The Political Studies Association is a proud partner of UK Parliament Week. During #UKPW the PSA will be sharing a number of blogs written by teachers and students of politics. UK Parliament Week is an annual festival that engages people from across the UK with their UK Parliament, explores what it means to them and empowers them to get involved. For more information click here.

Hosted in partnership with the Financial Times and supported by UK Parliament, our 2020 Student Blog Competition asked students 'Does the public expect too much of UK politicians?'. 

In September we announced Samuel Lopes (Altrincham Grammar School) as the winner of our competition. Our runners-up were Emma Wilson (Withington Girls School) and Sapphire Hope (St George’s School).

Samuel's winning article will be featured in the FT Online and our Political Insight Magazine. To celebrate #UKPW we wanted to share the three articles here:

Samuel Lopes (Altrincham Grammar School)

"An odd thing happened at the last election. For the first time in the BBC’s history, the sitting prime minister refused to engage in a headline interview (with Andrew Neil) days before election night. This was the most public example of Johnson cancelling an interview, but there were others. By declining to be interviewed, Johnson reduced the risk of the public perceiving him negatively. He probably believed he could never measure up to public expectations, so why bother? The problem, however, lies not in the public expecting too much, but in the nature of those expectations themselves.

Naturally, politicians seek to shape the public’s confidences, coaxing them to align with the perspectives of their party. The disappointment this can bring can best be seen after elections; Ipsos Mori found that while 41% had an unfavourable opinion of Johnson immediately after polling day, this has risen closer to half of Britons by March (47%). That’s a sizeable minority of the public who had expectations of Johnson that were not fulfilled in the first three months after the election. The arms race of infeasible promises made during campaigns results in the public having unrealistic perceptions of our representatives and the change they can create.

It’s our parliamentary system which drives this political purgatory.  The British system rightly imposes constraints on government policies, but politicians have to reconcile these with pre-existing public beliefs. ‘The Public’ isn’t a singular conscience; it holds a multiplicity of views on nearly all issues. Governments will inevitably disappoint someone. This leads to a vicious cycle of failed promises, eroding the public’s trust in politicians; according to Ben Seyd, almost three-quarters of British citizens possess some form of disappointment with our political system. So, what should we expect from our politicians?

Most people believe that since politicians are funded out of the public purse and act in their interests, they should abide by a stricter moral code than the population at large. When politicians fail to do this, the public is easily outraged. A poll after the 2009 expenses scandal found that 63% of the public were ‘fairly or very dissatisfied’ with the Westminster Parliament, up from 30% in 2001. Dissatisfaction leads to the public seeking more immediately obvious solutions to difficult problems, explaining the rise of populist figures not just in Britain, but across Western democracies. 

However, a politician’s job is not to be a saint, but to implement policy; scandals are inevitable, and no programme of reform will ever fully remove them from politics.  Politicians know they are only ever one headline away from disrepute, and so try to over-compensate with simple and wide-ranging pledges. To break the cycle of extravagant promises, politicians would do better to highlight the compromises and trade-offs necessary in their day-to-day decision making. By nature, politics involves sacrificing one group’s demands in order to fulfil another’s. Of course, this then runs the risk of contradicting perceptions created during elections. 

Likewise, it is important to educate the public about our political system. Understanding how laws are formulated and put into practise would also have the positive side effect of holding politicians accountable, removing the powers of perception away from ‘spin-doctors’ and into the hands of the many. This would ensure that the real demands of voters are heard and turn a vicious cycle of broken promises into a virtuous one of comprehension.

Ultimately, expectations drive politics. Both politicians and the public have their part to play in encouraging reasonable expectations while holding our elected representatives to account. If this is achieved, British politics will be a paragon of democracy for generations to come."

Emma Wilson (Withington Girls School)

"An increasingly adversarial political climate. An electorate conditioned by technology to expect immediate gratification. Increasingly complex political issues such as climate change. The combination is bound to disappoint, and it frequently does. Lord Sumption argues that the commonly misunderstood rule of law ‘does not mean that every human problem… calls for a legal solution’[1]. The same should be said for politics.

One only has to consider the length of the 2019 party manifestos to gauge the sheer volume of promises politicians make in an attempt to win votes. Then, one only has to read the news to understand how confident people are in the failure of the same politicians to deliver. The Labour Party alone promised an increase of £80 billion in spending per day in 2019[2] and why? Because its supporters expected them to end austerity, increase the minimum wage, cut university tuition, scrap universal credit… the list goes on. Impossible expectations lead to promises that are impossible to deliver.

