Longrider’s fine and wonderfully concise post on voter dissatisfaction, prompted by the publication of the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement 8: The 2011 Report, expressed the sentiments of OoL contributors and readers perfectly.
However, I wonder — although we are mentioned in the report — if this document is addressed to us or about us.
After skimming through it this afternoon, it seems that Hansard’s primary thrust is to nudge more people into engaging with local volunteer groups and going to the polls. It is aimed at increasing the nudge success rate, not in engaging with OoL voters.
What is ‘nudge’?
Nudge is the name of a book by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler published in 2008, six months before President Obama was elected to office. Richard Thaler is an economist at the University of Chicago, not far from where Obama used to live. Cass Sunstein is in charge of the Obama administration’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.
Note the book’s cover. A bit whimsical and ‘cute’ maybe with the mummy elephant nudging her little one along with a helpful trunk on the bottom. Considering the semiotics for a moment, we see the Nanny State giving us a poke in the bum to ‘do something’.
Don’t be fooled by the term libertarian paternalism here. Any true libertarian would call it an oxymoron. The two authors define the ‘paternalism’ half as (emphasis mine):
the claim that it is legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people’s behavior in order to make their lives longer, healthier, and better.
Nudge is at the heart of David Cameron’s Big Society, led by Lord Wei, age 35 (also see blog). Cameron claims it came from his father. More than likely, it came from a combination of Nudge, Direct Democracy and behavioural economics with a nod to B F Skinner’s operant conditioning.
Keeping that in mind, the Hansard study has a Big Society focus. It identifies which people can be nudged into some sort of volunteer group or political engagement. These are the poor, the 18-24s and BMEs (minority) groups (p. 90 — PDF page number). The poor have the time, it says; the young would like to have the example of friends and family first and the BMEs are interested in non-faith based activities.
What about dissatisfied voters, you ask, the ones we could identify with in the BBC article?
The study describes them on page 64, categorising them as the Alienated.
The Alienated comprise 12% of the UK adult population. Interestingly, 11.9% of UK voters cast their ballots for small political parties (p. 34). One wonders if the Alienated and this 11.9% are the same group.
- view politics and Parliament the most negatively of those surveyed (78%)
- tend not to volunteer (only 10% have)
- vote (63%)
- use the Internet (67%)
- are mostly in the lower half of the social strata, although 34% are ABC1s
Although it would have been more convenient to cut and paste Hansard’s exact words, one needs prior permission. Suffice it to say that the authors — among them Dr Fox — make the Alienated sound lost, if not pariah-like. Not only are the Alienated apathetic, they also have ‘strong’ and ‘negative’ opinions. Only 4% read a ‘quality newspaper’. ‘Only’ 67% use the Internet! ‘Only’ 34% are ABC1s! Thirty-three per cent feel ‘hard-pressed’ (struggling to make ends meet, married or single).
How many reading this belong in the Alienated category?
Hansard isn’t talking to the Alienated with their ‘strong’ and ‘negative’ opinions, only about them. They’re not as wonderful as the Willing Localists who comprise 14% of the population (p. 62), the acknowledged target market for the Big Society.
I see this report as a boon for Labour and other leftists:
- Agitating the Labour base. Now that the Coalition is in government, Labour — and some Liberal Democrat — supporters are less happy (pp. 32-33). When Labour were in, Conservatives were less happy. (No surprise there.) Therefore, these words of Dr Fox (who worked for a Labour MP) to the BBC (which likes Labour) seem to overstate the case somewhat:
The public seem to be disgruntled, disillusioned and disengaged. Thus far, coalition politics does not appear to have been good for public engagement.
Worryingly, only a quarter of the population are satisfied with our system of government, which must raise questions about the long-term capacity of that system to command public support and confidence in the future.
Reading the report — which is detailed and nuanced — does not give the indication that a high proportion are consistently angry or always disengaged, only in some circumstances and in certain groups. Older people are happier with the Coalition; just a few years ago younger people were happier with Labour. That does not seem too far off with what one would expect in a Western nation (or any other, for that matter). The numbers aren’t great, but seem par for the course. Was there ever a time when everyone felt involved with politics or liked their government?
- Creating more activists and community organisers (how Obama got his start in politics) — especially around election time. (Alienated? Stay at home.)
- Looking at ways to open up direct democracy as part of localism (p. 40). Why do Stony Stratford and Tower Hamlets come to mind here?
- Visible opposition. I predict we will see a surge in more young, lower-middle class and minority people galvanised into socio-political involvement. That in and of itself is no bad thing, but what happened in the US in 2008 during Obama’s campaign and in last year’s Occupy protests will give many a strident voice whilst further alienating others.
For the Left, there are no crises — only opportunities. So, for Dr Fox to say public sentiment about politics had
hardened into something more serious
sounds like a dogwhistle to the Left to spring into action.
Just my thoughts, but as Obama’s former Chief of Staff — now Mayor of Chicago — Rahm Emanuel said in 2008:
You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. What I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before. This is an opportunity! And this crisis provides the opportunity for us, as I would say, the opportunity to do things that you could not do before. – Rahm Emanuel