Social politics and political social work


Richard Axelby and I have a book out today about international aid and development. We try to put across how aid looks from the viewpoint of those receiving it in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The choices made about who gets aid and how it is given are political, but bureaucracies tend to present them as if they are guided by social problems and economic and technological solutions. The politics is kept hidden. Greater honesty about the politics of aid would increase effectiveness, we argue. For more.


Conversely, the representation of politics at Westminster obscures the social aspects. The work of British MPs is seen as all political – about interest, conflict, division, and coalition – while the emotion, theatre and relationships that give politics its form and substance are taken for granted or deemed insignificant.  Take the example of keeping people on side. Party loyalty is influenced but not sustained by self-interest; it takes the social bonanza of party conferences, informal chats with the leader or a double scotch from a whip to keep MPs on side. Such conversations bind people. The Lib Dems manage to make a surprisingly cohesive party, despite the compromises of being the smaller coalition partner, partly because they are  small enough to consult all MPs on important issues, which makes people feel included and maintains the kind of relationships that inspire loyalty.


At the local level of politics, the political label for what MPs do in constituencies is representation. But that covers a multiple of virtues, put into practice by different MPs in wildly varied ways. Some MPs focus on articulating constituency groups’ concerns in parliamentary debates – crime or debt – while they delegate the work of addressing the problems facing individual or families to their caseworkers. Other MPs see every constituent with a problem personally and write to Ministers, departments or businesses to fast-track action.  Wherever they are on the continuum, the job satisfaction for many MPs partly derives from the feeling of belonging to a community of people and championing their causes.


MPs can’t have direct contact with all of their constituents, so they use the local press to convey messages or, more recently, they take to twitter.  One of problems with the socio-political world of twitter is the trolls – bitter moaners who spit bile in 140 characters. The veil of anonymity, and the perceived social distance between them and the politician, inspires this ‘anti-social’ behaviour. Politics without social relationships gets nasty all too easily.