When the trust has gone

Or why engaging with politics feels like being in an abusive relationship.

Study after study reveal deep levels of mistrust and dissatisfaction with politicians in Westminster. From Stradling’s (1977) early study into young people’s political literacy to the most recent publication from the Hansard Society (2011), increasing numbers of people in the sample groups claim disillusionment with untrustworthy politicians. This state of affairs is reinforced in the media, as well-paid political public servants appear immune to notions of public accountability and have a seeming inability to show integrity in their political behaviour. The culture of impunity characterising the elite political class has always been there, and is clearly reflected in the surrounding institutions that claim to support their legitimacy. Notably the criminal justice system and the fourth estate.

It now seems obvious to me, after much thinking about this that people will turn away from politics when they are repeatedly lied to, when their opinions are ignored and they are aware of being manipulated over what to think.  Not to mention the damaging inequalities practiced in law based on stereotypes and prejudice, where who you are matters more than what you have done. With the persuasive peddling of celebrity and outrage humming away in the media background. These fundamental inequalities and pervasive distortion undermine democracy, turning people away from being actively, involved citizens in an unresponsive, putative system and allows the unscrupulous to flourish unchecked.

But no, some journalists continue to claim, contrary to evidence that it is people’s laziness that prevents their involvement in formal political systems. That apathy is rife. That people just cannot be bothered with politics. I certainly agree that people cannot be bothered to be involved with the Westminster pantomime but I disagree that it is apathy borne from laziness that disconnects them. As with much social phenomena people’s political engagement is far more nuanced than that.

Hansard point out the influential role of media, especially the press in shaping views and informing society about matters of public interest. Consistently and repeatedly the mainstream media are seen to fail in this. If people are lacking good quality information about issues on which to base their considered decisions on, it is unlikely considered decisions will be reached. From the bitter personal attacks characterising the AV debates to poor levels of understanding about tuition fees and the non-existent reporting on the privatisation of the NHS, the public interest is repeatedly not met by the majority of media channels.The tabloid press in Britain is noted for its corrosive effect (Oborne 2009) and for undermining political knowledge (Hansard Audit 9). But the media is just perhaps the most persuasive part of an environment that normalizes terrible behaviour.

The elected public servants in Westminster are complicit in setting agendas and where possibly the most detrimental practices emerge. Lying and treating the public with contempt is unethical and harmful, scrounging, feral, stupid beasts that we are. For particular publics this poor treatment of being lied to and treated with contempt by people who are paid to represent you in society, does not make for a fulfilling relationship. Ask any person who has been on the receiving end of a spiteful teachers sarcasm how they feel, even many years later. Hurt, bewildered, angry, frustrated, bullied and delegitimized as a person. Not a healthy place to be.

Listening to someone lying to you, knowing the manipulative and untrue nature of their rhetoric diminishes you. Observing immature and violent actions instigated towards vulnerable others or yourself diminishes you. Being scorned, cheated and despised is not healthy and the best thing to do is leave the relationship. At some point to survive you have to leave, to get away, protect yourself and try to forget that person and the way they made you feel. Sadly some people take desperate measures and finish their torment. Others fight back.

I suggest that the current role of the institutions of the British political system is one of a bullying, judgemental abuser of the public, and it will take more than a fancy and expensive re-branding exercise to sort out. At some point citizens need to be treated with respect and integrity by their elected representatives and associated political institutions, based on principles of equality, justice and truth. Anything else is pointless.

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