Mahatma Gandhi (http://dmihrd.wordpress.com/2008/08/29/gandhi-and-some-sugar/) once received a visit from a woman concerned about her child who was eating too much sugar. Knowing how much the child revered the guru, she asked Gandhi to convince him to give up, afraid he would become diabetic. Gandhi listened to her, nodded his head and asked her to return in a week. On her next visit Gandhi told the young boy that sugar was not good for him and he should give it up. Asking why he could not have said that on the first visit and saved her the journey, Gandhi replied: the first time you came, I was still eating sugar.
It’s the kind of integrity that we acknowledge, yearn for but, in all honesty, do not expect from our politicians on the grounds that they are common mortals. Yet this week the call has arisen loud and clear: we DO want a different kind of politics and integrity is the issue.
When Lee Chalmers and I first embarked on The Downing Street Project – a ‘think and act tank’ aimed at creating balanced leadership at all levels of society – we knew we were responding to a rather simple loss of integrity at the heart of politics. Women make up 51% of the population and are represented by a mere 20% in Parliament (only 9% Cons, 28% Lab, 16% LD). If there were really no difference between the needs and concerns of men and women in our society this would not be an issue: but there are, so it is.
However we are not ushering women in to address women’s issues but to serve the whole of society. In our discussions with people of all ages, colours, sexual orientations and financial perspectives we hear that what loss of integrity means to them, is loss of connection. What they see happening in Parliament and coming out of Downing Street does not seem to have much to do with their hopes and dreams, other than that they are on the receiving end of policies that constrain them.
Now we all remember the days of focus groups and the listening government. Why did this have little or no effect on the way politics is generally perceived? Maybe because it is one thing to cock an ear, and another, to hear what is being said. During several periods of research and consultancy I undertook within public services over the past ten years, the constant refrain was “they ask us for our ideas but then they ignore them”. Time and resources wasted on new government initiatives from on high that interfered with best practice already identified on the ground, was legend.
This may not suggest acts of wilful deafness on the part of the government, but it may point up a capacity deficit. Can they hear? There is so much clamour endemic in the day to day life of our politics – the increasingly self interested demands of the media, the constant call to battle with the Opposition – that the roar of politicians defending themselves easily drowns out the voices of the needy. The spectacle of our honourable gentlemen – and ladies – jeering at each other across the House sums it up.
Which bring me back to integrity. Maybe the reason our politicians find it hard to emulate Gandhi is that he only had a robe and a bowl to his name and no rank or status to defend. Not much came between Gandhi the man and the people he wished to serve. I’m sure some of our very top politicians wish they could get back to those basics and reconnect, not only with the people who vote, but with their own selves - the well-meaning man or woman who entered politics with a desire to help.
But this is not a council of despair: there are a number of ways that the culture and structure of politics could support well meaning politicians better in doing the job they originally set out to do. The first would be to understand and enshrine the principles of engagement and connectivity within government and the wider polity. What we still call representative democracy has changed and developed: people now have the technology to speak their minds and find alternative truths to the singular party line or the habitual stance of our major papers. Those people – the active citizens that we pretend don’t exist – need to be brought into our concept of governance. That does not mean setting up party websites that bark out policy and invite us to share our concerns without offering a response. Engagement is a two way process – there have to be clear channels of communication in both directions and the people to operate them.
If you are not sure what that kind of integrity looks like, think Obama. His successful campaign for Presidency was delivered by the unprecedented levels of connection he had with voters. On winning, one of his first concerns was how he was going to maintain his connection if he had to give up his Blackberry. His power is not the ‘hard power’ of shouting and coercing, it’s the ‘soft power’ of knowing himself and “being the change he wishes to see” (Gandhi) in a connected world.
And that coherence can be extended to policy: in his first 100 days he demonstrated how his own listening, patient style of dialogue can be reflected in a foreign policy which is intent on listening and dialoguing. His inclusive manner has led to a level of commitment to bi-partisan politics that continues to challenge his Democratic colleagues. But the race is on to see whether or not he can change the broader culture of governance before he is overwhelmed by the tide of cynicism that stalks him.
The Downing Street Project’s call to bring substantially more women into the heart of politics is not a numbers game but a strategy to change the culture of politics. Women, particularly mothers, are perceived by the broader public as being better listeners. Despite the understandable resistance by women themselves to stereotypes, they consistently emerge in domestic and professional life as carers, mediators and facilitators. While so many women in politics have felt the pressure to adopt the more masculine style of performance, in a new politics of integrity, a more feminine way would be a good thing.
Our constant question however is, which of the three main political parties has the politicians with the capacity to “be the change”. Which would commit themselves to the sort of radical moves the public is now shouting for? Or should we, with maximum a year to go before the next election, think about creating a new party?