Popular Understandings of Politics in Britain, 1937-2015


Anti-politics: a supply problem, not an engagement problem

By UoSAnti-Politics |

[Cross posted at Policy Network]

Only when politics changes and the behaviour of politicians becomes more focused on ‘doing the right thing’ will citizens be prepared to engage

The reform plans for the UK parliament captured in the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy deserve the accolade afforded to the British Leyland’s Austin Allegro by Jeremy Clarkson when he claimed it was better than some others because it was “horrible car in a more original way”. The report is considered, well-presented and even innovative but is just as horrible as the Austin Allegro and for the same reason: there is some new body work and fittings on show but the same rubbish engineering is at its heart.

The diagnosis of what is the problem with our democracy is not dealt with at any length by the report. However the gist of the argument appears to be the world has gone digital, while parliament is not digital and therefore its work is not appreciated or understood. The solution then flows: let us make parliament digital. I am very happy with the solution in that I cannot think of any good reason why digital should not be the watchword for the operation of and access to parliament. What I am less convinced by is the underlying diagnosis and its capacity to deal with the democracy as opposed to the digital side of the challenge.

I must admit I burst out laughing when I read the solemn first recommendation of the report. “By 2020, the House of Commons should ensure that everyone can understand what it does.” Well that pledge tells you so much. Do they not think that many citizens already have a clear view about what parliament does? People understand well enough; the issue is they do not always like what they see. We know from the 2013 Audit of Political Engagement run by the Hansard Society that a substantial majority of citizens (68 per cent) are happy to concede that parliament is essential to our democracy and a smaller majority (55 per cent) think that its debates and decisions matter. The ideal of parliamentary democracy is not the issue; the issue is its current practice. Only 27 per cent think that are current system of governing works well and 83 per cent of us think that we have no say in decision-making.

There are two broad ways of looking at political disillusionment and engagement. One suggests that the issue is one of pent up demand and that in a digital age we need to satisfy that demand by going digital in the way information is provided, in the way that debates are presented, in the manner in which the public are engaged in debates and issues. All the recommendations and ideas of the report fall into this line of argument. It is a perspective that is backed by some evidence but it only captures half (at best) of the issue.

The second broad approach to understanding anti-politics is to see it a reaction by citizens to the supply of politics. Its style, soundbite marketing, kowtowing to big interests, its petty corruption and its almost complete disconnect from people’s lives is the issue. Only when politics changes and in particular the behaviour of politicians becomes more focused on doing the right thing, making decisions in the public interest and working across boundaries rather than building empires will citizens be prepared to engage. This supply-side understanding of the problem is virtually absent from the Speaker’s report and that is why its fate will be the same as that of the Austin Allegro and British Leyland.

We need a considerably more honest discussion about the failing of politics than this report provides. In fairness its authors do not fall into the trap of assuming some sort of technological fix and recognise that it is the practice of politics that matters. The problem is they fail to recognise what really needs to change: the political elite.

This article is a contribution to the Policy Network and Barrow Cadbury Trust project ‘Understanding the populist signal’


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