Just over a year since the National Conversation’s “experiment in democracy” got up and running, the disconnect between parliament and people continues to grow.
Yesterday the Hansard Society – a non-partisan political research and education charity – launched its tenth annual Audit of Political Engagement.
In today’s Daily Telegraph, Peter Oborne lists key findings from the Society’s polling research:
We learnt that barely 20 per cent of the public can name their local MP, half the number of just two years ago. Just one in 10 of 18- to 24-year-olds say they are certain to vote, down from three in 10 two years ago. Only 41 per cent of adults say they are guaranteed to vote in the next general election, compared to 48 per cent last year. And 20 per cent of voters are certain not to vote, twice as many as two years ago.
The scale of public ignorance is impressive: one third of voters are under the impression that they elect members of the House of Lords.
Oborne concludes that the growing gulf between Westminster and the public is down to a widely-held perception that “far too many MPs are greedy, fraudulent, sleazy and corrupt”.
While we certainly encountered this perception during the National Conversation pilot in 2012, we found that people were more likely to be disillusioned with Westminster because they believe that politicians – in general – did not share their concerns.
What the Hansard Society’s Audit tells us is that Britain needs more National Conversations to bring people together with politicians. We need this kind of open and active engagement to grow understanding and begin to heal the disconnect.
“Have the people given up on politics or has politics given up on them?” asks Janet Daley in today’s Sunday Telegraph. She writes at the end of the week that saw UKIP (“a party that will never form a government, and that has vilified all the plausible governing parties”) come second in Eastleigh, and a stand-up comedian ‘Beppe’ Grillo win the balance of power (a privilege he says he will not exercise) in the next government of Italy.
So why are voters moving away from the mainstream? For Daley, it’s all about choice. Or rather, the lack of it as Tories, Labour and Lib Dems converge around a mythical ‘middle ground’.
We hear a lot about the middle ground these days. As politics become more professional, more centred on the Westminster bubble and more detached from the real world, the middle ground has become a kind of holy grail for politicians and pundits.
Everyone wants to be on the middle ground, it seems. But It’s a strange-sounding place. Where ideas don’t matter, only impressions. Where nothing but consensus counts – and anything off the mainstream menu is considered unthinkable and extreme.
The middle ground is an insult to voters’ intelligence – and it’s sucking the life out of politics. If our political classes wonder why we’re staying away in droves, just consider what’s on offer on polling day. More of the same – differentiated only by the colour of the rosettes. And – as if to distract us (or keep themselves interested) – a background drone of manufactured outrage, posing and low-level scandals.
As Daley concludes (before moving onto US politics: another uninspiring example showing that every unhappy polity is unhappy in its own way): “Democratic politics is about choosing between differing political options: without significant meaningful differences between parties, the democratic process is pointless.”
So – as National Conversation pilot confirmed – if we want to rejuvenate democracy in the UK we need politicians to get off the centre ground, and give people real choices
We started the National Conversation because we believed mainstream politics in Britain was becoming a minority interest. A club with fewer and fewer members – and which no one, apart from political obsessives, wanted to join any more.
Yes, people in general care deeply about political issues. But they don’t want to play the game of party politics.
This week’s Eastleigh by-election (turn out 52.7%) was as uninspiring as anyone could have expected. But one glimmer of light came this morning, with Michael Gove giving his reaction to the Conservatives achieving third place in the poll.
Speaking on BBC R4’s Today, Gove said: “it is the case that there is a greater sense of disengagement from conventional politics now than there’s been, certainly in my adult lifetime” and that, in a broader sense, “people believe elites have failed”.
We could not have put it better ourselves.
A great quote from Hugo Rifkind in The Times (29th January: £) which neatly sums up where politics, politics and our institutions are today:
“In the past couple of years, as everyone knows, almost every aspect of [the] Establishment has taken a bettering and our traditional deference, if it ever had any rationale, doesn’t any more. But without deference, representative democracy becones a harder sell, particularly when the public suddenly have the online tools to shout at you all the time, rather than just once every four or five years as in the past.
At the moment it’s an almost impossible sell. Like newspapers, like the BBC, like the churches and the schools, and everything else, our system of government is in the midst of an existential crisis of confidence. It doesn’t know what it is, or what it’s for, or what people want from it. So it has to ask. This is how I think we ought to understand our referendums, whatever they are about. As the latest manifestation of a panicked system grappling with itself. Struggling to get a grip, as with soap in the bath.”
From today’s Times leader: “in order to attend a party conference it is necessary to pass through intense security into an area where only those with official passes are allowed. But it is not only physically that these meetings are insulated from the world. Politically, too, they can often be little bubbles in which all conversation turns inwards.”
The National Conversation is about – gently – bursting those bubbles and starting conversations that are open to everyone.
Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill and Sam Bowman from the Adam Smith Institute clash swords over the legacy of the Occupy movement in this morning’s City AM. Punchy stuff.
In a series of articles in this week’s Independent, Andreas Whittam Smith makes a compelling case for how British democracy is broken.
With the banking scandal – hot on the heels of Leveson, party funding and MPs’ expenses – there’s growing disillusion about politics and our institutions.
At the National Conversation we believe we can tackle this loss of faith, and get people re-engaged with political life, by promoting frank and open discussion about the big issues our society faces.
Right now, we’re working to set up town hall meetings and online forums to make this ‘sane and not sanitised’ conversation happen. We’re talking to people from all kinds of backgrounds, across the political spectrum, to build a compelling programme ready to launch in the autumn.
One of the people advising us is Mick Fealty, the brains behind Slugger O’Toole. Mick’s recognised as one of the country’s leading political bloggers and commentators. With Slugger, he created a powerful online forum for news and debate on Northern Ireland politics.
Mick made it possible for people with (to put it mildly) deeply-held and conflicting views to come together and talk constructively. It would be easy for Slugger to be a slagging match: instead, it’s a place for lively discussion, insight and humour.
We wanted to share one of the insights we got from Mick: “Cynicism is evil. It breeds contempt.” We couldn’t agree more: disillusion and cynicism will get us nowhere. We believe it’s time for a more constructive approach.
Nick Cohen looks at the welfare debate as an inter-generational issue.
In summary: young people tend not to vote – so politicians don’t factor them in to their political calculations.
A call to arms for Bite the Ballot if every there was one!
Labour needs to find new ways to connect with voters at the grassroots, according to the party’s general secretary Iain McNichol in an interview with The Guardian.
Key quote from McNichol: “We need to get people engaged and break down the cynicism that you are all the same. It is one of the most dispiriting things I have come across on the doorstep. People just repeatedly say: what is the point of voting?”
Countering cynicism – and getting people engaged with politics is what the National Conversation is all about. We believe a frank and open conversation – around topics that touch everyone in the UK – can help all the parties re-build voter trust.