Public in dislike of petty partisan politicking shock!

by Stephen Tall on August 6, 2009

Nick Bye, the third-placed Tory candidate in their Totnes ‘open primary’, writes a cheerily self-deprecating account of his experiences in today’s Times, A popular raspberry against yah-boo politics:

Matthew Parris chaired the big hustings meeting, which I reckoned would be a walkover for me — it was very much my home territory. I’m a mayor and used to traditional, on-the-stump speeches. But this is where the open primary system really worked for Dr Wollaston. She had the good sense to appreciate that party political point-scoring was just not what this audience wanted to hear.

I, however, made the mistake of using one of of my favourite lines of attack. “The biggest myth in British politics is that Liberal Democrats are such nice people” went down a storm in front of the party executive. But in front of a wider audience, it fell as flat as a pancake.

The victory of Dr Wollaston, despite the news headlines, was not a victory for anti-politicians or anti-politics. Rather, it was a victory for a different style of politics. Voters clearly want their MPs to be much less partisan, much more open-minded and pragmatic in the way they deal with issues. Certainly, the yah-boo politics that flourishes in the chamber of the Commons and many council chambers across the country is unappealing and won’t work for any aspiring MP in a primary system.

Now frankly this isn’t surprising. That the public is turned-off by politicians living down to their tribal stereotype is a fact universally acknowledged. At various times, various politicians of various hues promise the electorate that they ‘get it’ – for example, after John Smith’s untimely death, and during David Cameron’s first PMQs. They promptly return to type.

Parliamentarians frequently explain away the combative nature of British politics by arguing that the very shape of the Commons – opposite sides ranged against each other, separated by the regulation two swords-lengths – encourages such bickering. Well, perhaps, though I’ve also seen plenty of nastiness in council meetings, even when members are cosily gathered round a horse-shoe table.

Personally, I think it’s because most democracy is so separated from the public: those meetings which I’ve seen working best – most constructively, least partisanly – have been when the public is not only in attendance but also allowed to participate. Politicians soon learn to behave when they’re in front of their voters on more level terms.

The ability of politicians to speak plainly but courteously is, incidentally – as Jonathan Calder notes at his Liberal England blog in response to a rather trite article by Jeremy Warner in the Telegraph – the biggest reason for the runaway success of Vince Cable. Whenever Vince speaks he talks calmly and authoritatively: he never loses his temper or appears ruffled. It’s a rare, reassuring technique.

With luck politicians, both current and aspiring, will look at the failure of Nick Bye and the popularity of Vince Cable, and draw their own conclusions about how best to succeed in politics.