'Order, order!' - why politicians should be kinder


Amusement (and amusingly, adoration for John Bercow) at the British debating style was felt across the European continent after many tuned in for the debate on the first Brexit vote a few weeks ago. The nearly non-verbal noises that MPs use to shout down an MP’s statement can seem boorish and barbaric to others - many of my friends on the European continent were aghast at the dissonance with the ‘polite’ British they’ve come to know and love.

Politics is passion

But certainly this is what keeps politics exciting, and keeps the public engaged and interested? If parliamentary debates were only pragmatic, friendly conversations on the technical details of a bill then certainly no one would ever tune in, and we’d have a less informed and engaged electorate. This is certainly true; in my native Holland debates, outside of election season, aren’t watched, shared or turned into popular memes nearly as much as here.

What’s more, Chantal Mouffe writes that politics must necessarily be an arena of perpetual conflict as it involves ‘incompatible choices and dilemmas “for which no rational solution could ever exist”’. New Labour’s jab at consensus politics, she claims, is in fact partially to blame for the current state of play in which conflicts are more vicious than ever before. Politics properly conceived is about proper ideals, leading to a sense of ‘us’ vs ‘them’ among the electorate.

The deadlock

Indeed, both parliament and the country are more divided than ever over Brexit. A political analyst from Prague summarized the governments behaviour by calling it ‘the infantilization of politics, to say “if it’s not my way, it won’t be any other way”’. And in this moment of unprecedented changes for the UK, this stubborn adversarialism is paralyzing the government and preventing it from doing something -anything- to protect the British people. MP Lisa Nandy recently wrote that ‘our refusal to compromise is breaking our country. The inability to listen to one another is what got us to this desperate point.’

Volume =/= political skill

So is this adversarial style of politics is really delivering the democracy we want? With the Westminster bullying and harassment allegations still fresh in our mind, I’m left wondering whether our system is a battleground for true principles or rather for ad hominem attacks and unnecessarily vicious insults because those who yell the loudest will literally be heard the most?

And are politicians refusing to listen to one another on Brexit because they are so committed to British interests or because compromise is seen as weakness?

A different kind of politics

This idea that a combative and aggressive style of politics is the best one is embedded into our democracy, or so MPs themselves claim. Female MPs report that a more collaborative and kind style, associated with women, is viewed as inferior by their peers. The question of whether it is considered inferior because it is considered ‘feminine’ is a relevant one, but for now I will simply say that the crossroads we find ourselves at, as well as global and local examples of effective different styles of politics, show that this judgment is unfounded.

The idea that being more collaborative goes hand in hand with being weak, and giving in on what really matters is baseless. The new Prime Minister of New Zealand, has said she wants to be known for creating a kinder government but emphasises that you can both ‘be empathetic and have steel’. You can truly listen to others, look for compromise, yet never lose sight of the ideals and goals you’re pursuing.

“Especially now. What worries me more than the (lack of) Brexit outcome parliament produces, is that in mirroring pigheaded politicians”

And an attempt at compromise doesn’t mean that one party will have to bow to the other -a belief perhaps born out of the shattered hopes of the LibDem Tory coalition-, or that the results are always blandly centrist. A great example is the deal which made the Green’s support SNP’s government budget, in exchange for more core funding and extra powers for local councils. Both parties described it as the result of ‘constructive politics’.

Certainly, Westminster is in dire need of some constructive, rather than destructive politics. But how do we change the age-old tradition of bellowing and cheering? A system of proportional representation, like in Scotland would enable more minority parties to be elected, forcing all parties to truly listen to concerns and pursue collaboration in deals or coalitions.

A system of proportional representation, like in Scotland would enable more minority parties to be elected, f

While we’re fighting to win such drastic political change, there’s a more immediate way to take some of the aggression out of the debate; take the debate out of Westminster. If citizens, rather than politicians could deliberate on important issues, this would create a kinder politics in two ways. Firstly, citizens, while perhaps just as passionate, do not have the same political interests and re-election fears as politicians. Secondly, in a deliberative setting, people who are in conflict will be less likely to take an adversarial, win-lose approach, be more open and empathetic to others and their different views, and are thus more likely to reach a conclusion that is acceptable to most.

“Especially now. What worries me more than the (lack of) Brexit outcome parliament produces, is that in mirroring pigheaded politicians”

Notwithstanding that politics will always be full of conflict, and that consensus is therefore too ambitious a goal, a political setting that decreases rather than widens the division among our citizens is one worth fighting for.

Especially now. What worries me more than the (lack of) Brexit outcome parliament produces, is that in mirroring pigheaded politicians, the country will only grow more bitterly divided. Therefore, let the people do what politicians can’t; to have an open deliberation on Brexit, where we try to listen to each other and remember that Britain’s fate matters to all of us.

Sam CoatesComment