What I told David: Democracy and the crisis of representation

By Graeme Smith
July 30, 2010

When I got home last night there was a message on my answer-phone from David Miliband. He wanted to know what I thought were the main problems facing British politics. He also wanted my advice on how the Labour Party could reinvigorate itself to face the challenges of life under a savagely cutting coalition government.

OK, so it wasn’t actually David Miliband in person. It was a member of his staff who promised to call back soon because David really wanted to know my views. I am sure she will be in touch shortly.

I wasn’t that surprised to get David’s call. A good friend of mine recently converted me to Twitter. One of its joys has been following the tweets of the Labour leadership candidates. David and Ed (the brother) were most active in the early days with Andy, other Ed and Diane catching up now the contest is well underway. And they have been busy soliciting my views on all sorts of things. It seems everyone is building a new politics and as this exciting future unfolds, so my views count.

And it is not just Labour politicians who want to know what I think. The new government has also been asking my advice. George Osborne wants to know where to make the necessary cuts to reduce the deficit. This is great. I have long thought all forms of education were subject to an ineffective regulatory framework. Stop the REF (Research Excellence Framework), abolish the current HE inspection regime, close down Ofsted and end testing and league tables.

It’s not that parents shouldn’t be informed. I am one myself and frankly am desperate for as much information as possible about schools and universities. It’s just that this whole inspection paraphernalia tells me nothing I don’t already know in more detail. I get more from the playground gossip than I do from Ofsted. Nor in my experience do they improve failing institutions. So there are millions to be saved here. Don’t worry I have told George, e-mailed Andy and Ed and will soon be telling David – so watch this space.

The only problem with all this consultation and free advice is that it is interfering with the day job. I feel like a citizen of Athens participating in the great political and philosophical debates of our time. But the Athenians had slaves. Slaves did the hard work so the citizens could debate weighty matters. I don’t have any slaves, and what’s worse I have children who seem to think of me as their slave. So I am struggling to keep up with this constant request for my analysis and opinion.

Of course, cynics will tell me not to worry. What David, Andy, Diane and the Eds really want is not my views but my vote. All this consultation is an electoral ploy on the part of candidates. They are really advised by a small group of close colleagues. This vote seeking doesn’t apply to George of course, at least not yet, but it is easy to argue that he is caught up in the first blushes of a new government. He believes his own spin, or at least his boss’s spin. He is shaping a new politics and this is as much about collaboration as it is coalition. But it won’t last. Politicians promising new politics is as old as the hills, without their durability.

But the cynics are missing something much more fundamental. There is a crisis in our democracy and it is a crisis in political representation. A gap has opened up between the elected and the elector. Good politicians have realised there is a problem, hence the talk about new politics. It has two causes, one short-term and one longer. The short-term cause is the expenses scandal. Politicians were easily portrayed as the greedy ‘other’, snouts in the trough whilst we ordinary folk struggled on working hard.

The longer-term cause is the rise of the professional political caste. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Despite their press, politicians now have to work incredibly hard. There are a large number of demands on our representatives’ time both in the House and the constituency. It is not for everyone. But it means that electors find it hard to recognise and identify with politicians. We don’t see them as our former colleagues, be it miner or manager. They are no longer one of us.

The use of technology to consult with everyone is one solution to the crisis of representation. With Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and even plain old e-mail we can all be Athenian citizens influencing the politics of our day. The pure democracy that Rousseau thought impossible, because it was impractical, is made possible by the internet. And we can assume these networking tools will only improve and become more sophisticated.

But politicians should hesitate before they go too far down this road. Christianity is a religion with a representative figure at its heart. And as traditional theology teaches, this representative human was needed because of the flaws of humanity. Sinfulness, the separation of humanity from its best life, means a crucified Christ. Those flaws in humanity have not diminished with the passing of time or the emergence of technology. Our politics requires us to find a path between the common good of society and the selfish needs of the individual. Going straight to the individual does not solve that problem. Representation does. But it will need to be a renewed and reinvigorated representation.

So when David rings back and asks what I think I shall be telling him we need leaders who can help us trust and identify with our political representatives. For it is in effective political representation that a new politics has its best hope of success.


© Graeme Smith is Senior Lecturer in Practical Theology at the University of Chichester. He is editor of the journal Political Theology (http://equinoxpub.com/journals/politicaltheology) and his most recent book is A Short History of Secularism (IB Tauris, 2008).

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