When Cornish Pasties become the dominant political news story, then either it is a remarkably slow news day or there is something critically wrong with the state of politics. With yet another UK fatality in Afghanistan, and an imminent petrol tanker drivers’ strike, lack of news would not appear to be the problem. But militarism and industrial relations have long ceased to be the stuff of political debate. In our liberal democracy where all political parties jostle for position in the centre ground, ideological differences take on a much more subtle and seemingly bizarre form. So Ed Miliband and Ed Balls – the supposed intellectual heavyweights of the Labour Party – brandish sausage rolls to make their point. Meanwhile in Parliament, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was floored by a question that was not about his failure to manage the economy, but was about when he last bought a pasty at Greggs. When a Greggs pasty is the political hot potato of the day, then we really are in a pickle. Food for thought, eh?
In the last general election, 35% of registered electors failed to vote at all. According to the Electoral Commission, up to 6 million people do not even register to vote, so if we factor them in, then around 43% of eligible voters either don’t register, or stay at home on polling day. Thus, we have a Prime Minister representing a party that secured 19% of the eligible vote in the last general election. None of this is news, as rising voter apathy is well recognised across the political spectrum. But what is equally disturbing is apathy on the part of the political parties themselves to address an issue which, if neglected long enough, will simply destroy the democratic system.
Like just about everyone I know, I vote with a very heavy heart. The party I vote for has no vision, no creative imagination and no ability to engage people about issues that matter to them. My party of choice has abandoned most of its values and has enacted some policies and practices that I actively abhor. But they’re better than the other lot. Not much of a reason to vote though, is it? None of the parties address the long-term issues that our collective future depends on, preferring to focus on short term gains that are politically expedient. Consequently issues such as the ageing population, energy and transport policy, and the whole sustainability agenda are parked to one side. The pasty takes precedence.
There are two issues here. First is the tendency under liberal democracies for a coalescing around the centre ground, thereby removing ideology from politics and any sense of long term vision. As a consequence we choose not political alternatives based on a notion of a world we would like to live in, but technocratic alternatives based on how efficiently we think the world could be run. We vote on the basis of which party we think has the more competent leaders to make the decisions required to steer an advanced capitalist economy. Of course, we are not really qualified to choose on the basis of actual competence, so it boils down to which bloke looks the part. And right now it is all blokes.
Second, the conventions, cultures and methods of politics are wholly anachronistic and simply have no appeal or resonance with the majority of people as the British Social Attitudes Survey suggests (I think the bloke thing is a clue as to the reason for this). The world has moved on. Politics has not. I used to listen religiously to Any Questions on Radio 4. Two weeks ago after it had been on for five minutes, we switched it off. I do not want shouty people who seem incapable of listening or acknowledging other points of view in my house, thank you very much. It’s bad enough when you have to vote for them. I’m with Martin Amis on this one, who argues that British politics is full of “not very nice people – touchy, vain, power-hungry male politicians obsessed by maintaining face”. And that’s just the good ones.
Politics has failed the people. The irony here is that it has been politicians who have driven change everywhere else. We had to get more competitive and weed out the lame ducks. So the mines and shipyards were shut. We had to reform the public sector, so throughout education, healthcare and policing we have seen radical reforms and restructuring. We have all changed. We have all adapted. Meanwhile the political system remains largely as it was in the 19th century. No change there. There is a language and culture of conflict, secrecy and duplicity that has now become so profoundly unappealing and irrelevant to the way that the world works, that radical change in politics is no longer an option but a necessity for its very survival. Apathy becomes tempered when we are offered what appears to be authenticity and real choice in politics. George Galloway and the SNP are at least authentic. But do we really desire a politics based on sectionalism or nationhood?
It is time to design politics better.
In the second part of this post I will look at the inherently political role of design, initiatives by designers to creatively engage communities in rethinking their future, and some recent arguments suggesting that design itself could constitute a new politics.