A few days ago David Miliband took the tube. Like many of us he tired of his book and fell asleep during the journey. Unfortunately for him his flies were undone. For most of us if this had happened to us it would be mildly embarrassing but also soon forgotten.
One man in Miliband’s carriage, Francis Janjua, decided that his moment in life had come. Did he reach across and inform his fellow passenger that he was flying low? Did he politely ignore the poor unzipped unfortunate while having a quiet chuckle to himself? Nope. He took a picture and had it published it online.
I’d quite like to live in a society where our first thought for each other is to help rather than humiliate. I’d quite like fellow citizens who look out for each other from a basic sense of common decency. Not because they are saints, just citizens. The instinct to hurt someone who is doing no harm does Francis Janjua no credit at all, but there’s no accounting for people is there?
The Huffington Post decided this picture was note-worthy enough to publish (trigger warning: picture of man with his flies undone). I think that was a poor decision.
Not only have they decided to reward and endorse the idea that falling asleep on a train needs to be punished they’ve actually contributed to one of the central problems in politics today – the difficult relationship between politicians and the electorate.
Our politicians should be taking the tube, the bus, cycling and walking through the communities they serve and communities very like them. We expect our politicians to be able to relate to our everyday lives and believe that where they cannot it makes for worse decision making and a poorer democracy. Yet whenever politicians behave like normal people in public places we jump on them.
I’m not talking about Boris on a zip wire here I’m talking about using public transport to get home! Next time David Miliband is thinking ‘shall I get a taxi or the tube’ they’ve made it that little bit more likely that he chooses the taxi. And not just him, any politician in the public eye has become a little bit more likely to avoid the unwashed masses.
That can only be a bad thing and it is our fault, not theirs.
Let’s keep it civilised
Looking more broadly, I’ve long been a critic of attacking politicians in public. When Peter Mandelson was green gunked it was bloody stupid for two reasons. First of all it derailed the press. For the two days beofre the media had actually covered the climate change talks that were taking place at the time, really. Then some posh activist decided to slime him on the way in to the talks and from that moment on all news was focused on this one incident, and the decent sized scraps we’d been given up to that point were promptly ripped away as the Daily Mail gloated about how much they hated a prominent gay Labour politician.
So it didn’t achieve it’s stated aim of raising the profile of the issue. At all.
Worse still it helped reinforce the idea that politicians are legitimate targets. They really aren’t. Ministers who are afraid to buy a sandwich or walk down the street aren’t more likely to deliver progressive reform, but they are more likely to regard ordinary people as a threat. They are less likely to live similar lives and therefore encounter similar problems. If we discourage them from using public transport, for example, then we can hardly blame them if they make stupid mistakes over how public transport works.
I don’t want to get prissy about a bit of slime. Mandelson wasn’t shot or kidnapped, and I’ve got no brief for the man, but frankly if we think it’s ok to attack politicians we don’t like we’re saying we think these are legitimate tactics. So how do we feel about politicians we like being treated to the same abuse?
If Caroline Lucas had red paint thrown over her by anti-deficit campaigners how would “you” feel?
If the answer is “but that’s different, she’s on my side” then you need to take a good hard look at yourself.
If the answer is, “that’s fine” then at least you’re being consistently unpleasant.
If the answer is that it’s no way to make an argument then we have to recognise that we can’t endorse this behaviour against someone who is not one of our gang.
Politics can be a painful business sometimes and no matter what level you’re at you need to have a thick hide, but we also need to think ab out how our actions impact on the political debate. Whether that’s just humiliating politicians for using the train, or egging someone we don’t like it changes the shape of politics, and in particular it widens the gulf between the public and those that are meant to represent them.