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Death of the Party (short version)

How often have you heard a politician say that they know what the public cares about the most? How often have you heard a public figure make a speech that essentially boils down to "I care most about issue x, therefore the public must also care about issue x the most". If I were to base the rest of this article on an interesting algorithm I stumbled upon recently, and then demand the interest of every reader, you'd call me stark raving mad.

You probably would stop listening to me, turn on the TV and settle down to watch some predictable drama to unwind. The link I'm trying to make would then probably occur to you, and you'd realise that politicians are bonkers if they think they can continue to interest everybody in this way.

Something TV channels do with some success is provide enough variety of content to get almost everybody in the nation watching at least one show a week. Variety is the spice of life, and a life without spice is like BBC Parliament: dull and uninspiring. If you've ever sat down to watch it (and believe you me, I have) you'll quickly realise that you're watching people work, which is incredibly frustrating because you just want them to get on and come out with a statement about the contents and consequences of the act or bill in question.

If the meaning of politics is to be found in Westminster, then we might as well put our feet up and wait for Tony and George to bone up on 1970s science fiction, with a mandate to provide comfort with the occasional crisis to keep us awake. The fact is that not everybody is interested in Parliament, and so if politicians want to keep democracy alive they'll have to start admitting that other forms of political expression are valid, and they'll have to start encouraging them.

Political parties themselves aren't even that varied. All three major parties belive in a neo-liberal market economy in which business must increasingly share with government the role of providing (opportunities) for people. They are all behind the war on terrorism, and they are all behind strengthening links with America. Perhaps the only big issues that divide the parties are Europe (which is probably why it dominated the Conservative Party's agenda for so many years) and privatisation (which Tony Blair wants out of public discussion as soon as possible).

I remember a discussion a teacher instigated one sleepy morning in school along the lines of "should we vote?" which divided the room into about twelve factions each interested in different aspects of politics, with only about two wanting to vote for reasons other than "we sort of should, otherwise democracy might fall apart".

Some were predominantly interested in the legality of drinking and smoking marijuana; others were interested in the state of the NHS, the rail network etc.; others found refuge in discussing the state of our global economic and political institutions. Only a few exceptions found any way in which they could, to use a managerial term, be proactive without receiving a blasting from Tony B. and the papers.

Most striking was the fact that very few really knew how our political and economic institutions work, and how we can affect them. Schools now just about stretch to giving some "social education", which usually means teachers have to cajole students into entering boring debates about issues of the day. But few seem to acknowledge the role of parliament, popular revolt and the media in our history, and even fewer can connect that to a sense of purpose in today's political arena. Disillusionment is as much a matter of not understanding what the suits on TV are lying about as it is not caring.

Think how many young people are interested in Eastenders or Coronation street, and discuss some of the more political issues in the advert breaks. Think how many young people are, or know people who are, involved in drugs, underage drinking and illicit sex. Think how many young people are caught in a rut of poverty, with crime or education being the only two escapes. Think how many young people take to the streets almost monthly to express their views on issues ranging from local privatisation to global poverty.

There must be thousands of young people who are really interested in politics, and yet never hear a politician say anything about the topic, other than the occasional condescending or derogatory remark. If Tony Blair was a member of the CND, he should come out and voice his approval at the recent CND gatherings in London, even if they oppose his policies.

This year's Mayday festivities provide the perfect opportunity for politicians to come out of their shells and show they're not robots. Two weeks of funfair events have been scheduled, where the focus on alternatives to various systems we take for granted at the moment, with globalisation predictably dominating,

Instead of working to shut it down (the police have been trying to force down the web site, www.ourmayday.org) and getting the papers to print nonsense about violent anarchists out to wreck London, the political establishment could move to discuss some of the issues, comment on some of the ideas, even attend some of the events.

The media should lavish the sort of attention it usually gives to full-page technical diagrams of military operations to covering the extravaganza, showing that it isn't taboo to take to the (public) streets and voice your opinion away from the armchair.

It's not that young people are disinterested in politics, or apathetic. They're just a little less interested in BBC Parliament than some want to admit.

This article is copyrighted by Tom Chance, 2002, under the GNU Free Documentation License. As such, the article may be reproduced free of charge so long as this notice is preserved and the author, Tom Chance, is notified.