I imagine Grant Shapps had a bit of a political hangover this morning. In a fit of misplaced triumphalism, his thoughtless piece of Conservative propaganda went viral on Twitter last night. The Bingo poster lumps all ‘hard working people’ together as a monolithic and stereotyped ‘they’, who presumably are something separate from more sophisticated politicians. Now in the clutches of the internet, in the hands of no-one and everyone at the same time, it shows that the Tories are disconnected from a large portion of electorate they claim to representative. But, this is not just a problem of the Conservative Party. The positioning of a ‘them’ and an ‘us’ is endemic within the political system.
Think for a moment of the words we use to describe British MPs. They’re known as the political elite, who are vacuum-sealed from the rest of society in the Westminster bubble. Now, I’m not here to say we shouldn’t be using these terms. Statistics from the Smith Institute show that they’re pretty accurate: 43% of MPs went to private schools (compared with the national average of approximately 7%), nearly a quarter are Oxbridge educated, only 4.1% are from non-white backgrounds, a mere 22% are female, and there are possibly as few as 4 disabled MPs. Our political house is not representative of the society we live in and our language reflects this. But this isn’t the whole picture.
One of the reasons the system remains a hotbed of elitism, which is stagnant in its appeal but also in its variety of ideas, is the way those of us who are not part of this political elite see ourselves and the way we’re told to see ourselves. While we’re attempting to unveil the unrepresentative nature of contemporary politics by using the word elite, we, the electorate, are referred to as ordinary or normal.
These words slip out of politicians’ mouths without a second thought. As I’ve written recently, they’re used by people across the political spectrum for different reasons but regardless of the intention behind these words, they’re disempowering. In our everyday lives, at home, in the workplace, at school, how acceptable would it be to call each other ordinary? Used so openly in the political context, what they tell us is that if we’re ordinary, politicians are extraordinary. These words, and the dichotomy they create, imply that you can only effect change if you qualify as part of the elite. Unless, that is, you’re one of the special ones who can work to overcome their ordinariness. Understanding ourselves in relation to politics and politicians in this way reinforces most people’s feeling that politics isn’t a place for them or a world that represents them.
It is by playing upon these ideas that Nigel Farage is making such good ground. By claiming to represent ordinary people, he’s tapping into this sense of disenfranchisement in a perverse way. Pictures of him, pint in hand on a weekday lunchtime, are a crude attempt to make him seem like an ordinary person (despite the fact he was once a commodity broker and in many ways is cut from the same expensive cloth as Cameron and Osborne) but they have an eerily similar echo to Shapps’ Bingo (and Beer) poster. Although Farage’s tactics may prove electorally effective, he’s continuing to disempower people by speaking for the ordinary electorate, who, these pictures suggest, he also sees as a homogenous beer guzzling mass. Ironically he’s playing on his own self-professed ordinariness to get himself a pass into the Westminster bubble, instead of helping ordinary people to create a platform where they can speak for themselves.
A likely response to what I’m saying is that no one needs to buy this 'ordinary' line anymore. Not now we have the internet, potentially a key plank to achieving true democracy, where everyone can make their voices heard. But what this implicitly means is that if we still feel voiceless, or in a world where we’re judged by our Twitter followers, if we don’t feel we have enough, it’s our own failing. The tools are there, we just aren’t using them in the right way.
We won’t create a political system in which no one is described or seen as ordinary by telling individuals to go forth and shout over each other on Twitter. It will be done by moving past this ‘them’ and ‘us’ dichotomy. To begin, we need a truly representative parliament, a place where everyone in society feels like they have a stake and where we realise no human being can or should be called ordinary.