It's time to put a positive spin on politics

The past year has once again been open season for undermining politicians and, by association, the political process. To be fair, the politicians have not covered themselves with glory and some, notably David Blunkett, have played into the hands of the cynics. The problem with such a day to day adventure playground for the media is that the malaise at the heart of the political process has serious consequences for all of us.

We are in a vicious circle: the exposure of political scandals and the ritual denigration of politicians inhibits many able people coming forward as candidates and leads to an ever growing proportion of political "hacks" being elected. In its turn this encourages further disparagement of politicians, and so it continues.

2005 is likely to be an election year and it would greatly improve the health of our democratic process if there was a New Year resolution on all sides to enhance the role of politics and politicians. If political misdemeanours were treated in similar fashion to those in the business world it would be a great improvement. One of George Orwell's many shrewd observations on politics was that "the essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection." My own experience of the political world suggests that it is marginally more honest than that of business but far more exposed.

George Galloway's successful libel action against the Daily Telegraph received fleeting publicity but it was a significant case. The MP was wrongly accused of aiding Saddam Hussein and of receiving money from the Iraqi regime. In the course of media exposure of the allegations, Galloway's membership of the Labour party was suspended and he was prevented from being considered for re-selection for his seat in parliament. At considerable personal financial risk he took the newspaper to court and won. The paper's defence was not that the allegations were true but that it was justified in publishing them as a matter of public interest. It is surely intolerable that a serious newspaper can have such a cynical - and damaging - attitude to the political process. I hold no brief for George Galloway as an individual but he had been treated very badly, with once again the impression given that those in politics are not worthy of respect.

In the sixteenth century Sir Thomas Gresham laid down the economic law that bears his name today: that "bad money drives out good." It is as valid in the political world as in that of banking. When the reputation of politics is sullied, whether for party gain or to sell newspapers, it is exceptionally difficult to reverse the downward spiral. Debasement of the political currency does no-one any lasting benefit. It may produce a short term gain for the party in office and seeking re-election but it would be at the price of further public disillusion and alienation at precisely the time when politicians need to win public support and confidence to be able to discuss the complex problems facing society.

The despoilation of the planet, the economic threat to the ability of individuals - and, eventually, the state - to provide adequately for their retirement, the decline in the integrity of the neighbourhood community, and the lurking threat of terrorism, all demand informed and rigorous debate. They do not get such debate now and the indications are that they will not get it during an election campaign dominated by soundbites. In his book "In Defence of Politics", Sir Bernard Crick draws the comparison between the quality of the argument on imperialism that raged eighty years ago with the superficiality of debate today on European integration.

The distinguished former judge. Lord Patrick Devlin, compared the electoral process with the benefits of a jury trial, believing that for democracy to work effectively, and for political decisions to be accepted, the electorate had to function like a jury. He argued that three key aspects of the jury system were crucial to an informed democracy. First, the electorate had to have a sense of collectivity. Just as a the twelve members of a jury interact and are influenced by each other, so the voters need to be conscious of their collective electoral role. Second, just as a jury has the arguments of the case put before it in detail, so the electorate needs the political arguments put before them. Third, what the jury decides happens; guilty or not guilty, the accused released or imprisoned. Similarly the vote of the electorate has to be effective: a government duly elected that is representative of the voters' wishes, without a deficient electoral system thwarting it.

Will any of these three "tests" be apparent in 2005? Alas, it is highly unlikely. My own testing ground was often the Armley Liberal Club where I was regularly told that "the trouble with you politicians is too much talk and not enough action." My reply was that it was just the opposite. Most of the disastrous policies of recent years - high rise flats, the poll tax, demolition of neighbourhoods, and centralisation of health provision, amongst others - were the result of politicians desperate to show decisive action without anything like enough discussion. A new year, and an election year at that, is a good moment to change this. "More talk - less action!" - now there's a revolutionary slogan!

27 December 2004