Irresistibly Inspiring politics? It’s within our reach…

Palace of WestminsterPolitics will always involve Power, but good politics isn’t about Power.  That’s what we believe at Happy City.  It’s the same argument we make about the economy, which must of course involve money, but isn’t about money.

The more emphasis politicians place on Power, the less engaging they become.  Between 1992 and 2001, voter numbers dwindled as politics got nastier, with a more and more personal, vindictive and derisive tone. In a nutshell, what the politicians have been saying to the electorate for decades, is ‘you can’t trust them’, whilst pointing at each other.  They’ve done well – achieving the own goal of reducing trust in all politicians significantly as IPSOS Mori clearly shows.  It’s a disastrous result for democracy.

That’s why we find reason for delight in last week’s election.  Voter numbers were at their highest level in 25 years, and it was especially good to see younger voters taking up their democratic rights as reported by NME and the NUS.  The lesson in the results for the two main parties looks pretty clear.  The party which emphasised Power crashed, and the party which emphasised Policies gained.

When you focus on the issues, you have to debate how to solve them – so a policies based approach lends itself to constructive learning and problem solving. If you focus on the power and who’s in control, your main interest is in beating the other side.  The massive problem with beating the ‘other side’, is that your focus is all on skewering the opposition, not on the practical, helpful constructive stuff which actually improves lives for the electorate. Oh, and if you do happen to win, you’re still in the same boat as a bunch of bruised, irritable people who don’t want to help you succeed. It’s a crippling price to pay for a hollow victory – deeply disrespectful to the political profession, the electorate and democracy.

According to Richard Aldous,  this ‘normal’ of attack based politics in Britain’s House of Commons was set by the bitter rivalry between Gladstone and Disraeli in the mid 1850’s – it wasn’t always so, and doesn’t need to be now.  Would you seek out a service from people operating in cliques, heavily critical of each other’s plans, full of complaints and not above a bit of lying and cheating for personal gain? Surely that’s an absurd idea?  So politicians take heed. The way to win hearts and minds, and to actually get on with solving problems is not to attack each other.

We can do much better than that.

If the Brexit referendum had been a learning debate rooted in Appreciative Inquiry instead of a battle, how different things would be now.  Whichever way the votes eventually fell, there would have been lots of clarity. We’d have understood much more about what the decision meant, and everybody would have been far better prepared to deal with the outcome.  There almost certainly wouldn’t have been a mid-term election.  This, for me would be irresistibly inspiring politics – the kind that solves more problems than it creates.

Westminster doesn’t own the power, politicians merely have the right to use it our behalf on the condition they’re serving the whole country – or the power supply falters and may even switch off.  The licence to exercise power comes with much more than a mere duty to listen – there’s a clear obligation to work together for the benefit of all.  But it’s not all down to them – as voters, we have an obligation too – we need to explore the kind of prosperity we really want to share, so we can decide what the economy should grow for us all.

So whilst it’s good to celebrate more political engagement, to be happier we’re ‘being heard’, we need to be much more demanding of each other for a healthy democracy.

To get the leadership we deserve, we need to see big political investments in constructive cross-party learning based in practical initiatives for the greater good.  This collaborative approach needs to be upheld in the front line of politics for media and all to see as an example and inspiration to us all.

If the Queen’s speech focussed almost exclusively on making investments like that, we could be much more confident about solving the nations problems, whatever they were.  Not only that, I guarantee we’d see consistently higher democratic engagement and increasing national happiness returns. How’s that for a manifesto promise?!

The democracy we deserve

Elections ought to bring out the best in people. People are passionate about positive change, whether they’re standing for appointment or not.  So why is it politics seems permanently shrouded in a toxic haze of negative aggression?

There are two actors in our democratic process – the would-be leaders and the voters*.  We judge the candidates endlessly, but perhaps it’s time we took ourselves more into account.

There is an expectation that leaders should be ‘strong’ and somehow omniscient. We want them to have all the answers, and be right all the time.  This last, in spite of the certain fact that everybody knows, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Politics, and all of the machinery surrounding it, colludes in this fantasy – each party** saying how well they did, and how hopelessly wrong their opponents have been.  There has never been, nor ever will be, a government that got it all right.

Democracy presents leaders with the great challenge of balancing the apparently conflicting requirements of inclusion and decisiveness.  That’s probably one of the reasons Churchill so famously said ‘democracy is the worst form of government – apart from all the others’.

So is it fair to criticise as sharply as we do, or to protest about things with such vehemence, without taking into account the complexities of life?

We are all very quick to claim our ‘rights’ – the right to protest, the right to freedom of speech, and all of the other freedoms which the ideals of democracy bring.  People know they can fight for their rights – and this familiar territory is the arena in which we choose to hold our democratic debate.

This is where it seems to me our problem with democracy lies. As long as we assume our leaders carry all of the responsibility, and that we are merely spectators, we will continue to get the hefty servings of disappointment and failure that are our just desserts.

So whilst it’s important to point out the problems, and protest about the things which don’t work, it’s equally important we ourselves are not unreasonable in making our points.

Reason is at the heart of the ‘scientific method’ and we constantly turn to science for the comfort of facts which reassure us we’re heading in the right direction. When scientific researchers select only the evidence that conveniently fits their theory, they are quite rightly condemned for bad science.  And yet, this is exactly how most of our political debate is conducted – both by the politicians AND the electorate.

For leadership to function well in a democracy, the first task is to accept that democracy, reflects our experience of life – it’s a continuous process of learning, adaptation and change.  If we want our leaders to succeed, ALL of us need to take responsibility for being constructive in our dealings with differences, and for checking our own assumptions as closely and objectively as we can.

If we’re able to do this – resolutely focused on the development of our collaborative skills – then democracy has the potential to serve a very different dish from the one we currently find so distasteful.   If we build on the best of what works, we can be magnificent.  Or we can fight amongst ourselves around the dustbins of failure.

So draw a breath next time you’re about to weigh in to a political debate. Consider your purpose, the thing you’d most like to achieve. Ask yourself if the question or opinion you’re about to offer will help us move forward together. And be prepared to learn something new.

Challenge by all means, but before you criticise this or that political figure, remember that only the very brave or the foolhardy are prepared to step into the today’s deeply hostile gladiatorial arena.  They are forced by the baying of the crowd (that’s us) to adopt aggressive tactics in a battle for survival in which everybody will get maimed. Think how much you’d like to stand before the crowd before you raise your voice.

We can change the game.

If we claim our share of responsibility for the way our democracy conducts itself, and look to be constructive, we can effectively move the contest to a festival ground.  We can mix without fear of mortal attack, and explore the richness of difference the world has to offer.  In our collaborative mood of acceptance and accommodation of each other, we can reasonably expect to find improvement, and at times delight.

If we escape the the toxic haze of that claustrophobic arena, we’ll make leadership a much more attractive proposition.  A place where inclusion and decisiveness can sit more easily together.

We have to watch ourselves as closely as we watch those who would lead.  Then, and only then, will we truly be ‘all in this together’.

That’s the democracy we deserve.