This time last week, I was preparing for my first trip to Parliament, well to Portcullis House. I accompanied my boss, Peter Oborne – me name dropping? never – to the Hansard Society’s 10th annual audit of political engagement within the UK; a survey funded by the House of Commons.
I’m writing about it now, because it has taken me a while to ‘engage’ with how the evening really left me feeling, or indeed not feeling, feeling no feeling, but that’s still feeling? Anyway, back to last Wednesday.
Suited and booted, I made my way to Westminster and, typically early, found myself waiting for 45-minutes outside the newly named Thatcher room. This eager time-keeping, however, allowed me to squeeze in a quick re-read of the society’s book, which had been posted to the office earlier in the week.
‘Wow, this is dull,’ I thought as I turned to find yet another page of percentages, graphs, and ‘Microsoft paint’ arrows. I shut it and looked at the works of art decking the corridor, reasoning that things are always more interesting when you have an actual human being to engage with. After looking at the Thatcher portrait for the third time, I found that a queue was forming outside the namesake’s room. A queue in which 90% (there’s a percentage for you) of the members would have been privy to a discount on the bus.
At Zimmer frame speed, we entered the conference room and took to our seats. Here, I spied a handful of – what I would later learn should be referred to as – youths. The youth. Youths. Peter took up his seat on the panel next to Matt Korris (co-author Audit of Political Engagement; Senior Researcher, Hansard Society). Also on the VIP desk were the other co-author, Dr Ruth Fox, and two MPs; Natascha Engel and Chloe Smith, Labour and Conservative respectively.
After a brief introduction by Dr Fox, Korris took to his projector and proudly started his power-point presentation. At this point, I would like to state, I was open-minded. However, as this self-important, sarcastic for-want-of-a-character-trait individual, repeatedly patronised the politically uneducated, I started to feel rather unfavourably toward him, and indeed to the audit as a whole.
Infuriating man, standing there with his data, ridiculing the ‘youth’ for how little they know about Parliament and the Government – that some think they are the same thing. How “shocking” that only 47% of this generation could, if asked, name their local MP.
‘This and you, my smarmy friend, is exactly the problem’ I thought from the back row. People don’t want to be patronised about what they don’t know, they don’t want to be ridiculed for thinking that the public votes members into the House of Lords, or for not knowing that British members of the European Parliament are directly elected by British voters. Making people feel stupid does not encourage a desire to learn.
People gain knowledge when they are encouraged, and when something is made interesting to them. What have MPs done to encourage our interest in them? The occasional affair, or expenses scandal, it’s like a bad soap, our interest piques for a while – the Christmas special as it were – and then we return to not caring. But moreover, it is their lack of interest in us, which peters out our interest in them. When someone ignores you, you work harder to vie for their attention, when they continue to ignore you, (if you care) you try even harder to get their attention, and if they still ignore you, you become despondent and just give up. If they’re not interested in you, why should you be so interested in them?
This view was reiterated when Chloe Smith took to the floor and gave one of the weakest speeches I’ve heard. “To make change we must approach the individual” “It’s the individual we need to think about” “Once we tackle the individual” “It’s the individual that matters” – the irony being that she made the individual anything but individual. She wasn’t talking about one person; she was talking about lots of ones – aka people.
Natascha Engels, with her wide-eyed, pleading demeanour, gave some personal stories – washing up, and someone saying ‘good to see an MP doing some work,’ the changes that MPs need to make to be seen in a different light. But we’ve heard it all before; saying, saying, saying – never doing. As she flicked her long blonde bob and cooled the back of her neck, my thoughts wandered to another blonde – Nadine Dorries. Now, slate her as much as you like, but this woman is a doer. And Hansard, if you took to the street and asked how many people knew who Nadine Dorries is; I think your percentages would sky-rocket.
Interested in the public, and of public interest, and with the return of her whip, an interview with Dorries is the hottest ticket in town. She didn’t sit down and rant about how little people knew her; she went out and made sure that people knew her. The press is dying, the number of people reading papers rapidly declining. As an MP you need to be where your people are – and if that means being on the reality television programme that they’re watching then so be it.
Peter? He was great. Taking questions from the floor and weaving them into beautiful, articulate responses – ‘Ukip is to the Conservative party what the Prince is to Hamlet’. He made his points with humour and eloquence, and the room ‘engaged’ with him. In fact, my overriding conclusion of the hour and a half conference was just how important journalists are to keeping the public interested in politics. God knows how many people would care about, or have the time (even if they did care) to try to work out, what the hell these survey-bearing political passionates were waffling on about – certainly not the ‘youth.’
Not having a deep and passionate interest in MPs, the running of Parliament and the Government doesn’t mean that you have the IQ of an amoeba; it means that you are a 2013 norm. So, House of Commons, instead of funding research telling you how thick your populace is, perhaps you should throw a bit of cash at researching what you can do to get people interested in you. Because at the moment, I’m afraid, Nadine Dorries is leaps and bounds ahead of you.