The Blog

Policitians DO Listen to Us... But Too Much

- so goes probably the common, and personally most inane, refrain in current UK politics. But is there actually much truth to it? I don't think so. In fact, I think quite the opposite is true.

Politicians just don't listen to us these days - so goes probably the common, and personally most inane, refrain in current UK politics. But is there actually much truth to it? I don't think so. In fact, I think quite the opposite is true, and that that's slightly dangerous as people can be idiots - as Mark Corrigan says, "People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis. You can't trust people, Jeremy!" (I like Coldplay too.)

Certainly in many respects, we have a political culture relentlessly focused on the 'common man' (speaking figuratively, not in gender terms). Twitter is used as a soundboard for political ideas. A few hundred complaints about a TV show to Ofcom from lily-livered Guardian readers and/or boring old Daily Mail-reading farts are taken seriously as 'outrage'. TV news will often go to the person in the street, even if the story is really about nationwide or global economic changes average Joes, to be frank, do not know much about (I'd pretty much include myself in this). And newspapers very often report polls on what we think, to the extent Survation, YougGov and Ipsos MORI are almost the Holy Trinity of politics (this trend sometimes creates an echo chamber of rubbish, like when the Daily Express reports that its readers oppose immigration. People who constantly read that they are being ripped off and robbed off their identity by 'alien parasites and fraudsters' don't like immigration - no shit!).

And then there's the focus group, the idea which started in the corporate world but has become almost the holy grail of modern policymaking. Bill Clinton called members of focus groups the most powerful people in America. All the main UK parties have tech wizards in their teams to scrutinise every minute detail of demographic polling, and then feed this back to politicians so they can decide, say, if 'striver', 'strong middle-class' or 'hard-working Britons' is the best way to build support for their policies. The Thick of It is the best satire of this culture I've ever seen, exposing the huge disconnect between politicians' stage-managed public and private personas. (The show is of course ostensibly fiction, but could well be what actually goes on behind the cameras. Indeed, many policies shown actually prefigure ones later announced by the real-life government , and, according to The Independent, Armando Iannucci's team have been approached by real-life politicians looking for their political insights.) I should say none of this applies to UKIP, which is basically its main appeal.

As for the effects of all this, just look at politicians pronouncements, politicians routinely talk about their constituents they have spoken to and meld their lives into heartwarming stories to back up their policies (the link is an Owen Jones rant, but the left do this about as much as the right). Of course these will be selective, but I'd like to assume that politicians are not such complete shits that they regularly make such stories up.

And in the run up to next year's election, with polling currently finely split between Labour and Conservatives, politicians are jumping over themselves to appeal to that mythical political haven, 'the centre ground'. Indeed, to the extent they're kind of stealing each other's policies and become somewhat hard to define. Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, after initially railing against austerity economically (and socially) but then finding trust in Conservatives running the economy was outpacing that of Labour, agreed to match the Coalition's government's "day to day spending totals" if elected. (Yet on Sunday, he told the Andrew Marr Show the last Labour government's public spending was not to blame for the financial crisis and George Osborne choked off a recovery. Beats me.)

Also, after general support for the Coalition's welfare changes, shadow welfare secretary Rachel Reeves has claimed Labour would be "tougher than the Tories" on benefits. Which is confusing for anyone who has listened to the party's persistent criticism's of the perceived harshness of Iain Duncan Smith's policies. And, as polls show toughening views on immigration, Ed Miliband issued a significant mea culpa for Labour's previously liberal policy on immigration.

But the Tories do it a lot too, for better or for worse. After calls of excessively high energy bills, notably due to green levies, David Cameron recently rolled them back. (Granted, traditionally the Tories have not always been supportive of higher taxation and combating global warming, but David Cameron did plan to be the "greenest government ever" - what appears in hindsight a superficial populist pledge). And in response to many people and Ed Miliband's regular calls of a "cost of living crisis", George Osborne has gone against the Tory tendency to leave business alone by calling for an above-inflation rise in the minimum wage to around £7.

Yet despite all this populism, hardly anyone actually likes or trusts politicians any more. For official evidence, look at voter turnout rates; for anecdotal evidence, just look in any newspaper, pub or social media site.

Maybe we actually want to be led not followed. As resident old fart Janet Daley says in The Telegraph, focus groups "are a denial of what politics is all about. They are an insidious reversal of the political process, turning leaders into followers." These, and to a lesser extent polls, also pose inherent problems for policymaking, such as how questions are phrased, how one influential person can skew opinion and that they will inevitably, such is human nature, result in desire for more public spending yet lower taxes. On the other hand, Twitter lends itself to glib soundbites of opinion, often expressed by attention-seeking idiots - see, most recently, the reaction to TV show Benefits Street. The most realistic way of canvassing opinion might be to go to the pub - but then who wants to have a pint with a politician (except Farage and Boris)?!

Maybe we don't want to be listened to, or at least not if that same right extends to those we deem 'fools' or 'fruitcakes' - which in a democracy it does. This means, paradoxically, if we listened to everyone we have to both have raise and lower taxes; ban fossil fuels immediately and ignore climate change; and banish and burnish benefit claimants. Arguably, we already pay too much attention to people - stopping or delaying long-term energy and transport projects for any Tom, Dick and Harry annoyed about a bit more noise in their town or a few dozen frogs getting displaced. For it is human nature to be somewhat Nimbyish and short-termist, but these are not very useful qualities for running a country. The NHS, the welfare state, a national rail system were not very popular when first proposed, but are now (generally) regarded as essential. And, recently, the Olympics faced huge scepticism and controversy before turning out to be almost faultless success. Politics often requires a 'fuck it, let's do it approach'.

As the great (/mental) Kanye Wests puts it, "see there's leaders, and there's followers. But I'd rather be a dick than a swallower."