What do the general public want from politicians? Search me. If I knew then I’d be a very successful one myself. Perhaps it’s easier to ask what they don’t want, and the EU Referendum campaign has – if you believe opinion polls, focus groups and vox pops – highlighted some of these.
What people don’t want, it seems, is a cacophony of competing, often quite wild claims about the impact that their decision will have. Most – far more than just the 15% or so of the population still classing themselves as undecided – say that they want facts; just facts. If politicians seem incapable of doing the job that they are elected to do, namely taking decisions on the voters’ behalf about Britain’s place in the world, then the least they could do is give a fairly consistent, clear and coherent guide to the positives and negatives of the EU. Instead voters get interpretation, guesswork and projection, all in the knowledge that whatever they decide is more or less irreversible for the foreseeable future.
So the last few weeks haven’t exactly bolstered the standing of politicians: a recent poll confirmed their position as one of the least trusted sections of society, below even journalists. Back to the original question then – if politicians are to improve their standing, what is it exactly that people want to see them say and do?
Presumably one answer would be to stand up for the little guy, to investigate abuses of power and to hold the rich and powerful to account. Fairness is a surprisingly powerful motivating factor in democracies. If something is perceived to be unfair, blatantly, obviously tilting the balance in favour of the rich away from everyone else, then not even recent electoral victories can help this policy. The Government’s attempt to cut tax credits shortly after their election in mid-2015 is an excellent example of this.
What better example of fairness can there be of taking on and winning a battle of strength with a billionaire, one of the richest men in Britain, and hauling him before a group of elected representatives to hear about how his company has short-changed and exploited men and women on the margins of society?
This is what our politicians do. The Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee doggedly pursued Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley and won, forcing him to acknowledge some of the appalling conditions in his warehouses across the country. As a result, working conditions will improve for these men and women. Life will get a little bit easier. Like will get a little bit more fair.
Later in the week, the same Committee will look at the BHS collapse. Maybe for those workers caught in the middle of this, watching the well-paid executives partly responsible for their looming unemployment have to justify their actions, maybe this too will make things a little more right, a little better.
Some of the politicians on this Committee will shortly go on to campaign on one side of the Referendum or the other, parroting the same wild claims which drive voters to distraction. But this week they would have also managed what the cynics say can’t happen; held the rich to account, embarrassed the wealthy, helped the poor. We’re all capable of contradictory behaviour, politicians more so than anyone else. Just remember, when you’re considering whether they really are worse than journalists, the force for positive change that our elected representatives can also be.