In 2017, shortly after Donald Trump was elected, former President Barack Obama expanded on Thomas Jefferson’s famous edict about ‘deserving’ the government we get. ‘People have a tendency to blame politicians when things don’t work but I always tell people, you get the politicians you deserve,’ he said. ‘And if you don’t vote and you don’t pay attention, you’ll get policies that don’t reflect your interest.’
But what if you do vote, you do pay attention and you still end up being represented by a bunch of charlatans? Where I live in Haringey, at least two people who should be nowhere near politics have been elected as councillors. One worked for controversial advocacy group CAGE while a second is alleged to have written a series of racist tweets. And that’s just two examples of a pattern of unacceptable behaviour running through every level of our politics.
It’s bad enough that our Prime Minister has been fined for breaking his own rules about social distancing and presiding over a party culture when people weren’t allowed to see relatives who were dying. And it’s no comfort that the alternative to Johnson – Jeremy Corbyn – would have been so much worse.
But then there are the actual criminals in Parliament, such as Leicester East MP Claudia Webbe, who recently lost her appeal against her conviction for harassing a love rival. She has to do 80 hours of community service but is so far refusing appeals to stand down as an MP even though she has been expelled from the Labour party.
Even more seriously, in April the Conservative MP Imran Ahmad Khan was found guilty for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy after plying him with gin at a party in 2008. In the same month, another Tory MP, David Warburton, had his whip suspended because he is facing sexual assault allegations from three women as well as cocaine use.
Meanwhile a third Tory MP, who has not been named publicly, was arrested earlier this month on suspicion of rape and sexual assault offences spanning a seven-year-period. And in December 2021 a high court judge concluded Tory MP Andrew Griffiths had raped his wife when she was asleep.
All of this is astonishing when you consider MPs are meant to uphold standards in public life. They are meant to be the best of us. And yet the police arrests are just worst cases. It’s been reported that 56 MPs from across the political spectrum have been referred to Parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme for sexual misconduct.
How did we get here?
When it comes to my local councillors, it’s staggering to me, as a journalist who will always look at someone’s social media account before I interview them, that simple background checks don’t seem to have been made before the people of Haringey were asked to vote for them. This should be part of any basic due diligence before someone’s name is put down as a candidate.
Parties have argued that, because of the snap elections in 2017 and 2019, selection processes had to be hurried. But that’s not good enough. Too often, candidates are chosen simply on how well liked they are within their constituency parties – it smacks of a buddy system which is completely unaccountable.
It’s also hopelessly complacent coming at a time when we know more than ever about our politicians because they spew their thoughts on social media.
They don’t seem to care that many of those thoughts are racist, sexist or antisemitic because often they can get away with it. The Labour antisemitism issue was completely exposed by this. Anti-Jewish social media comments went unpunished, normally until journalists exposed them. As a result it feels like at least once a week some new offensive post from a local councillor is unveiled, when these scandals could be so easily avoided
We find ourselves in a vicious cycle which is eroding our democracy. What sensible person would want to give up their time and put themselves forward for election when it appears corruption and criminality is all around them? Asking that political parties vet their candidates should be the bare minimum. Only then will we get the politicians we truly deserve.
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