28 December, 2013

The biggest obstacle to engagement is the sense that politicians will say one thing, and then do another

Guardian/ICM poll: democracy v the demos
The biggest obstacle to engagement is the sense that politicians will say one thing, and then do another

The Guardian,
Hate is not the opposite of love, which is just as well for Britain's politicians. The findings of the Guardian/ICM analysis of how the governed feel about the governing are, at first blush, unremittingly chilling – with rage the principal theme. For party leaders prepping New Year messages, it may not be surprising that only 2% of electors feel "inspired" by them, but finding the right words is that much trickier for those who feel despised. Working so tirelessly to court popularity and failing so abjectly in this, might the vote-chasing classes start to wonder – with Bertolt Brecht's East German regime – whether it is time "to dissolve the people / And elect another?"

There is, however, a consolation – voters still think that politicians count. An overwhelming 86% say decisions made in Westminster and Whitehall affect their own lives. On average the public is still talking politics once a week or more. Whether these conversations are more marked by anger than anything is almost beside the point, because this interest gives the parties something to work with. Indifference would represent more of a threat than fury, since it would cut off all hope of getting through: there is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.

Encouragingly, only a quarter of people have swallowed the old saloon-bar lie, given a high-profile twist by Russell Brand this year, that there is never any point in voting because "they're all the same". For politicians hoping to persuade the country that they are different, the polling contains practical tips on where the emphasis must be. For the tiny minority who follow Westminster as a spectator sport, the wearying sound of party placemen mouthing "lines to take" might seem the greatest failing. For the majority, however, the primary concern is not vapid rhetoric, nor even resentment about expenses fiddling, which parts of the media have now elevated above substantive policy arguments for years. No, the biggest obstacle to engagement is the sense that politicians will say one thing, and then do another.

To locate the missing link between the country and its parliament, look for those about-turns that take place between the election-night count and the arrival in ministerial office – as performed, for example, by the Liberal Democrats on student fees, and (prospectively) by David Cameron in his drift towards expanding London airports. If a leader can convince voters they will not back-slide in this way, then – with probity, empathy and practical balms for a country gripped by a sustained squeeze on living standards – they might still cut through.

So much for the electorate as a whole. But with younger voters – in whose hands the future of British democracy ultimately rests – things are more worrying. Distaste is giving way to total disconnect. Already, by the time of the last general election, there was a gulf in turnout of over 30 percentage points between the oldest and youngest; today's survey implies that this gulf could widen further, to the point where youngsters become less than half as likely to cast a ballot as their older peers. Put this together with separate analysis from Ipsos Mori, which uncovers a stubborn lack of trust among younger people in their fellow citizens, and you begin to fear not only for the future of representative democracy, but also jury trials and wider civic society.

The roots of this can, perhaps, be traced back to an economic environment which – in terms of jobs, pay and housing – is dashing young dreams. Austerity has been meted out in a manner that redoubles the misery; young people might have hoped MPs would serve them better. In the end, though, if they want to dissolve the parliament, and elect another, which might do things differently, they will have to get off the sofa and down to the ballot box. No reform can rescue democracy for a generation that grows too disaffected to use it.


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