Since 2010, a fair number of politicians have promised “a new kind of politics.” Often they’ve been greeted with a great deal of scepticism, but quite a lot of enthusiasm too. Back in 2010 Cleggmania, while short-lived, was a real phenomenon that can be attributed to this desire for a new way of doing things. The idea would not have stayed with us for half a decade if there wasn’t something to it. But it appears, looking at the state of politics today, that while the idea is there in theory, in practice those seeking to bring about this new way of doing things haven’t been very successful.
Before going into that, what exactly would constitute a “new kind of politics?” Well, it’s generally been thought of as kinder; grounded in civilised debate rather than heated argument; based on respect and truth; and perhaps more consensual. Less adversarial politicians would debate issues from first principles, coming to a common understanding through reasoned discussions. At first glance, everyone can get behind this. But it’s difficult to argue that this idea is a new one.
You could argue democracy itself is based on this noble ideal, though the ideal has rarely been lived up to in terms of the civilised debate aspect of the idea. One need only look at the current state of the Labour Party, the leader of which has professed a belief in a new kind of politics since he took the position, to see what a supposed new kind of politics has turned into. It’s also apparent in the unpleasant, divisive nature of the referendum campaign (from scaremongering on one side to straightforward falsehoods on the other — need we remind you of the £350 million?), to the rise in hate-related incidents after the result. Even the Labour leadership challenge resulted in threats and abuse. If this is the new kind of politics, it certainly isn’t a more gentle, reasoned version.
This vitriol isn’t confined to the UK either — just look at the US Presidential election, where one of the candidates routinely insults, cajoles and belittles his opponent, groups that disagree with him or any person he seems to dislike. There seems to be a “them and us” mentality pervading politics at the moment: if you aren’t with us, you’re against us. Not just that, but you’re a threat, and possibly even evil, whether they’re immigrants, political opponents or whatever else. “Blairites,” Trots,” “Remoaners” and “stupid/racist Brexiteers” have all been targeted in recent months. The language used seeks to dehumanise the opponent rather than engaging with their argument.
Politics is division; without division and disagreement there would be no politics. That plurality of views and opinions is to be welcomed; it makes us strong and belies the truth of this world that no one philosophy can encompass all of human experience. There is no one answer to all of life’s questions, no one solution or way of thinking that will solve all its problems. And, at least in this country, it might be said that this has been forgotten. In the pursuit of a new kind of politics, we see a yearning for agreement and consensus, bringing people together on one platform. This is natural; it’s why political parties exist. And groups of people with different politics are always going to fight, and do so passionately. When it comes to personal beliefs, there’s no point to them if you don’t feel them strongly. But that doesn’t make your opponents evil enemies that should be abused. The sort of abuse we’ve seen recently has no place in politics, new or old. Maybe we should stop talking about a newer, more gentler politics, and focus on making the old politics something we can all engage in.
We want passion in politics; it gives power and enthusiasm to the way we do things, it helps solve the problems we’re facing. What we need to get rid of is the tendency to demonise those we disagree with. They’re not stupid, or evil. They just see the world differently. And perhaps they always will. And that might well be fine. But argue. Pursue heated discussion. Just don’t resort to name calling, abuse or threats — that should be simple. We need to remember: your opinions don’t make you any better than the person with whom you’re arguing, and acting as if they do probably makes the reverse true.
Adam works in the higher education sector and commentates on policy and current affairs.