Diversity in politics: who really represents us?

by Joseph Markus

Maurice Glasman, an architect of 'Blue Labour'

Lord Glasman, in an interview with the Labour Diversity Fund, criticised the way in which leadership of the Labour party is dominated by the Oxbridge-educated. This, he went on to say, is both divisive and narrowing. Glasman, here, identifies a significant insight and it is one applicable on a cross-party basis.

An inclusive politics is one in which everyone has a voice. Fundamentally a healthy political life requires broad-ranging participation, otherwise we face the twin perils of exclusivity or elitism.

Elitism runs the risk of misrepresenting or mischaracterising, intentionally or otherwise, the views and aspirations of those whom politicians are tasked to represent. And exclusivity makes the politicians’ claim to accurately represent and, importantly, to understand their constituents that much harder to accept.

The Guardian, in December last year, published a comment by James Mills, from the LDF, who said this:

If, at the next election, we as a party have hardly any candidates from the coalface of coalition cuts then it will be very hard for the Labour party to be seen as the true voice of the voiceless.

Surely he must be right.

Polling suggests that Ed Miliband—notwithstanding the image of the ‘nasty party’—is not viewed in a terribly favourable light by the public. Against the coalition government’s stark rhetoric of ‘necessity’ and stiffly-upper-lipped austerity he has failed to locate a plausible alternative. In part this has occurred by reason of the failure to de-centre the economic argument for austerity (as well as a failure to obviously win the economic argument). The Tories continue to frame the territory for the economic debate.

Each of them wearing perfectly choreographed ties

But the point can be taken further. Our politics has become ‘Americanized’. Beginning with Tony Blair, we’ve seen an overbearing focus on style over substance. The same, arguably, is true of David Cameron, with his drive to ‘detoxify’ the Tory ‘brand’. At the last general election the media felt compelled to declare ‘winners’ of the electoral debates, handing out points based on how well Nick Clegg could remember the names of question-asking members of the audience or how human Gordon Brown managed to look and/or sound. Politics was sold to us, as though to a group of reluctant consumers.

Politics is trapped between the inexorable drives to appeal to the nation while at the same time representing a distinctive locality. The lesson, coming to a head only a few days ago with the defeat of ‘the mainstream’ in West Bradford, is that, in those circumstances, politics ends up saying little or nothing at all.

Perhaps one of the reasons (no-one seems to agree on the full list of reasons) why George Galloway did so well was his ability to enunciate and appeal to the hopes (as well as fears) of constituency members. He spoke about the moral black hole of war in Iraq. That is something on which he has well-documented and strong views. He is not feigning an interest. He is not, for instance, claiming (pretending) to have bought a Cornish pasty from a Leeds train station to string along disillusioned voters. As much as Mr. Galloway is disliked, he campaigned genuinely.

If politics is to be about the individual, about a charismatic leader, there is a strong case to make for that leader being drawn from the same type of background as those whom he seeks to lead. Perhaps Mr. Cameron and George Osborne might be said to be representative of the Tory base. But in no sense could Mr. Miliband be thought to represent the core of Labour support.

The idea of a ruling and under-class remains just as relevant today as decades ago. You only need to think back to the last time we saw a ‘working class’ candidate in No. 10…

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