The Cop-outs and the Careerists by Jacob Armstrong

Why we expect too much of our politicians and too little of ourselves.

The concept of the career politician is often used to tar party leaders; former prime ministers; and many MPs with the same brush, dismissing them as characteristic of the Westminster bubble and therefore good for nothing. According to this logic, they’re all as bad as each other, and politics will just swill around Westminster as government and opposition seek to score points against one another. However, beneath the surface of this concept lies something far more sinister in the way we approach politics in this country: it extricates the population of all guilt regarding how the political machine operates and impacts upon our everyday lives; it affords us a cop-out clause.

From the premises that careerism is necessarily negative and has infected politics at all levels, one can produce the excuses:

“I won’t vote, they’re all careerists anyway: nothing will change.”

“I won’t write to my MP: they’re probably a careerist who will ignore my concerns, preferring to occupy themselves with Westminster.”

“I won’t join a political party: I’d rather not spend time in a room full of people vying for the top positions.”

I have often heard these excuses used by my friends and peers to justify their non-participation in politics, a symptom of the rapid decline in young voter participation, which has eroded representation of young people at parliamentary level. In the 2013 local elections, approximately 32% of 18-24 year olds voted, in contrast with the 72% of voters aged 65 and over, marking one of the largest disparities in voter turnout by age in Europe.

In my school year, I was aware of only three students being members of political parties, one of which was myself, and all three of which were male. Our generation, many have said, “don’t do politics”, but what does this mean for the future? The days of mass participation platforms from which to engage in positive social change will have been consigned to the history books if things do not change.

Apathy is not necessarily the sole reason why participation amongst the young, and various other groups most affected by government policies, is so low. Many in these groups are often more occupied with immediate needs than political action and representation, which is understandable when poverty is rising among children and young people. The lack of political literacy in this country is also of serious concern, given that school leavers are, more often than not, unprepared to engage in a key civic duty and unfamiliar with the process.

If these trends continue, democratic under-representation, and therefore widening social and economic exclusion, will be perpetuated: whilst they are legitimate, the stakes are becoming too high to use them to justify the young’s non-participation.

What we need, both as a country and as a generation, is awareness and engagement. We need to expect more of ourselves, and less of politicians. I believe, in spite of the poor voting and party membership statistics, that many of my generation are politically aware; in a world of high connectivity and huge social media platforms, it’s difficult to escape the news, or current affairs commentary, and it’s difficult not to form an opinion.

What we lack is engagement, the motivation to go out onto our streets, to persuade our friends and neighbours of our positions, to raise our voice outside of the online sphere. The most politically engaged I have ever felt, or been, was during the hours I spent campaigning in a team on behalf of one of my party’s candidates in the Local and European Elections, knocking on doors and delivering leaflets, which brought more satisfaction than inert likes or retweets, even if we missed out on the ward.

Many feel that democratic engagement is inept at delivering change, an attitude which would be alien to the activists who fought against injustice to built many of the institutions which are being dismantled today. Politics is not, and never will be, perfect, given that it is fundamentally the interaction between fallible human beings, but this does not justify inaction, which will only perpetuate an unjust society.

We can admonish the careerists all we want in the run-up to the General Election, but then the situation will never change. Careerists can be self-serving, seeking power at the expense of the ideological heart of their parties, but at least they engage in the democratic process. Politics should be positive and progressive, seeking to engage in democratic processes to improve the lives and prospects of the many, but that requires the concerted action of the many.

Fixation upon careerism is just as introspective as the Westminster machine, focusing upon the composition of the House of Commons, rather than the issues that we face in our everyday lives and how to better them through government. We need to learn from history, from the Chartists, Suffragettes, Trade Unionists, those who got fired up about issues which affect the whole of society; went out onto the streets; and engaged actively to further social change. We often work under the assumption that our 21st century society is a progressive one, that the problems and challenges of the past have been solved. In fact, many of the issues against which the aforementioned movements campaigned are re-emerging in our society: poverty, social exclusion, democratic under-representation. If we want to avoid politics, and a society, stratified into the cop-outs and the careerists, it’s time we acted: it’s time we got fired up.