Access, influence, and political debate

By Bernadette Meaden
February 10, 2018

There is justifiable concern about political debate becoming more polarised and toxic, but any attempt to improve the situation needs to ensure that responsibility is apportioned fairly. Newspaper headlines like ‘Crush The Saboteurs’ and ‘Enemies Of The People’, or dog-whistle articles seeking to scapegoat minorities have played a significant role in coarsening the tone of the public conversation. And at a time when we celebrate the courage of the Suffragettes, we need to be careful that a faux moral outrage is not used to silence the voices or sideline the concerns of those who are marginalised.

The people most adversely affected by government policies often have the fewest avenues open to them when arguing their case. They can write letters, they can sign petitions, or they can try to lobby a politician in person. But letters too often receive formulaic, meaningless replies.  Disabled activists who peacefully campaigned against cuts were called extremists in Parliament. And when a small group of disabled and older people gathered in the rain to lobby Priti Patel at her constituency office they were accused of ‘intimidation, harassment and thuggish behaviour’. One of them said, “At the age of 78 I never expected to be called a thug by my MP. Priti Patel should apologise and listen to our concerns.”

Of course, those at the opposite end of society face no such problems. They don’t need to go to the trouble or inconvenience of attending public meetings or waiting in the rain to try to get their views heard. As long as they are prepared to pay, they can get easy and comfortable access to government Ministers, or even the Prime Minister.

The prices for such access are helpfully set out on the Conservative Party website.  The Donor Clubs page explains that access to top politicians in the government depends on your level of ‘commitment’, ie how much money you are willing to pay.

Starting at a mere £50 a month a Party Patron can ‘help defeat the rise of Socialism’, but they only get a meeting with ‘key politicians’ at events twice a year. The price then rises steadily through eight levels. Those who are most ‘committed’ can join the Leader’s Group.

"The Leader’s Group is the premier supporter Group of the Conservative Party. Members are invited to join Theresa May and other senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners, post-PMQ lunches, drinks receptions, election result events and important campaign launches." Membership of the Leader’s Group costs £50,000 per year.

So next time we see a group of disabled people outside an MPs office protesting about losing the support they desperately need, and being called thugs, remember - if they had £50,000 each they could have had a pleasant chat with the Prime Minister over drinks in a nice warm room.

Violent protest, physically attacking people, is always wrong. But we also need to remember that violence can take many forms. If we think about the people we love and wish to protect, what would be the worst thing that could happen to them. A slap in the face, or losing their home and being forced to sleep rough? A physical shove, or going without heating in the winter? Certain political decisions, taken in the knowledge that they would tip vulnerable people further into poverty or destitution, are surely as violent in their effect, and as reprehensible in their intent, as a physical attack.

The Joint Public Issues Team, in its report on benefit sanctions, wrote “The DWP guidance repeatedly acknowledges that the sanctions it administers are expected to cause deterioration in the health of normal healthy adults… We would argue that any human society should be disturbed by a statutory system that deliberately causes harm to another human being.” A system that deliberately causes harm to another human being is, surely, a violent system.

Abuse and aggressive behaviour are always to be deplored. But when politicians complain about receiving abuse on social media, or being barracked at a public meeting, perhaps we need to think a little more deeply about where and how the real harm is being done, and the level of inequality involved in political access and influence. The very wealthy have every opportunity to advance their interests in a civil and mutually respectful manner. The people whose lives are being most damaged by government policies can only dream of such access.



© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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