Here's an idea to consider ... perhaps the greatest problem with our democracy is not the politicians, but the public they serve.
Ron Hogben steps out from his groundfloor flat and lets rip: problems with his bins, the lack of parking, bus lanes, the cost of replacing his windows, why Britain should get out of what he insists on calling "the EEC", and the crazy excesses of the 2012 Olympics. I then ask him about his view of party politics. "Let's be truthful: you get a local MP that promises you this, that and the other, but he's only going to toe the line," says Hogben, 59. "My idea of a politician is a thief, a liar and a cheat."
Thus begins, in today’s Guardian, John Harris’s analysis of the recent ‘Democratic Audit’ – a report on the decline of traditional politics and political activism in this country (which receives an equally depressing airing in today’s Guardian under the headline ‘British democracy in terminal decline’).
I am trusting that ‘Ron Hogben’ is a pseudonym, but – hoping that he is not a real person – I have to say it. ‘Ron Hogben’ is an anti-social idiot.
The problem is not 'Ron Hogben's' - 'Ron Hogben' is the problem
Let’s start with the bins. There is no problem with ‘Ron Hogben’s’ bins. ‘Ron Hogben’ is the problem with his bins. And that’s not just because he puts food refuse into his recycling bin and refuses to put it on the kerbside as asked. ‘Ron Hogben’s’ bins aren’t emptied properly because he doesn’t want to PAY for his bins emptying properly. ‘Ron Hogben’ could have a Rolls-Royce bin service where the men emptied them every day, came into his garden to collect them and then washed them out afterwards. It would just cost a lot. And, of course, ‘Ron Hogben’ doesn’t want to pay.
People have a strange view of public services, which they regard as a right not a service. ‘Ron Hogben’ expects to receive a call-out charge from the local plumber, and is happy to pay ££££s for Sky TV, but ask him to cough up the equivalent of 50p a week to have his bins emptied and he’s tirading – indeed, so much so that he has elected and is cheering on a government which is slashing Council budgets and forcing them to explore all manner of means to reduce the service on the bins to save money.
And surely the fact that he’s still talking about ‘the EEC’ is a bit of a hint as to how much credence we should place on what he says. The ‘EEC’ was renamed the ‘European Union’ TWENTY YEARS AGO. ‘Ron Hogben’ – like all the ‘Ron Hogbens’ of this world – is shooting off his mouth about something he knows TOO LITTLE about to warrant a comment.
Jumping the gun a little, if you are wondering ‘what’s gone wrong’ with politics in this country, perhaps we might start by wondering how we came to a situation where someone as ill-informed as ‘Ron Hogben’ feels that he can pontificate on matters of which he is catastrophically ignorant – and somehow feels he can ‘tell it how it is’ to a politician who is briefed-to-the-eyeballs, ideologically-interested, and involved with it every day of his life!
Why not shut up, find out about what you’re talking about, and come back when you are able to do more than spout pub-politics bigotry?
The unreasonableness of public political apathy
We’ve all met ‘Ron Hogbens’ on the doorstep. ‘What does the Council do for me?’ one of them triumphantly accused me one election … whilst standing in the garden of his council house, with its renewed roof, double-glazed windows and doors, just about to get a new kitchen and bathroom, leaning on his emptied bins, looking out over a beautiful flowerbed across towards the recently refurbished children’s playground.
I have a colleague who responds energetically to those people who sneer that ‘we only see you at election-time’. Indeed it is true that, before an election, she goes door-to-door asking supporters to vote for her. But at other times she is available by phone and by email, not only at the council offices, but at her home! She attends, not only Council meetings which are open to the public, but an endless, almost daily, round of community meetings, neighbourhood watch meetings, school governor meetings, etc. The council puts out an informative news-sheet every quarter, and the Labour Party drops a steady succession of leaflets through people’s letterboxes. This councillor also holds a monthly surgery, which usually consists of her sitting in a church hall waiting for people who don’t go and see her.
