Saturday 28 April 2012

On the personalisation of politics

A few days ago, the Conservative member of parliament Nadine Dorries once again made some impolitic remarks for which she wont be loved by her own party. Dorries described the Prime Minister and the Chancellor (members of her own party) as ‘posh boys who dont know the price of milk’. What she presumably meant by that is that Cameron and Osborne are ‘out of touch’ with ordinary people in this country. This is a line that has been relentlessly pushed by the Labour leader Ed Miliband and which culminated in his prompts to the ministerial front bench to reveal whether they would benefit from the reduction of income tax to 45% which is to come into force in April 2013. 
The public demand to reveal the income and assets of politicians has become stronger over the last months and you may think that this is the way is should go. However, I think it is mistaken for two reasons. 
First, it is a deflection from the real arguments that we should have: what are the benefits to society of particular policies and which groups may be disadvantaged or may inordinately benefit from them. Knowing whether any particular politician falls into one or the other group is of little use when assessing the overall impact of a policy on society. It does however personalise the debate. This focus on alleged individual benefits can only strengthen the suspicions of the wider public that politicians are engaged in conspiracies to further their own interest. This does not exactly serve anybody, given the low esteem politicians are held in right now. 
But personalising political debates also hints at a paucity of alternative arguments and it is a sign of the floundering tactics of Ed Miliband and his team that he favours this road. The facts of the last budget were portrayed in the public debate on a curiously lop-sided fashion. The centre-piece of the budget was the raising of the income tax threshold, instantly lifting the tax burden for 23 million people in the UK and taking thousands of the poorest families out of income tax altogether, a step that should resonate with Labour and its supporters. 
Yet it is probably a sign of the frustration that the coalition government has delivered some of what speaks to the core principles of the Labour Party that the shadow front bench have been left with little else to suggest in the public debate. Their fall-back strategy is to personalise some of the more marginal aspects of the budget (Labour leader Ed Miliband made much of a tax on pasties and visited a pasty shop on the day after the budget to drive his point home). Yet all this does is to bring about an unfortunate shift from debating policies to debating personal circumstances of politicians. Miliband and his supporters should be careful what they wish for.  

Once, and this is my second point, you start suggesting that it is the personal background of politicians which guides them in making national policy, this bandwagon may not be able to stop. If you argue that personal income guides taxation policy, why not reveal whether they are straight or gay when it comes to legislation on gay marriage? Or their medical records where health policy is concerned? 
It is also a terrain Labour would not necessarily do well in, given that Harriet Harman is one of the richest aristocrats in Britain and almost the entire front bench of Labour in the House of Commons has been educated privately (which puts them in the top 6% of earners in this country). And why stop there? Would the religious affiliation of politicians matter if they come to legislate on the reform of the House of Lords and whether or not the Bishops of the Church of England should retain their seats? Miliband is Jewish and I am sure he would agree that, say, discussing the religious affiliation of parliamentarians when legislating on the dis-establishment of the Church of England provides little to the public debate? 
So it seems the personalisation of politics is a dangerous path and does a monumental disservice to the conduct of political dispute in this country. Questioning the motives of politicians in making policy appears to run counter to the principles of mutual respect and rational argument. Let us hope that Labour turns its backs on this risky strategy. If they don’t, we all can only lose in the process. 

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