Politicians must connect with the public

A WORD we hear a lot of these days in political discussion is "apathy". Many journalists, academics and politicians talk about the public losing interest in politics and...

A WORD we hear a lot of these days in political discussion is "apathy". Many journalists, academics and politicians talk about the public losing interest in politics and lacking the motivation to get involved.
Certainly there is a lower level of membership of political parties now than in the past and fewer people seem inclined to vote than in years gone by – although turnout in last year&#039s General Election was actually up from 2001. Whether these are short or long term trends remains to be seen.
However, I&#039m not convinced this means there is a wider political "apathy" amongst the population.
Blantyre in my constituency is the birthplace of David Livingstone, the great Victorian explorer and missionary and the area has links with Africa and in particular with Blantyre in Malawi.
Last year, I hosted a public meeting in Blantyre where the Under-Secretary of State for International Development (and Co-op Party Chairman) Gareth Thomas spoke to local people about the work of his department and the challenges facing developing countries and what we can do to help.
The meeting was packed, and most of the audience were not members of any political party, but they were certainly very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the political issues they were interested in.
As an MP, a significant proportion of the correspondence I receive now is about wider international issues – debt cancellation, trade justice, climate change, etc.
When so many thousands of people marched through Edinburgh last summer in support of the Make Poverty History campaign, the challenge to the politicians was to respond to the views so widely and actively expressed by members of the public.
And as a Labour and Co-op Party MP, I was proud that our Movement had long been calling for more and better aid for developing countries, debt cancellation for the poorest nations and trade justice to give them a chance to compete and grow on a level playing field.
The Co-operative Movement has always been at the forefront of campaigning for social justice. Rooted in co-operative values is the idea of working together to help those who need us and ensuring a fair deal.
It&#039s seemed that over the last couple of years, the general public, coming from their own direction, have been coming round to the values and principles of the Co-operative Movement.
I&#039ve seen new credit unions opening and growing in my own constituency as people come round to the co-operative approach to addressing the increasing problem of personal debt.
The Co-operative Bank and its various divisions are rightly praised for their ethical banking policy as awareness of such issues has increased and other financial institutions have come under pressure to follow the Co-operative Group&#039s example in this area.
Similarly, as senior citizens and others quite reasonably argue that they should be able to access their money free of charge, I&#039m delighted to see Co-operative Bank machines opening up in my constituency and providing free cash withdrawals.
The Co-op Movement has supported and assisted the establishment of farmers&#039 and workers&#039 co-operatives in developing countries, and local Co-op stores have been promoting and selling fair trade goods – leading the way where others have followed.
So in an age when some say the public are apathetic about politics, the truth is that there are issues the public are very interested in and very passionate about.
And we in the Co-operative Movement should be proud to shout from the rooftops about the values, principles and practical action we have taken over the years.
The challenge is for politicians and political activists to connect with the public on the issues that are important to them and co-operators are very well placed to do that.
• Tommy McAvoy is a Government Whip and Labour/Co-op MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West.

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