It’s not that she isn’t extensively available to them, it is that they just have not been bothered even to pick up the phone to tell her anything.
Neither is this just laziness and preferring-the-telly. I have a column in my local newspaper in which I write up what has happened at every Town Council meeting, and I regularly put in letters keeping people up-to-date with relevant issues. You’d be amazed at the number of people who reply wishing that I would ‘shut up’! It is not just that some people are too lazy to know about politics, they actively wish to be ignorant about politics!
“Do you realise that E.ON are going to put a 28-turbine windfarm across the road from the town?”
“I don’t want to know.”
The destructiveness of public political apathy
What these people do not realise about themselves is that this kind of wilful antipathy is terribly anti-social, because it undermines the democracy and government which holds society together.
‘Ron Hogben’ no doubt feels himself superior to the ‘hoodie’ who staggers loudly and drunkenly down his street at night and smashes the Belisha beacon on the Zebra crossing.
He would be stunned to find that I don’t think so.
Unacceptable as vandalism is, the light can be replaced and the ‘hoodie’ will grow out of it … but the aggressive, anti-democratic cynicism of the ‘Ron Hogbens’ of our society do it a much-more permanent damage that threatens to catapult it into chaos, violence and tyranny.
Yet these, of course, are the very people who then stereotype politicians – so ‘Ron Hogben’ opined – as ‘thieves, liars and cheats’.
At this point I hit the ceiling.
He is talking about me.
I am not a thief, a liar or a cheat AT ALL – in fact, I would be quite happy to compare moralities with ‘Ron Hogben’ and see who comes up better.
Why do we let him get away with this? If he had said it about a specific religion, people would have been up in arms. If he had said it about a racial or ethnic group, he would have been receiving a visit from the police. But he can say it about me and my colleagues, and I’m supposed to hang my head in shame and rush about trying to find ways to ‘involve’ this man with such ignorant opinions.
If I do have a beef with my fellow politicians, it is that they are too pusillanimous to tell these people how stupid their opinions are. Instead we butter them up, and give it all this nonsense about how we ‘must listen to their voice’ … and even give them pride of place at the head of a national newspaper column, as though they had anything to say that is worthy of my attention.
Poor old Gordon Brown, of course, is the warning. He met a bigoted woman who not only felt she had the right to ‘tell him how it is’, but then wouldn’t listen to his answers. And when, getting back into the privacy of his car, he had the misfortune to be overheard saying what was absolutely the truth – that she was a bigot – what happened? Not a wave of horror that this dreadful woman should so treat the Prime Minister of Great Britain – but such a campaign of faux-outrage which forced OUR PRIME MINISTER to go back and apologise to her.
We must start by valuing our politicians
When I was a Deputy Headteacher, occasionally I would meet the parent of a cheeky pupil who would try to tell me of a member of staff that ‘respect has to be earned’.
My reply was always the same. That member of staff had passed his exams and interviewed successfully for a job at the school. He had ‘earned respect’ already – and now it was the time for her and her son to give the teacher the respect he had earned.
Politicians are human beings, so there are always going to be a proportion who are ‘thieves, liars and cheats’; they should be dealt with as we deal with all thieves, liars and cheats. But the problem with our democracy is not so much that politicians don’t deserve respect – it is that people don’t adequately respect their politicians.
So my message to ‘Ron Hogben’ is this. Stop your mouth of these ill-informed prejudices. Discipline yourself to go along to your monthly branch Labour Party. Attend your local Council meetings and get active in your community. And then – when you actually KNOW something – you’ll be amazed at how eager your local politicians will be to listen to you.
In fact, my guess would be that within a couple of years you’ll be one of them.
It’s not that there aren’t dozens of issues out there which DESPERATELY need addressing, Mr Hogben – it’s just that at the moment it’s me who is trying to address them and not only are you doing nothing to help, you are attacking me as I try to do something about them!
What a crazy world we have allowed to develop.