The word ‘politician’ is often used as an insult. In the popular imagination, politicians are loathsome, lazy liars. But I think they get an unfair rap, cheered on by a cynical media and misleading social media memes.
Pollsters regularly report that they are the least trusted profession in the UK, with four out of five people saying they don’t trust them to tell the truth.
Our mistrust is nothing new – the Ipsos MORI data shows a consistent response back to 1983.
But it has taken new forms in an age when technology makes it all to easy to mislead.
The most common meme to grace our screens is the image of the empty commons debating chamber:
These are used to imply that MPs aren’t attending debates and so are lazy, not doing their jobs and not taking issues seriously. Sadly even the Green Party occasionally gets in on the act, and I’ve been guilty of it myself once or twice.
But these pictures are totally misleading.
Many MPs and Peers will be watching the debates from their offices, while getting on with other work. They can nip over to speak for part of the debate, and if there’s a vote a division bell sounds and they will rush over.
These debates are frequently called by opposition members and have no power, beyond raising the issue. Other MPs not in attendance may be working just as hard on the issue by other means – for example attending other debates on the issue, attending votes on the issue, directly lobbying ministers and company executives, contributing to committee inquiries, and undertaking constituency casework.
Sometimes MPs will be whipped to stay away from debates that conflict with government policy, as happened when most Conservative MPs “failed” to attend a debate on guaranteeing EU nationals the right to remain in the UK.
It can get worse. Isabel Hardman at the Spectator did some good sleuthing on empty chamber memes that were downright lying about the debates pictured!
Their close cousin is the picture of Peers sleeping in the chamber. Some probably are – many Peers are elderly, and debates can be long and, let’s face it, not always riveting. Others are just leaning over the listen to the little speakers next to them because they’re hard of hearing.
Most people don’t know about this stuff. So their sharing the memes is excusable.
But those who do – particularly journalists – should know better than to run mendacious articles like this article on the Canary, which acknowledges some of these reasons but still runs with headlines and images that imply MPs are basically lazy good-for-nothings.
Far more reliable is the ‘numerology’ scorecard on TheyWorkForYou. My local MP, Jim Dowd, has attended a below average number of debates and votes, and tabled a below average number of questions. Given he isn’t seen much in the constituency you could say he’s quantifiably lazy! But many aren’t.
Another favourite is the Parliamentary recess, often branded as a holiday. You get delightful headlines like this, from the Daily Mail, which manages to sneak in a byline about empty debating chambers for good measure:
Recesses exist so that MPs and Peers have enough time to do their constituency work, which they only have one day per week for when Parliament is in session.
The London Assembly breaks for the whole of April, August and the Christmas period both because it’s practical and because it allows politicians and their teams time to catch up on other work; we used to do all our records management and a lot more research in those breaks.
Parliament doesn’t even sit on every day of its sessions; there can be committees sitting instead, for example.
Cynical journalists will often nod to this. But they still imply that politicians are basically sunning themselves on a beach for six weeks. See, for example, this nasty piece of work in the Mirror implying that the recess is comparable to the holiday entitlements of nurses, doctors, McDonalds managers and teachers.
I wonder what some of those columnists are paid, and what hours they actually keep to earn their salaries?
The Mail’s Andrew Pierce took nasty cynicism to a whole new level by suggesting that job shares are another sneaky way for politicians to do less work. As opposed to, say, making it possible for parents and carers to get into politics.
Another nasty twist is to suggest that politicians are overpaid, particularly due to their laziness. Some suggest that they should not receive more than the average wage for their constituency, or live off the Living Wage, or the National Minimum Wage. There’s an obvious populist appeal for this, and a certain logic in making politicians more familiar with the realities of life for their constituents.
But many people get into politics having families and dependents. They have financial commitments like rental contracts or mortgages that aren’t easy to get out of. Should it be a requirement to move your family and reduce their income in order to get elected?
Sometimes wealthy councillors will forgo their allowance, then attack others for taking it. If you’re on a low income, a £5k or £10 cllr allowance means you can actually spend time on the job. If you’re a cabinet member, the allowance allows you to do the job full time.
There’s obviously a balance to be struck. I didn’t agree with the big pay rise they recently awarded themselves, and it’s all to easy to start pegging their pay against the wildly inflated expectations of senior professionals operating in a disastrously unequal economy.
But if we want to support a wider range of people to get into politics we really have to be careful not to undercut the pay and conditions that make it possible, nor to harangue good people.
Cynicism seems to develop within journalists over time. I know from experience that it’s deeply frustrating and dispiriting to watch politicians lie and dissemble and under-perform, year after year. I spent 7 years watching Boris Johnson!
But their method breeds this contempt.
The journalist filing cheap copy on holidays and empty chambers and snoozing Peers.
The radio host asking a loaded question on a complex issue, then scoffing when they don’t get a yes/no answer.
The editor focusing on trivial soap opera disagreements and splits, an ignoring the good and interesting work done in the chambers and committee rooms.
Some politicians undoubtedly are lazy. If you’re in a very safe seat and have a dozy, undemanding constituency party you can get away with it.
If you’re a media darling like Boris Johnson you can coast a job like Mayor of London – only being in charge of the country’s biggest transport system and an £18 billion budget – while writing a newspaper column and a book. You just delegate all the hard work to deputies, and keep the media diverted from your poor grasp of the detail with tedious stories of your political ambition.
But most politicians I have known really are hard working, dedicated public servants. They work far longer hours than most of us, including lots of evening and weekend engagements. Their “holidays” are frequently interrupted by work, and their “downtime” usually involves getting through long backlogs of emails and reading.
Too few people vote, and too many despair of our political system. A little more honesty and a little less cynicism from the media, and from all of us on social media, might go some way towards repairing this.