We must stop thinking politicians are monsters from a different planet

Turn on a radio phone-in, read a web forum, listen to people talking in the pub, and politicians are often described in disparaging terms and are accused of not ‘living in the real world’. Yet most MPs I meet from all parties are decent people, caring about big issues and wrestling with tough concepts to try and decide how to do the right thing. It’s about time we gave them (a bit) more credit.

I was prompted to write this post after seeing the feedback on yesterday’s blog post – Shocking questions from a Lord and a Baroness. Many of the comments, predictably, went on to berate our law makers. I suspect this won’t be a popular blog, but someone has to stick up for them – as people often see them as self-serving.

I take some responsibility due to the deliberate hyperbole of that blog title, after all I doubt I could’ve got many interested in a financial regulation parliamentary evidence session without it.

Though in the blog itself I explained, ‘Before I get onto the two questions that shocked me, it’s important I point out that overall they were a knowledgeable, impressive and responsive bunch’ and that the questions may’ve just been asked to elicit on-the-record responses.

In fact, the peers and commoners were very receptive to the consumer perspective and points (you can read them in that blog).

We demonise our parliamentarians

I’ve picked out just a couple of comments from the many in the forum, on Twitter and Facebook and on the blog itself that seem to reflect the prevailing view…

They don’t live in the real world I’m afraid Martin, it’s all different rules for different people. If a Lady or Lord rings up the bank things get done, as no doubt they would have the actual number, whilst Mr and Mrs Smith have to ring a call centre in the back of beyond, only to be put on hold for an hour and then be told…no!”

ML: “I doubt this is true for many, often they will have to go through exactly the same rigmarole as everyone else – barring those who are extremely wealthy using private banks – which is far out of the reach of most back bench members of Parliament.”

I wonder how many people on the other side of your table would feel the pain that you are trying to protect people from. The people who can’t afford to lose a few thousand without serious life changes. I do think that MPs/Lords should have to spend some time living on an average wage, as they often have no idea what real life is like. (Alas, proper financial education would help that life.)”

ML: “But many MPs and peers lived in the ‘real world’ before entering the legislature – from postmen, policeman, teachers, lawyers, factory workers and more. I don’t think you need to be on an average wage to understand or empathise. It won’t be a surprise for people to hear I earn substantially above the average wage – yet that doesn’t stop listening, reading, engaging and ensuring you understand what’s going on out there. I do genuinely believe many parliamentarians do just that.”

The difficulty for politicians is they must balance competing interests

We need to be very careful about jumping on the ‘all politicians are out of touch’ bandwagon, when they say something that may not benefit consumers.

I often get people saying ‘we need people like you in politics’ and I’ve even won newspaper ‘fantasy chancellor’ contests. While flattering (or maybe people just want to hand me a poisoned chalice), it misses the fact that the decisions I would make if I was in politics would be by necessity, just as unpopular. In truth I suspect there are many ‘people like me’ in politics already but the view of them is coloured by the fact they’re politicians.

My job, being decidedly and solely consumer focused is much simpler than constantly trying to balance the interests of the economy, the poor, the rich, businesses, benefits recipients and pensioners – which are often diametrically opposed – if you help one, you hinder the other.

Take the work of this site. It extols people to be sensible with their finances, to reduce spending, to plan for the worst, to use vouchers, to haggle and more. It’s unambiguously pro consumer.  Sounds good – until you remember Keynes’ ‘Paradox of thrift’. If everyone is thrifty, it takes money out of the economy, reduces growth and we all feel the negative impact – what’s good for the consumer isn’t necessarily good for the economy; thankfully we don’t have to consider that.

On a simpler level, many businesses hate what we say about haggling – travel agents particularly. A politician has to be balanced – they cannot be single viewed in the way I can – and that means some of their views and decisions are influenced by factors the consumer may see as unpopular.

Most politicians I meet tend to be pretty well meaning

Whenever I meet politicians from any of the big parties, most (though I admit not all) tend to be concerned, empathetic individuals. Occasionally they’re a bit trapped in their own dogma and have to toe the party line, yet they often are trying to do the right thing.

What always illustrates this is often people who berate politicians, will say ‘except my local MP’, especially if they’ve been to the constituency surgery and got help.

There is a perception that these MPs and political Lords live a silver-spooned life, while of course most of them live like the average person and most are as far from Russian oligarchs as they can be. I know many new backbench MPs who are sharing flats to help cut costs and living fairly ordinary London commuter lives – far from poor, but far from rich too.

Of course there is still huge anger out there after the expenses scandal, but I think it’s time we tried to have some faith, whichever party you support. If we keep giving them such little credence, we may end up with a self-fulfilling prophecy where politicians are as bad as many think they are.

Any views?

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