We have the 'pictures [of politicians] in our heads', as Walter Lippmann put it, but many of the crises in democratic engagement and participation today come down to a mismatch between voters expectations of politicians and MPs who, through a media prism, are found wanting. In a race to the top, politicians are compelled to balance social, ideological, personal and political profiles, yet neither they nor their electors (or academics) consider the impact of this upon MPs' mental wellbeing. In a recent article for The Conversation, I outlined three unique pressures that are threatening the mental health and wellbeing of our MPs.
The first is personality politics and the estrangement from one's self-identity required to operate under 24/7 media scrutiny. The second is the 'politics of parliament', a combination of explicit and covert working practices and demands in Westminster that cultivate untold stress. And the third is public expectations, which not only exert unrealistic demands on politicians but also provide a threatening menace in the background of their daily job. The last of these became so serious during the recent general election campaign that this autumn the committee on standards in public life will be holding an inquiry into the intimidation of MPs.
The repercussions of MPs' mental ill health are collective; we need legislators who are both physically and mentally able to make decisions in the best interests of the nation. As Theodore Roosevelt famously said: "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood[.]" Apologists for politicians rarely sell print and that is certainly not the point of this article. By contrast, I seek here to stress that it is the collective health of our democracy that is at risk when we do not protect the mental health of those 'in the arena' of politics.
How to cope? Is it possible in politics?
Mental health advocate and comedian John Ryan travels the country using humour to break the stigma surrounding mental health and helping people from a range of professions to help themselves. His research has shown that interventions can have an enormously beneficial effect, even with high risk groups such the armed forces. At the heart of Ryan's routine is his advocacy of the NHS five steps to mental wellbeing. The NHS advises us to:
1. Connect - building stronger connections with family, friends and wider community networks boosts our sense of purpose and improves daily functioning;
2. Be active regularly - physical exercise causes chemical changes in the brain that can protect against depression and anxiety;
3. Keep learning - developing new skills not only provides occasions to connect with other but has been proven to heighten self-confidence and self-esteem;
4. Give to others - research shows that what we do for others and how we think about them has a far greater impact on our satisfaction with life than what we own;
5. Be mindful - take the time to reflect allows us to understand how our emotions and behaviours relate to one another and the daily demands on our time and energy.
However, in a recent conversation with Ryan, he was sceptical that this approach could work for Members of Parliament; indeed it takes more than a little leap of the imagination to translate these five steps into practical realities for politicians. Working in a world where everything is interpreted, extrapolated and subjected to scrutiny, Ryan asks how exactly does an MP, for example, 'try something new, rediscover an old hobby or sign up for a course?' Can you imagine the furore if the PM took a cookery course?! "May learns to make soufflé while her constituents attend food banks". Let's try another one: 'learn to play an instrument'. And the headlines read "Jeremy fiddles while the economy burns...".
Yet surely politics is all about 'doing something nice for a friend or stranger'. In a sense, yes. In most cases MPs will have sacrificed their family life, privacy, holidays and/or comparatively lucrative salaries in private sector professions precisely in order to make a difference. Yet the reality of disciplined party politics in Western Europe is that most MPs will never have the authority, resource or capacity to enact wholesale change for the 'common good'. The most recently elected MPs may just be starting to realise the ineluctably transient nature of political power that Aneurin Bevan famously alluded to in 1943: "Then I found out that [power] had come up [to Parliament]. So I followed it, and sure enough I found that it had been here, but I just saw its coat tails round the corner."
This debate goes back, in essence, to the three pressures mentioned at the beginning of this commentary. It is precisely because the job of politics is designed by such unique formal and informal institutions that it cannot be compatible with the NHS five steps. As an MP you will be working upwards of 65-70 hours a week, living and working in two different locations and travelling long distances, balancing multiple streams of work unrelated to your trained expertise, taking high-impact decisions on public affairs, dealing with upwards of a thousand emails or letters a week, fielding press inquiries, learning to compromise personal values with party lines, entering a job with only minimal training, and trying to second guess media criticism on every front. Achievements are short-lived and you contend with being one of the least trusted professionals in the UK . Whatever you do and how or why you do it, research by the Hansard Society shows that the average member of the public will still be far more likely to believe that you are furthering your own personal career than holding the government to account or representing local interests.
Research planned for next year will investigate this sorely neglected area of political science but it is imperative to approach this from a solutions-focused perspective. To tackle pressure one, the personalised nature of politics, requires firstly a change in the mindset of the media industry. In recent decades it seems that the media have lost their way as standard bearers of personalised political schadenfreude and forgotten their real democratic duty to hold decision-makers to account through responsible political coverage. Maybe then politicians themselves, as Peter Riddell has pointed out, will stop insulting one another to 'play the game'. A long history of political science research, particularly that of Robert Putnam and Ronald Inglehart, has demonstrated the link between interpersonal trust, which is so heavily influenced by the media's framing effects, and democratic health. If we can change the way the public consumes politics, then we greatly lessen the emotional labour of political life for those who enter it on our behalf.
The second pressure is far easier to address than either of the other two. It relies on institutional reform at Westminster to make the working environment of parliament both more accessible for those under-represented there and more sustainable for all those who are elected. Professor Sarah Child's 2016 report, The Good Parliament, lays out 43 such recommendations to improve the culture, infrastructure and equality of participation at Westminster. Whether these sorely needed reforms are pursued, especially in the context of Brexit negotiations that threaten workers' rights across the public and private sector, is extremely uncertain.
The final pressure, that of expectations, requires action by both political institutions and us, the public. To understand democracy is, to summarise Bernard Crick, to understand a messy game of compromise, contestation, and critical reflection. In that light it is both an institutional responsibility of our education system to teach political literacy effectively, and a collective responsibility of ours to temper our increasingly decadent expectations of what politicians can deliver. If we will not enter the arena ourselves, we must at least be tolerant of [the majority of] those who do, those who spend themselves for worthy causes and risk their own mental health in the process.