As I have begun my work in the constituency office of Rob Flello I’ve noticed a few profound things about the make up of power in our political system.
Power for me (and many others smarter than me whom I borrow from now) comes in three main types:
1. The threat of physical VIOLENCE
This being the idea that the powerful exert control over the weak through use of violence, intimidation and threat. It is the basest but probably most effective form of power. Many use it to this day, but it is fragile and fickle, in the end those who live by the sword die by the sword. History is full of testaments to this (and George R. R. Martin novels for that matter).
2. The power of PERSONALITY
Otherwise known as charismatic leadership or force of character. There are some who exert their influence over others by persuasion and charm. People ‘follow’ these leaders who gain power through charisma and personality. This is a current trend in culture, to cling to leaders of great influence and often controversy. Where force often consolidates power into tightly bound elites, personalities spring up everywhere and so often divide people and followers. Though it is worth mentioning that history sees several protagonists combine force and personality.
3. Finally the power of LEGITIMACY
Now the etymology of legitimacy may well have changed subtly in our common usage, but by this I mean the legal wielding of organised institutional power. This is the subject of my ruminations as of the last three weeks.
Having packed up my life and moved to work for Rob Flello MP for South Stoke, and by extension the people of Stoke themselves; I’ve come to notice the strength in this form of political organisation. It’s currently my job to reply to the constituents of Mr Flello helping them through a process of redressing their grievances against government or sometimes private institutions.
The mainstay of letters, emails and calls deal with either personal issues and problems, or they revolve around national legislative campaigns – like for example fox hunting or climate change.
It strikes me how effective this can be, in certain countries around the world if some injustice happens to you there is no way of fighting it, you either have to threaten violence or draw on personal networks. For most if not all of the world this privilege of legitimate power, and the absence of tyranny is a mere fantasy.
The power vested in legitimacy is drawn from the masses. In essence each citizen giving authority to elected officials by exercising an adherence to legal framework into which we enter in willingly or in some cases implicitly. We essential renounce the power we had of violence, and we forsake the unofficial power of charisma to define our official relationships and look to those we elect to govern on our behalf. In public (and now private) life we choose to subscribe to a constitution or artificial reality, often based around cultural myths and origin narratives. Most forcefully seen in the USA where their heady mix of revolutionary spirit and intelligent design form the grandest nation in the world.
I have studied the philosophical, moral and economic grounds for this notion, which I shall provisionally label democracy (though ultimately is grander and more fundamental than that). But to be a part of the logistics, the day to day, of that notion is truly painstaking and fragile.
Not to worry you all but legitimacy is immensely brittle. For example nearly 65% of registered voters turned out in 2010 to vote for our elected leaders. Estimates say another 6 million eligible voters aren’t registered at all, and they are equivalent to the same amount of people who voted Lib Dem in 2010, 23% of the popular vote! That means nearly half the population who could have influenced who represents them in the highest political offices of the land didn’t bother.
It may feel like business as usual, ‘the parties are all the same’, ‘they don’t understand the average person’, but we have to ask what the alternative is?