluded research into why so many people these days appear to hate MPs. Echoing the research of political scientists, she has discovered that most people feel MPs are a “them” operating in a world very different to the one inhabited by “us”. To bridge this chasm she reportedly wants her party to reconnect with the people by, among other things, having beer and sandwich evenings and opening its doors to different kinds of candidates. I wish Gloria the best of luck, but I doubt she will do more than scratch the surface of the problem.
For while many of those she talked to cited recent events – like the 2009 expenses scandal – as justifying their perception of Britain’s political class, its origins go deeper than the last few years. It is, in fact, endemic to our current system of political representation.
For even during the immediate postwar decades – when at the 1950 general election 84% of those qualified to vote cast their ballot and when Labour and the Conservatives claimed a combined total of three million members – the Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell conceded that politics was “looked upon in many quarters as a slightly odd, somewhat discreditable, rather silly occupation”.
Others were less polite. Mass Observation recorded one middle-class, middle-aged man saying of politicians during the 1945 election: “They’re just like a lot of old fish wives. No – what else could you say? Their conversation is just like you hear in fish queues. Old women! That’s what they are, bawling and screaming insults at one another”. Sexist he might have been, but this vituperative individual was not alone.
A few years later Political and Economic Planning found that even voluntary association activists – informed men and women with experience of dealing with government – considered that “people are only in local politics for what they can get out of it” and laughed at the notion “of disinterested service” amongst councillors.
If much of this historical evidence is anecdotal, it is only because few postwar researchers believed there was a problem – but when they asked the right questions, the answers were revealing. Thus, in 1964 Gallup showed that 42% of Britons considered party politicians were mainly out for themselves against 41% who believed they put the nation first. Amid the heat of the 1959 general election the same polling organisation discovered that 30% thought the two main parties were essentially the same.
I could go on. But what is clear is that while the problem identified by De Piero is unique in its scale, many Britons have always looked on politics as “just another of the forces which exploit them and of which they know little or nothing” – to quote Mass Observation again, this time from its insightful 1939 book Britain.
I am not saying that the growing disconnection between ordinary citizens and formal politics is not important and that nothing should be done. But those wanting to bridge the gap need to take account of the fact that it is hasn’t just appeared overnight and that as a consequence more radical changes are required: if we currently are living through a crisis of politics it has been a long time coming and is a problem for philosophers and historians to address as much as MPs and social scientists. It was, after all, in 1931 that the prime minister Ramsay MacDonald told cabinet colleagues that “the ordinary person” was someone “who has no great faith in political leaders of any kind”.