Yvonne Roberts reflects on how politicians love the “people”,
just so long as they don’t exercise their rights.
People, don’t you just love them? Barbra Streisand said people
who love people are the luckiest people in the world and, it seems,
every politician, social commentator and urban regenerator has been
humming along enthusiastically ever since.
Remember Diana, the people’s princess; the people’s peers; the
people’s dome; and, of course, we have Tony Blair, our man of the
Insert the word people into any situation and it implies
universal validation – false but politically invaluable. It hints
that democracy is truly at work. It implies that our leaders have
their fingers on the people’s pulse. Forget voter apathy, New
Labour knows what we desire because it hears the people’s voice in
focus groups and citizens’ juries .
The people have become even more significant since the 1980s,
when Mrs Thatcher decided to pull the shutters down on the
As a result we are told we now have a decline in civic
participation; a drop in volunteering and the increasing isolation
of the individual, personified in Basildon Man. Basildon Man has
been tracked by academics Dennis Hayes and Alan Hudson who have
charted skilled working class voters in Basildon, the swing seat
Essex constituency, since 1992.
“Leisure time revolves around visits to the pub or activities
such as going to the gym,” the two reported. “Over half of
respondents are not members of any club or society.”
Basildon Man is happy, one assumes, to be counted as one of the
people since it requires no effort and involves no ideology. You
can become one of the people while sitting at home alone with the
telly, a fag and a can of lager. Brilliant.
Brilliant, that is from the politicians’ point of view. Every so
often the people, particularly in their role as consumers, may act
up a bit and down will go the sale of, say, BSE-prone bangers, but
mainly they are no bother at all.
On May Day, of course, the people, like the page of a pop-up
book, suddenly sprung into life taking to the streets to exercise
their democratic rights. For many it would have been their first
experience of standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Some may have been
intent on violence, the majority however were protesting against
issues such as the power of multinationals , third world debt, the
environment and the wealth gap. Their concern confirms the
connectedness with others and the global community which is
supposed to be on the wane.
Thousands were detained in Oxford Circus by riot police for up
to eight hours without access to food, water or toilet facilities.
Among them were children, mothers with babies and elderly people.
Liberty, the civil rights group, has been a lone voice in objecting
to this assault on civic involvement while political leaders have
heaped praise on the police.
It is, of course, nothing new. As soon the people find their own
voice – rather than allow others to appropriate and profit from it
– then they are rapidly ejected from the establishment’s warm and
cosy bed, and are transformed into the mindless mob.
Politicians love to invoke the people – but people power outside
the polling booth? Well, that’s far too troublesome and upsetting.
Whatever next? Ministers forced to be accountable, for goodness