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Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Stand for Parliament? I'd Rather Lick the Pavement Clean

So by tomorrow it will be all over. Except of course that it won't. Even if we're spared the hysteria which will surround the horse trading which comes with a hung parliament, the hangover from this election will be pounding in our heads for a long time to come.

Whatever the new administration looks like, we can be guaranteed that gangs of hacks, jaundiced from weeks of binge campaigning, will be desperately trying to prize the fag end of meaning from this empty can of electoral Kestrel.

But pity the poor sods charged with creating a coherent narrative arc from this soap opera. Non-doms, Tory Toffs, Brown the wounded dancing bear; leaders' wives, bigotgate, and the Lib Dem love in. There's a doctoral thesis in the coverage of Mrs Duffy's front door alone. The emerging concensus on the top story though appears to be the impact of the leaders' debate and the Presidential nature of the campaign.

But if that is the tale that we are to tell our grandchildren, we are overlooking some very important protaganists in this story. No, not the electorate you narcissists - ALL the other candidates.

Watching the election coverage one does think "Stand for Parliament? Why not lick the pavement clean?" Except that doesn't begin to cover it. How about, lick the pavement clean as passers-by shout abuse and encourage their dogs to lift their legs on your new suit from Next, while an Oxbridge graduate from the BBC holds his nose and asks you to justify your position.

Before you all beat me about the head with a copy of the Daily Telegraph, yes I remember the expenses scandal, yes I've seen a picture of Eric Pickles, yes I know that some of our elected representatives are shallow, vacuous, greedy, indolent, self -pitying egomaniacs whose presence on the hustings is an affront to our intelligence and common sense. But if those elected and seeking election are a bunch of losers, (even the winners), why aren't we all stepping up to the plate?

Well because most of us would, I know, rather cover our naked forms in Marmite and have it slurped off by Ian Beale than spend 10 minutes in the company of the slippery snake oil salesmen that we no longer read about in the papers every day. And there's the rub. What is the tipping point at which your average concerned competent citizen actually wants to join in? We might all agree entirely that someone's got to take the lead, it's just not going to be us.

In any event, not wanting to hang around with some of the most hated men and women on the planet is not the only disincentive to seeking a political career. What if you actually get elected? Here's where I admit that for 10 years as an official at the Scottish Parliament I actually worked cheek by jowly jowl with elected politicians.

Chatting with friends, it often became clear that most people had a rather warped view of what the daily grind represented for your average parliamentarian. My mates imagined a demanding programme of champagne fuelled receptions and fact- finding tips to Bali interspersed with a little light fete opening and the occasional piece of fiery oratory delivered to serried ranks of cheering followers.

The reality of course is "somewhat" different. Most elected politicians spend most of their time in dingy flourescent lit offices reading mind numbingly dull tomes on matters like finanical performance indicators in further education, leavened only by a welcome phone call from a constituent screaming abuse about their rubbish collection (which, as we all know, is a matter for the local authority.)

One of the reasons why I, and many of my former parliamentary colleagues, loved The Thick of It (TTOIT) so much was not just that it is was so funny, but that it captured the mundanity of every day political life so perfectly. You could smell the curled up chicken tikka sandwiches lurking in Olly's briefcase from the lunchtime meeting buffet. TTOIT also caught the sense of forlorn frustration that many politicians feel at the fact that "making it" politically often makes it harder to do the things that got them into politics in the first place.

Because, shocking though it may sound, (adolescent high foreheaded policy bots and political junkies aside) most politicians start out wanting to help people and many continue to feel that way. Perversely though, the business of getting through the day for most MPs can leave little time for campaigning on the issues that they are truly passionate about and which may have got them elected in the first place. Add to that the electorate's high expectations and we find ourselves with disappointment and hurt feelings all round.

For the breadth of skills required to be a fine parliamentarian is pretty mind boggling. They need to have the oratorical skills of Jed Bartlett, the forensic questioning technique of Petrocelli, the charisma of George Clooney and the balls of Madonna. But most of all they need to be the kind of bloke we'd be happy to have a pint with. Especially if they're female. And for all that we are prepared to pay them roughly the same as an Area Manager for the Carphone Warehouse.

Of course politician's must take their hefty share of the blame for the contempt in which they are now widely held. We've been lied to and patronised and ignored and all too often treated like an irritation by those who are supposed to serve us.

But still we're a pretty tough crowd. I suspect even a cross between Nye Bevan, Mandela and Joanna Lumley would have some voters muttering "Too bloody Welsh...". As Alain de Botton posted (postulated?) on his Twitter account in the wake of the bigotgate farrago "We want our politicians to be at once entirely ordinary and completely exceptional."

And of course the fourth estate play their part in this. The demands of rolling news, a complusion to editorialise anything that moves and the (probably age old) insularity of the Westminster media/political village paint a political picture that rarely tells the whole story.

Political journalism is also dominated by the same kind of mindset as old fashioned politics, which is to say going for the jugular and admitting no weakness. So while we say we want politicans who listen and respond, we ridicule them for "flip-flopping" "caving", or "u-turning". We say we want politicians to tell the truth but in reality they would often be crucified for it. The attraction of the debates for many people may actually have been the opportunity to hear the politicans speak at some length about their policies

This is not supposed to be an apologia for politicians. Many, indeed very many, behaved disgracefully in relation to their expenses. Some have the intellectual rigour of a demented donkey and the compassion of Cruella de Ville. A number would be lucky to find and keep gainful employment of any kind in the real world. I've met politicians who would leave you for dead at the side of the road if it meant two minutes in the Newsnight studio. I've equally known politicians who are decent, kind, considerate and tolerant in their views. Both kinds, I might add, can be found in most parties you care to mention.

Politicians are human, awful, admirable, fallible. To paraphrase that great political philosopher Julia Roberts in Notting Hill, at the end of the day they're just people, standing in front of the electorate, asking you to vote for them.

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