Politics: time to stop the rot
I didn’t know Jo Cox. But I’ve met many MPs over the years and count a number of them, past and present, as personal friends. In the immediate aftermath of her tragic death, I felt the urge to contact those I know well to say that I was thinking of them. And I understand why people have taken to Twitter to publicly thank their MPs for the work they do.
We don’t know exactly what happened yet and it isn’t helpful or appropriate to speculate*. But what does seem clear is that Jo Cox was murdered because of the job she did. It’s a job which it has become all too fashionable to deride — part of a profession all too easy to pour scorn on. Jo Cox’s death is, of course, heartbreaking — for her husband, children, and those close to her. But it’s also deeply shocking and bleak for British politics.
I served one four year term as a local councillor nearly 20 years ago. It was at once the most rewarding and the most frustrating thing I have ever done. As with the role of MP, it’s multifaceted and in many ways what you make of it. If you do it properly it’s very hard work. Above all the most fulfilling aspect of the role is the relationship with the electorate you serve.
It’s therefore especially poignant that Jo Cox was killed in her constituency as she went about doing her surgery. It’s a part of the job which is sometimes mundane and always relentless. It’s all too frequently a source of frustration and all too infrequently a source of reward. But my experience as a councillor was that however infuriating it could be, it mattered hugely. To be a political representative without taking it seriously would be completely meaningless.
Most MPs work very, very hard; far harder than many other people I know. It’s not a glamorous existence and it’s invariably a lonely one. It takes an enormous toll on personal and family life and renders impossible the kind of routine and normality that most of us take for granted. You give up leisure time, forgo privacy and become an easy target for people to vent all manner of frustration. That’s often understandable, but it’s hard nonetheless.
Yes, it’s relatively well paid and offers variety and opportunity which many workers can only dream of. But all that comes at a considerable price. Yes, the expenses scandal was real and some MPs were culpable. But for the vast majority, politics is not a source of wealth and the working conditions are far from ideal.
We know that distrust in politicians and apathy about politics have been rife for some time. Yet one of the striking aspects of the current referendum is that it appears to have exposed a disconnect between politics and the electorate on a scale we haven’t previously seen. Whatever, the result next week, all our MPs will have some bitter pills to swallow. And things are going to have to change. But I think there’s a role for the rest of us too.
Of course, politicians have to earn respect like everyone else. My experience at a local level was that wasn’t easy. But it’s made a good deal tougher by a degree of cynicism which is often based on scant evidence and wilful misunderstanding. Bashing politicians has become fair game in this country; good sport. It’s sunk lazily into our national psyche. Our political culture is rotting and that’s in no one’s interest.
It’s sometimes suggested that we get the politicians we deserve. It’s all too clear that in someone like Jo Cox we got far more than we deserved. She served the community she grew up in and saw no conflict between that and reaching out to communities across the world. Yesterday she died doing a job which we’ve stopped valuing properly. Worse still we have been increasingly complicit in allowing our MPs to become targets for unprecedented levels of aggression and abuse.
Enough. I think a fitting tribute to Jo Cox’s tragic death would be to pause and ask whether it’s time to take responsibility for rebuilding the trust which has become so deeply eroded. Trust that is all too often considered to be a one-way street. Politics matters. Politicians have their piece to play. But our political culture is ultimately what we make it. For the sake of Jo Cox and her family, let’s reflect on that in the coming days.
* This post was written and first published in June 2016 as the news of Jo Cox’s death broke but before details of the arrest and the circumstances of her murder emerged.