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Our apathy makes politics vulnerable to capture

Theresa May’s terse, scripted style of speech could be the impatience of a serious politician with momentous work to get on with. The trouble is that it could also be the paranoia of a deeply average one in continual fear of exposure. Either way, it is rational. The repetition of slogans in lieu of answers carries no cost. Voters take so little notice of politics that a thousandth prime ministerial allusion to “strong and stable leadership” seems to them as fresh as a line coined on the spot.

If this reads like an attempt to blame the public for the debasement of political communication into disembodied catchphrases, it is. Mrs May could not survive an election campaign saying so little so often if people paid attention.

More and more, the dysfunction in politics stems from public indifference to politics. And the emptiness of the discourse is the least of it. Consider the averageness of the personnel. Britain has an undistinguished cabinet and a worse shadow cabinet. The Liberal Democrats are fronted by Tim Farron, a restless campaigner whose natural stage is the upper end of local government. The favourite to replace Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader is Yvette Cooper, a conscientious minister in her time, a woman of some poise in parliament yet 20 years into a frontline political career that should have caught fire by now.

These are solid, industrious people who rise through lack of competition. The previous prime minister, David Cameron, along with his retinue, were more polished versions of the same problem. Not enough people consider a career in politics to keep it fed with talent that is equal to the times. The sadness is not that he or Mrs May performed some unaccountable trick to seize the job but that they really were the best of the available options.

Even the talent deficit is not the worst of it. The central crisis in public life is the poor state — the effective non-existence — of the Labour opposition. Remember how it happened. In 2015, eased terms of membership allowed newcomers to mainstream politics to vote for Mr Corbyn in the party’s internal leadership election. More joined afterwards to secure him in the position. It was an act of civic engagement. But it also exposed how little of it there had been before. The influx of a few hundred thousand people should not be enough to skew a great party to the left, and perhaps to ruin.

In the mid-20th century age of mass participation — when Labour claimed 1m members in a less populous Britain — the centre might have held against the new arrivals. In 2015, when there were just 200,000 members, the centre folded like a deck chair.

In all three cases — Labour’s mess, lacklustre office-holders, impoverished rhetoric — it is short-sighted to blame the proximate culprits. They just respond to incentives. Corbynites would be remiss not to command a party that so few citizens of the moderate left could be bothered to join. The prime minister would be foolish not to sloganise her way through this campaign when the political cost is near zero. People whom few would mistake for Alexander the Great would be lazy not to run for office when there is so little competition.

The problem is not them. The problem is us. Our apathy has inescapable consequences. The smaller politics becomes, the riper it is for capture by ideologues and second-raters (and ideological second-raters). In my role as a commentator, I encounter just two attitudes to politics: indifference and obsession. A civic culture needs more hobbyists, engaged enough to scrutinise the news and join a party, but removed enough to bring a perspective born of civilian life.

Politics has much the same problem as heavyweight boxing. In the 1990s, shrunken audiences for what had been a mass spectacle allowed oddballs and chancers to prosper. Apathy led to a diminished “product”, which reinforced the apathy. Now hope leans on the talent and charm of Anthony Joshua, the young Briton who wowed 90,000 in London on Saturday, to reverse the insidious cycle.

In politics, there is no such saviour. People must get involved to salvage the product. The reluctance is understandable. Politics is full of people who discovered it in their youth and called off the search for other interests. On the right, there is something of the humid handshake and the sweaty upper lip about it. On the left, there is teenage shrillness and a taste for activism as an end in itself. If most citizens want no part of this world — this eternal students union — that is natural. But do not then feign surprise when this sect of obsessives has a material effect on your lives. You left them to it.

janan.ganesh@ft.com


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