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Anti-politics and the problem of listening

19225410_sBy-election fever grips Stoke-on-Trent! Well, that might be egging the pudding a bit. But it’s true enough that the biggest ward in the city is being put through its campaigning paces after the resignation of a Labour-turned-Independent councillor over serious fraud charges. Needless to say Labour are fighting to take back the seat and have a great candidate in the shape of my energetic and indefatigable comrade, Candida Chetwynd.

But it’s not the by-election per se that interests me here. I can’t say a great deal anyway as my new job and its delightful commute has ruled me out of most campaigning. But what does is a question asked of the Tory candidate, Sam Richardson by the March on Stoke group. They ask “What assurance can you give that you will listen to, and respect, the opinions expressed by members of your electorate ? If elected, do you undertake to represent these views in any and all council discussions, whether or not they may conflict with any ‘party’ view?”

Kudos to Sam for not saying what MoS would no doubt like to hear. But this question encapsulates so much of the anti-politics sentiment that sloshes about town halls and the wider political system like an open sewer. It is populist in that a pure mass of people are opposed to an irredeemably corrupt set of political institutions and parties. And it is a protest against the lack of dialogue, of “not listening”.

In the first place, political parties are not de facto corrupt institutions. Parties remain, as they always have, as expressions of certain collective interests or, at least in the British contexts, alliances of interests. The Conservative Party is often referred to as the preferred party of the British ruling class, and that is because of its long-standing ties to various business and landed interests. But in addition to that it is also allied with a section of the middle class, the military, small business people, farmers and a layer of working class people. The Labour Party is a similar alliance. Officially it is the political wing of the labour movement, but it has always been an alliance between it and a section of the ‘progressive’ middle class. That is its bedrock, but it too encompasses sections of classes and class fractions straddled by the Tory party.

Anti-politics isn’t the result of a few eternal misanthropes having a moan in their local paper. It is a phenomenon that is the direct result of a partial breakdown in ‘traditional’ communities of solidarity based around employment focal points, and the collapse or decline of institutions that used to thread these together. This reached its extreme point in the last decade when, qualitatively, there was comparatively little between the Tories and Labour in the sense that politics was about managing capitalism, not about what kind of capitalism (as it is presently). With little to choose and a palpable sense that core supporters were being ignored, many grew even more cynical toward and alienated from mainstream politics. To win people back to politics parties have to start taking their interests into account, and this, in my opinion, is what the Labour Party has started to do in earnest.

Hardened anti-politics types, however, are not that interested. And nowhere does their lack of interest manifest itself more in their protestation that they’re “not being listened to”. For example, in my previous job one of my duties was to reply to the occasional letter that bemoaned the state of the world – which usually extended no further than the city limits of Stoke-on-Trent. I remember a series of letters in which a number of criticisms were ventured of the local party’s record which I responded to comprehensively and with supporting evidence. These were not point-scoring rebuttals. Nevertheless it didn’t surprise me to see those replies being bandied about on local fora as proof their MP “wasn’t listening”.

And here is the fundamental error. Our anti-politics types cannot or refuse to differentiate between listening and agreement. In those letters I, on behalf of my employer, listened to what they had to say, thought their concerns were mistaken and unwarranted, and replied back stating the reasons for disagreement and supplying an alternative point of view. Likewise when I’ve stood on doorsteps listening to anti-immigration rants. I listen, then state why I disagree, and reply using the power of fact and evidence. The same is when the press goes on a populist binge on some issue or another and claims “no one’s listening”. Chances are they are, it’s that they simply disagree.

Perhaps if they are genuine about mending politics and get their head round this simple point then anti-politics people might contribute something positive to a widespread and much-needed democratic renewal.

This post first appeared at A Very Public Sociologist. Image credit: feedough / 123RF Stock Photo


  1. Robert says:

    In the first place, political parties are not de facto corrupt

    If you say so….

  2. Jon Williams says:

    I don’t think listening to the electorate is as such a problem as being relevant to most people’s lives is more of an issue for political parties. Populism trumps politics! What’s more interesting Strictly Come Dancing or Newsnight…?

  3. Robert says:

    News night may be more interesting if for example it was discussing disability, then again your not going to see to many disabled people dancing on strictly.

    Not to long ago Labour was attacking ATOS then Labour goes to the KPMG to ask them to find out how to make the min wage more relevant and who owns KPMG ATOS.

    It just a never ending circle of not so much corruption but leaders who have difficulty of running a piss up in a brewery if the ale was free.

  4. James Martin says:

    Phil, yes, there have and always will be those with a political view who disguise it by saying the opposite (genuine ‘anti-politics’ people would never bother writing to councillors or MPs in the first place), but I think you (and most mainstream party activists) are missing a far wider development.

    What you describe as ‘anti-politics’ I suspect is far more often people now realising that, actually, nothing much changes regardless of what main party is elected locally or nationally. Of course that is most often expressed as ‘they’re all as bad as each other’ but it’s base is actually a growing realisation that our democracy is often nothing of the sort and at best a sham and at worst a devastating con-trick where the places where we are told make decisions have very little power, while the places we don’t control (the big boardrooms, banks, monopolies, multi-nationals etc.) actually have the real power to determine such basic issues as wealth distribution and employment.

    And in that sense I’m with the ‘anti-politics’ crowd myself and not ashamed to say so.

  5. Rod says:

    “Parties remain, as they always have, as expressions of certain collective interests”

    Well, that seems to be a bit of a theoretical confection.

    When the recent Labour Party Conference voted to renationalise the Royal Mail, if elected in 2015, Labour’s Business Secretary Chuka Umunna ruled out renationalisation. This causes me to wonder – which collective was having its interest expressed by the Labour Party?

  6. Rod says:

    Robert: “who owns KPMG: ATOS – a never ending circle ”

    And there’ll be plenty of non-executive directorships available for Labour/Progress MPs.

  7. Robert says:

    New Labour Newer Labour, nothing changed.

  8. Gary Elsby says:

    I’m a candidate in that election.
    When I stood for Labour I went forward on a unanimous ticket but a NEC sub committee unanimously put a stop to it all.
    Phil reckons that everyone is anti politics (big clue there NEC) but I think it’s a bit deeper.
    Stoke Labour is under the cosh. It is imprinted into the mindset of the stoke voter that something is not quite right all round.
    Tristram, the shadow minister for yummy mummy free schools, is largely ridiculed all round. It’s ingrained that he’s someone else’s choice and voice.
    The press aren’t hostile at all, in fact, they give him a full page a week to say anything he fancies.
    He’s then ripped off.
    My theory is that he’s a posh boy lecturing the rough end of the Country but thinks we are posh.
    I don’t see it as anti, I see it as real politics meets parachute politics.
    London yes, Stoke, no.
    We warned you and you didn’t listen Phil.

  9. Gary Elsby says:

    Just to prove a point, this is a comment from today’s newspaper that is highlighting the fact that Tristram Hunt is now named as a leading favourite with all bookies to be the new Labour Leader after Ed fails in 2015:

    “This man has been an MP for 10 minutes, has absolutely no idea how the average working man lives and is being considered for PM. All I can say is …. ridiculous!”

    Tristram does garner support but a close eye spots it is the same business man, time and time again as well as an unknown writer from outside of the City.

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