Sunday, 21 July 2013

Is anyone paying attention....


Over the years I've remarked often that most people, most of the time, simply aren't remotely interested in politics. More to the point those people not only aren't interested, they aren't paying attention. Yes we can grab their attention by putting a big headline in front of their eyes - to which they'll respond with an "oh yes, terrible" sort of remark and then return to chatting about the football or the latest celebrity divorce. Or more likely, what their children are doing at school and the latest gossip about colleagues at work.

It may pain us political types but all that effort to 'dominate the media narrative' or other such tommy-rot of the spinners world is just that, tommy-rot. People aren't paying attention. Here's Populus' weekly poll that asks people what stories they've noticed:

Only the NHS story among these is relevant to UK politics and just 8% 'noticed'. People really aren't paying attention to the news (even where they're watching the news programmes, I suspect this flitters through people's lives like background noise).

Now some of the politically-obsessed will now be heard muttering about 'apathy' and 'engagement', even 'participation'. These anoraks miss the point - the point is that wealth and comfort makes politics less and less relevant to people. And this is a good thing, it represents a little more withering away of government - another step towards us not actually needing government at all.

Now I appreciate that, right now, we have the most intrusive government since we decided that the king wasn't a god and didn't own all the stuff as of right. But this covers over the fact that most people's connection with government comes through one or all of health, education, welfare or having the bin emptied. And so long as they're not actively annoyed or upset by one of these, they have few problems with government.

The shift here is from government being something that is actively done to us to us being consumers of government. It really doesn't matter whether we pay directly or through taxes, we perceive ourselves as customers rather than subjects. And the debate around politics is about us exercising our consumption role rather than choosing someone to "run the country". Elections are the point at which we can choose different strategies for managing those services - it may not be the best way to do this but it's the way, for now, we've chosen. So when the Conservatives were rambling on about financial sovereignty and other such grand matters, Tony Blair talked about 'schools and hospitals' and won the election.

For me the importance of this change from subject to customer is that it suggests that government is not necessary - at least not on its current scale - to the delivery of what we currently (and wrongly) see as 'public goods'. There is a reducing need for us to provide, for example, healthcare or education through the medium of government, it is a choice that we make because it seems to us better, fairer or more effective.

The big winners in this sort of politics are those who - as Blair did - focus on what, when I was a student activist, called "soft loo-paper politics". Rather than endeavouring to change the world (or even Hull University) the successful political leader focuses on getting better services - health, education, filling in potholes. And the politician - the MP or councillor - bends his efforts to dealing with these issues, to be someone who badgers away at the minutiae of constituency problems. The old sort of MP - a grand fella who lives grandly in London and descends on the constituency for the AGM, the annual dinner and a couple of (reluctant) weeks at election time - no longer fits the bill however valuable the contribution of those men might have been.

A good few years ago I wrote in praise of 'idiots'  - those people who didn't engage, weren't involved and only (at best) reluctantly turned out to cast a vote in elections:

Round here they’re probably in their thirties or forties, employed at a middle management level in business and industry. They worry about how well their kids do at school, they concern themselves with making their family safe, they grumble a bit about paying taxes but have enough cash afterwards for it not to really matter. Such folk are ordinary, hard-working and inherently conservative. But they also see little or no link between the act of voting in a politician from one party or another and the significant things in their lives.

Or to put it another way, these people aren't paying attention. And isn't that wonderful, cheering and independent!



asquith said...

I met someone who claimed not to be interested in politics. A little more sharply than I might have done, I retorted "Politics is interested in you". Because people rightly think feeding, clothing, and schooling their children, walking along safe streets, making a good living, caring for the weak and what have you counts for more than arcane arguments. But all these things are political in obvious and non-obvious ways.

To my mind, the biggest problem is that it's hard to answer those who claim that politicians are all the same. I hated the last government, but I can't tell you how many times I feel as though they never went away, today's outburst of Victorian moralism from Cameron being the latest. You can imagine Blair doing just that.

I do voluntary work, but at this time I feel the biggest contribution I can make to humanity is to give to a very well-chosen charity. You've pointed out how many of them do more harm than good. But I'm close to 100% sure that my subscription to MSF is useful to the world.

Prosperity is indeed good, and politicians play a huge role in making the decisions to help or hinder the natural* process of people worldwide getting richer. But so do we. The biggest question is what exactly to do. Despite many provocations, I still don't think people are apathetic. They just get turned off by pathetic spectacles like PMQs (redeemed only by the Andrew George and Sheryl Gillans of this world who occasionally raise issues of worth).

*Yes, I think that's the right word.

Simon Cooke said...

I think my very point is that people aren't apathetic more that their concerns are closer to home. I always hated that argument that only shallow insignificant people gossip - the problem is that people want politicians to be part of that everyday babble and see that they aren't (or don't appear to be).

The biggest irony is that the Westminster bubble is just a gossip box for political types and media sorts. They really are no different!