I am writing this blog after reading an article in the Bristol Post by the Mayor of Bristol about what it’s like to be Mayor and the extent of the abuse and vitriol he has to put up with on a personal level everyday. Now, having been a politician myself in Bristol, I am more than aware that local politics (and national politics) frequently descend to the petty and personal. But it does seem to me that the position of Mayor has exacerbated this side of local politics in Bristol, because it does exactly what it was meant to do, it focuses everything in on one person, it makes them the centre of attention and deflects from the other 70 councillors elected to represent people.
If you look back at why Bristol wanted a directly elected mayor all the talk was of having clear leadership, one person to act as a figurehead, and clarity of decision making. It strikes me that that is exactly what we have – we have someone who is willing to take some of those tough decisions, we all know who is responsible, there is clarity over leadership and decision making, and that’s now part of the problem. But really, why all the fuss, why the negativity and why make it so personal?
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for challenge, as anyone reading my blog on a regular basis will know, but that challenge is best directed at policy and/or decisions and why they are wrong, rather than personal attacks on the person making those decisions. Indeed, I have disagreed with the approach taken by the Mayor on several occasions and I have challenged some of his decisions, that is what living in a democracy is about, the ability to debate, engage and challenge. I don’t expect George to agree with me or to necessarily change his approach, but I do welcome the opportunity I have to make my views know, to be heard and listened to, and to openly debate issues.
Sadly what seems to be happening locally is all too indicative of the sorry state our societal view of politics and politicians has got to. We don’t respect them and we don’t trust them, so we see fault, deceit, self interest and bias in everything they do. Equally I think at some point we stop seeing politicians as human beings, we forget that they too might actually have feelings, that unwarranted attacks might actually impact on them and above all we forget they have friends and family the same as the rest of us.
As a councillor I was the subject of threatening letters, personal comment, abuse on a regular basis, particularly when we were making difficult decisions about closing community facilities, and even more so when I was involved in decisions about Travellers sites – the threats became very real then and quite scary. But I carried on as a councillor for the reasons that most people do, I wanted to help make decisions that would improve Bristol, a city I love and only want the best for. I believe George when he says that is his motivation and desire – just because you don’t agree with everything he does, doesn’t mean his intentions are wrong. Disagreement and debate are healthy and a key part of politics.
The bigger point about all this is how it impacts on people’s views of politicians and decision makers and what that means in terms of democracy, voting and engagement. I read so much on twitter and Facebook that is pure speculation and falsehood, mixed in with fact and truth, that sometimes it is difficult to distinguish what has really happened in relation to a particular decision or policy, or what a particular politician said or did. Is it any wonder that people over react and make the wrong assumptions? The knock on effect is, of course, that we trust our politicians even less as a result and we hold them in low regard – and there’s the shame, because generally, particularly at a local level, my belief is that most are there for the right reasons and are only trying to do what they believe to be best for the city.
There is a key debate that needs to be had about how we improve people’s perception of politics and politicians, how we engage more people in a positive way and how we make politics interesting to a largely disengaged audience. In the run up to the General Election next year, and in Bristol the Mayoral election the following year, things will undoubtedly get worse, more mud will be slung, more personal attacks, more abuse and more rubbish spouted by all than we normally get. As a result many more will become disengaged, or will protest vote against mainstream politics.
For the sake of our city I think there is a real need for local politics to grow up and debate the serious issues properly, the issues that matter to people and that we need to be addressing. Yes we need challenge and yes we need to engage people, but can we at least try to do it positively, with ideas and solutions rather than just criticism and abuse. If we want to improve perceptions and encourage more people from different backgrounds into politics then positive engagement and grown up discussion will surely help? And if we want to change Bristol for the better, then debating the issues and coming up with creative and innovative solutions to long held problems, will be more effective than the brand of negative politics we seem to be slipping into.