Politicians. We love to hate them, right? Whether it is lambasting Michael Gove on the latest batch of education reforms or just tweeting about the sheer smugness of David Cameron’s face, we all have opinions about our public representatives and many of them aren’t pretty.
Of course we have a right and duty to pay careful attention to the changes being made by our government and to call them to account, particularly when they are neglecting the weaker members of society. Having spent a week at Westminster, however, I’m beginning to wonder if our relationship with our politicians has gone toxic. That rather than engaging with our politicians as people we have fallen for the stereotypes sold in the media and that democracy is the weaker for it.
There is no doubt that Westminster is populated with privilege. The culture of smooth talk and the comfort of sitting firmly in the middle class and on an Oxbridge education was evident everywhere. There were an alarming amount of glinting gold cuff links and perfectly pressed suits. There was a depressing lack of representation of women and ethnic minorities.
Coupled with this, however, was the equally common, and I admit surprising, experience of encountering real integrity. The popular media portrayal of the swindler just waiting to charge their next moat cleaning to the tax payer was refreshingly and notably absent. Instead I heard deeply-held concerns on poverty, genuine frustration about what is yet to be achieved for huge sections of the population and evidence of a great deal of hard work. This attitude crossed party lines, from the Commons to the Lords.
The reality of stepping into our adversarial and competitive political world is that it is messy business. Our public representatives are marked by the mess of the world that they engage with. As human beings they get it wrong and so are rightly appraised and critiqued on a policy by policy basis by both the media and the voter. I don’t have to like every policy proposed but I do have to recognise that politicians work within a broken world with no easy answers and the frequent necessity of compromise.
The age-old maxim that faith and politics don’t mix is perhaps the only way to keep your hands clean and ideals in tact but as a Christian, whose faith claims a deep concern for those in poverty, is it really a viable option? Rather than being a sideline critic the gospel imperative is to get in the ring. We claim, after all, to worship a God who doesn’t turn His nose up to being born into a pile of hay. A God who played His hand decisively, and taught us to do likewise, by entering the world in all its turmoil and confusion.
Demonising our politicians, who engage in the mess of the world, only leads to disengagement and apathy. That is the real enemy of democracy.
Accountability is one side of the coin in the voter-politician relationship but is our support the underused other? Perhaps it is time we champion our politicians in all their human frailty as they attempt to lead and bring change. Only then, in real dialogue and commitment, can we work together to bring the changes our society so desperately needs.