Thursday, September 25, 2008

Why do people allow themselves to be called 'politicians' in the first place?

I've been meaning to post on this for a while, but I've not got round to it. So here is an abridged version to be going on with.

We commonly conflate the term 'elected representative' with 'politician'. So an MP, MEP, councillor, regional assembly member, cabinet minister and so on, are all politicians.

With me so far? OK.

Now, let me ask you this. Is this the problem? The world 'politician' is a bit like the word 'diplomat' innit? It's loaded. Diplomacy is about putting ticklish situations into a context in which they can result in agreement. It's about fixing things. Getting two or more parties with conflicting interests to accept a compromise without them every having to appear to have done so.

Diplomats necessarily have to do their business in private. They say different things to different people, oil certain wheels - and sometime grease certain palms. The term Chatham House Rule originates in the location of the 'Royal Institute for International Affairs.'


The word politician is similarly loaded. It carries lots of the elements that are also found in the word diplomat, though those elements are often cast in a less flattering light. The word politician carries an additional veneer of coercion, scheming, and underhandedness (if that is a word).

It's seen as being more nakedly, personally aspirational than a diplomat. You promote yourself, and not the interests of your Prince. Think 'office politics'. It's about manoeuvring and shafting opponents. Sometimes, the word 'politician' is taken to mean 'person who places short-term personal / partisan interests above those of the national interest.'

Now, is this highly loaded word a fair one to use about elected representatives? I've worked with a fair few of them, and the term in it's most unpleasant light would be a very mild one to use about, say, Margaret Hodge.

But someone like Stephen Timms, for example? I've never heard anyone suggest that he wouldn't give almost everyone a fair hearing, and offer them a kindly candid response to any issue that crossed his desk. Friends of mine who have had close-ish dealings with both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the past have surprisingly put Blair firmly in the two-faced-bastard-politician rank, and Gordon in the decent-geezer-in-the-flesh camp.

I'm told that the other parties have similar poles within them (London Labour is my personal backyard here).

Which brings me to my question: Should ... er .... politicians .... start to look at re-branding themselves in some way? Is there a need for an explicit debate, a draft 'code of conduct', some kind of collaborative 'reputation management' scheme where they get 360 degree appraisals from those around them?

Because some would not deserve the opprobrium that they routinely accept when they allow themselves to be cast as politicians.

And this raises yet another question. What sort of qualities do we want? I'm not convinced that people really do just want elected representatives to reflect their own views, as the evidence that Freemania pointed to suggested. I'd like to see more evidence before I believe that conclusion.

Most football fans will accept a side that can win dirty every now and then. Forest, in their glorious late '70s one-touch pomp won their first European Cup Final in a dour match against Malmo, and the second partly as a result of a concerted campaign to intimidate Kevin Keegan out of the game.

Did we moan? Did we fuck! So, making the easy translation from the stadium to the parliamentary chamber, do we want people who will win dirty on our behalf once we've voted for them?

Or do we want the people we elect to behave like clerics, jurors, bosses or well-briefed advocates?

I can't see how it can be made the subject of an entertaining bit of reality TV, but this is a question that needs to be put to the public properly. What do they want? Because at the moment, all I can see is a very edgy relationship in which the servants don't know what the masters expect of them - and they resort to odd dark arts to find out.

This seems to me to be a massive question, and I wonder if I'm a little bit bonkers to be asking it - because I can't think of anyone else who seems to be at all bothered about it.

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