As a collective, we seem to have gradually given politics a disproportionate amount of responsibility. Considering that we only vote for one politician approximately every five years and it’s more likely than not that you did not vote for the party in power, why do we blame them for every failure in society? By the same logic, why do we not vilify business giants polluting the planet, employers paying their employees pitiful wages or wealthy individuals evading tax? The answer is because politicians are the easy target. There is no quick, simple solution to tax evasion and in fact, no quick, simple solution for most problems in society. So, we instinctively transfer our rage onto politics.

That leads to one of the flaws in any democracy… as long as people vote for their politicians, politicians will over-simplify to win votes. This ‘temptation to embrace simple solutions’[3] can often be destructive. The Brexit referendum condensed 43 years of membership, a complex discussion of trade, rights and law and a lengthy negotiation process into the simplest of questions – ‘in’ or ‘out’. This is arguably what led to the disastrous aftermath and years of trying to decide what ‘out’ actually meant. It is because the public expect so much of UK politicians, that they are forced to over-simplify matters and over-promise in order to win votes.

These demanding expectations increase even further when the politician in question is female. Female politicians carry their own stereotype – their own unique subtype of women perceived as lacking leadership and competence [4]. It seems that female politicians receive added criticism – when asked to comment on Theresa May’s resignation, an MP said that ‘the Dancing Queen has met her Waterloo’[5]. Contrastingly, David Cameron’s resignation was labelled as ‘decent’ and ‘honourable’ by MPs[6]. This comparison is not concrete evidence but indicates the heightened pressure that some politicians are under due to their gender. So, we must expect less of all politicians but as a starting point, we must expect the same of all politicians.

We cannot expect a handful of men and women to fix the world’s problems, we must do it ourselves."

 

[1] Sumption, Jonathan. 2019. The Reith Lectures: “Law’s Expanding Empire” BBC. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00057m8

[2] Johnson, Paul. 2019. “Labour manifesto: an initial reaction from IFS researchers” Institute for Fiscal Studies.

[3] Levin, Ben. 2008. “What can we expect from politics?” The Phi Delta Kappan 69-70.

[4] Schneider, Monica and Bos, Angela. 2014. “Measuring Stereotypes of Female Politicians” Political Psychology 245-266.

[5] Stern, Stefan. 2019. “Like many women before her, Theresa May was set up to fail” The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/25/women-theresa-may-...

[6] Morgan, Tom. 2016. “David Cameron resignation reaction: ‘one of the most extraordinary politicians of our age’ says Boris Johnson” The Telegraph. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/24/cameron-resignation-reaction...

Sapphire Hope (St George's School)

"Surely, after three general elections in just five years, we are used to employing politicians to perform a job that they inexplicably fail at.

We seem to think the grass can always be greener, that things can always be a little better, and maybe that is the explanation for our seemingly infinite cycle of elections.

Contemporary politics thrives off polarisation, off cynicism. The moment politicians stop being contemptuous towards each other, we will stop being contemptuous towards them. Why is it that there must always be a wrong? Why is it that we must always criticise? Some would say ideology is the answer.

From a Hobbesian perspective, humans are selfish creatures. They act in the egotistical interests of the individual and are often extremely stubborn in doing so. But who are we to refer to 17th century political philosophers to champion an argument, when politics, as we know it, is far more democratic than it has ever been? The once bureaucratic elite has been stamped on by an increasingly socially mobile working class and an ever-diminishing proletariat. J.S Mill’s idealistic liberal fantasy has arguably been achieved.

Despite ideology, we still put these politicians on a rather moral pedestal. Their own glorification makes us forget that they are actually human. They are not some invincible race, emotionally inept or immune to illness. However, even they do not want to admit that they are normal people - they try to mask their commonality by constantly setting targets that are simply unattainable. Whether this be Corbyn’s 2017 election pledge that would see 270,000 trees planted daily, or Nick Clegg’s bogus tuition fees promise. They, themselves, give us no choice but to expect too much.

So, is ideology as relevant as it once was?

Probably not. Outside of these unprecedented times, a government’s legitimacy derives directly from a manifesto to which only a minority actually vote. Many make their electoral decisions, not from ideology, but from policy. Small, yet powerful mandates can disregard a majority opinion. Even Blair’s 1997 historic landslide of a 418-seat majority only secured the Labour party 43.2% of the popular vote.

New Labour’s decentralisation of power set a modernised direction for contemporary politics and accountability that Britain had never seen before. Our hopes were far from realistic - we expected too much of a prime minister that was later dubbed by the press as ‘Bush’s poodle,’ putting his relationship with President George W. Bush over the national interest in sending British troops to Iraq in 2003. Just months before, millions marched through the streets of London protesting against this war. A war that was carried out on premises that were later revealed to be false.

Surely, we are used to waiting for a government to let us down. How can we expect too much if our expectations were never high in the first place?

But right now, in this time of global emergency, we cannot just wait to be disappointed. Ideology aside, if there ever was a time to test our expectations, it is now.

Our inevitable criticisms can come after."