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For those outside the bubble of partisanship, the party conference season is likely to induce varying degrees of irritation and despondency. However, this might be considered to be just as divorced from truth and reality as the warm fuzzy feeling induced by spending four or five days in an environment where people combine in opposition to hostilities outside the sanctuary.
It is often said that politics is too important to be left to politicians and party activists. It is certain that democracy suffers if we permit disillusion and cynicism to provide an excuse for complete disengagement. The rebarbative behaviour of some politicians, the jargon, clichés and general air of smug satisfaction with their own rightness over the wrong headedness of their opponents is difficult to bear even when diluted. Concentrated in the opposition-free milieu of the party conference, it may quickly become intolerable. But it is a great mistake to take this short-lived and highly artificial phenomenon as an excuse to abrogate our responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.
Most people do not find the idea of party-political activism, with its implicit requirement to be 'loyal' at whatever cost, at all attractive. The knowledge that there are far fewer absolutes in life than it often suits politicians to have us believe, that opponents may have good ideas, that allies make errors, that error may be admitted and rectified without shame and that point-scoring and clever-dickery will never produce just and sustainable outcomes, is learned by most people through interaction with family, friends and workmates. If politicians appear to operate in an alternative universe, it is to some degree because we have permitted them to do so.
If we retreat into contemptuous apathy, we leave the field open for the persistence and dominance of this false and blinkered world-view. Politicians are reasonably quick to pick up on public feeling if they experience it as threatening their seats or the electability of their party. It is never a waste of effort to make your views known. Emails or letters to your MP may produce a party political broadcast in return, but every communication is logged and categorised. And if you are are dissatisfied with the response, it is important to say so. Cutting and pasting from the press office handout must be challenged and, in my experience, can produce a shamefaced admission of the error.
Phone-ins, social media and the letters columns of both local and national papers also offer opportunities for well reasoned opposition and criticism. Critical mass in influencing politicians and changing politics is attainable, but it requires effort and a willingness to engage both with the issues and the manner in which those issues are presented. Such engagement can only be effective where we draw on the experience of balancing conviction, compromise, realism, empathy and humility which is required in all other fields of human interaction.
Our Quaker book of discipline, 'Advices and Queries' offered “for the comfort and discomfort of Friends” asks: “Do you consider difficult questions with an informed mind as well as a generous and loving spirit?” Politics is part of the life which present us with this challenge and its difficult questions demand no less of us.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet