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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 24 April 2018

Who would want to join politics when it is so riven with nasty factions?

The search for a new knight in shining armour to rescue us has been going on for years – and not only in Britain, writes Gavin Esler

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a rich businessman, promised to be “Il Cavaliere” – literally, “the knight” – who would save Italy from corrupt politicians.  Alessandra Benedetti / Corbis/Corbis / Getty
Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a rich businessman, promised to be “Il Cavaliere” – literally, “the knight” – who would save Italy from corrupt politicians. Alessandra Benedetti / Corbis/Corbis / Getty

Like most journalists who spend a lot of time with politicians, I like many, admire some and count a few as friends. The ones I admire come from opposing political parties but they all work extremely hard, are tolerant, open-minded and unselfish people who are in politics to make the world better.

In Britain, politics is not generally a way to get rich. But one thing has always disturbed me about political parties: why would anyone actually want to join one? The best people in politics work tirelessly, are grounded in reality and try their best. But democratic politics also attracts some very strange, narcissistic and nasty people.

The British Prime Minister Theresa May memorably described her own Conservative party as “the nasty party”.

Nowadays the British Labour Party rivals the Conservatives for gold medal nastiness. Consequently some in the British political world have been excited by news in the past few days that rich donors may have found £50 million (Dh262 million) to back a new political party.

I doubt that any new group could call itself the Nice Party but clearly voters feel the need for a new and better version of politics than those that are currently on offer.

The former prime minister Tony Blair pointed out that millions of British voters today are “politically homeless”. They feel no loyalty or even any affection towards existing political parties.

The search for a new knight in shining armour to rescue us has been going on for years — and not only in Britain.

US President Donald Trump pretended to be just such a rescuer. Now many Americans wish to be rescued from him too. Another rescuer arose here, where I am writing this, in Italy. Silvio Berlusconi, a rich businessman like Mr Trump, promised to be “Il Cavaliere” — literally, “the knight” — who would save Italy from corrupt politicians.

Mr Berlusconi out-trumped Trump in his financial and sex scandals and is currently banned from running for elected office.

Italy’s search for a successful new force has lessons for Britain and other countries disgusted by the incompetence and nastiness of current political life.

I asked an Italian businessman I met near Genoa what he thought about Italy’s new party, the Five Star Movement.

“No better than the others,” he said, unimpressed.

“But,” I persisted, “is Five Star a party of the new right or the new left?” The businessman laughed.

“Nobody knows,” he said, “including the Five Star party leaders themselves.”

He confessed that for the first time in his life he had no idea whom he should vote for.

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Read more from Gavin Esler:

On its 20th anniversary, the Good Friday Agreement teaches us important lessons – even for those with blood on their hands

Blade Runner's dystopian vision failed to account for our changing social habits. Where will we be 30 years from now?

America is great in every field except government

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Democracy depends upon healthy political parties attracting talented people with good ideas. But for the vast majority of people in Italy, Britain and the US – indeed most democracies – joining a political party seems a terrible idea.

Like most people who have lives, families, jobs and hobbies, the Italian businessman has better things to do than attend meetings full of political activists with, as he put it, impractical ideas that could never work in the real world.

When I meet business people, academics and leaders in various professions, they generally have strong opinions and a wealth of experience, yet the idea of joining even a new political party strikes them as utterly pointless.

At a British business conference, I asked a room of several hundred business leaders if any of them would consider running for any kind of political office.

The question resulted in hoots of laughter. The most common responses were: “Why would I bother?” Why would anyone put up with the scrutiny of the media, the viciousness of political life, the long hours of drudgery and boredom and (as many of them said) also take a pay cut?

Nasty parties are nasty with their opponents but they are even more nasty with their own side. Insider factions can seem like cults of true believers.

On Twitter, a Labour activist and fan of party leader Jeremy Corbyn commented sarcastically about the prospect of a new party: “Best of luck to a group of multi-millionaires from the 1% launching their own party. We will crush you just as we crush the Tories….Hope some of the melts join them.”

Most outsiders will not understand this tribal language. The one per cent means the super-rich. I had to look up “melts” and it turns out to be a nasty party term of abuse for those who do not subscribe to the ideology of the most faithful cult members.

And of course Labour is not “crushing” anyone. It has not won an election since 2005, when it was led by its most successful leader ever, Tony Blair, who won three elections by a landslide.

Mr Blair’s reward for historic success is the eternal loathing of some of the nastier Labour activists.

I doubt a new party, nice or otherwise, can succeed. But something is desperately needed to suck the poison out of British political life.

Faced with the choice between two parties that both seem nasty and incompetent, like most British people and my Italian businessman friend, I would not join either.

Even worse, I’m ashamed to admit that for the first time in my adult life, I might not vote at all.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter