Hamish McRae: Happiness and politicians don't always mix

The area where our gloom stands out is our lack of confidence in our government and prime minister
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The Independent Online

The party conference season is winding down, which I think for most of us will be a bit of a relief. But of course the debate continues about what government is really for. Indeed, that debate - the purpose and nature of government - has rarely been more open, for both our major parties will, over the next year or so, have their most substantial rethink for a decade.

Now, were they large companies, rather than quasi-tribal organisations, they would be starting with data. They would be trying to figure out what people wanted to buy, how that might fit into their existing range of products and services, how to develop and refine these, and how to get them to market.

On the surface, the parties have become much more like commercial companies. They have learnt a huge amount about presentation and image, and I think have found it easier to shift their public image than a large company could manage to do. Think how it has taken a generation for Tesco to rebrand itself from "pile it high and sell it cheap" to the quite upmarket image it has now. But Tony Blair and David Cameron were able to rebrand their parties in a few months.

But of course political parties are not companies. In some ways, they are more protected in that they do not suffer any threat from foreign competitors. No, we can't have Prime Minister Clinton just as they can't have President Blair. But, in other ways, their position is more difficult. They not only have less control over their workforce (both in the party and in the public sector) but also in the quality and range of the services they are obliged to offer.

Hardest of all, the breadth and complexity of the things they are expected to do inevitably means they will fail at some of them, yet the public expects a higher success rate than it would expect of a company. If a food firm introduces a new range of pot noodles and it flops, no one minds too much. If a government introduces a new anti-drugs policy and it flops, everyone minds.

Still, the parallels are close enough that, were they companies, both parties would be scouring the world for information about the market to which they have to appeal: the British public. They would want to know in what ways their electorate was similar to that of other countries, where it differed, what were its priorities and so on. But while it is quite true that they do a lot of research, most of it is focus-group stuff aimed at test-driving various policies or potential policies, rather than a more fundamental analysis of what makes British people happy and unhappy.

Research into happiness is very difficult but it has, rightly I think, been receiving much more attention. Thus, the recent book by Professor Richard Layard, called: Happiness: Lessons from a New Science has sold more than 50,000 copies in hardback. And David Cameron has notably called for the focus of society to shift from GNP to well-being, you could say from greater wealth to greater happiness.

What makes people happy and unhappy, though, varies from country to country - and not just because of cultural or historical differences. It varies for the practical reason that circumstances and experiences are different. The best piece of comparative research I have come across is a new and almost unreported quarterly study called "The International Social Trends Monitor". It was started this summer by Ipsos Mori, and it looks at how attitudes in Britain compare with those in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the US.

It might come as a surprise that we are the most optimistic of the large European countries, not only about our economy, which you would sort of expect, but also about our satisfaction with life in general. Nearly 90 per cent of us are either very or fairly satisfied with the life we lead, and nearly half of us think life will get better over the next 12 months. Italy and Germany are the least optimistic of the large European countries, with France and Spain in between.

The US was not in that particular survey, but another study showed that Americans had almost exactly the same level of confidence about the future social and economic condition of the country as we do, and we are both much more optimistic than the rest of Europe. Indeed, when it comes to employment and jobs, we are even more optimistic than Americans. Unemployment ranks bottom of the league of major concerns for us, whereas for the Germans it is No 1.

Nor, intriguingly, are we particularly worried about taxes - we do not see this as a major problem. And we are remarkably unworried about inequality, despite that being high by European standards, though not American. Only 15 per cent of us think government should reduce differences in income levels, and only 12 per cent think that to be a good citizen it is important to support people who are worse off. Asked about the cause of poverty, we are near the top of the league in attributing it to laziness and near the bottom to injustice. Evidently, we are a tough-minded lot.

So what are we unhappy about? Quite a lot, and the list is pretty much as you might expect. We are top of the league for worrying about crime and violence, with, interestingly, the US at the bottom. We are second top to the US in worrying about health care and education (though we seem to think our education quite good) and we are second to Spain in worrying about immigration.

But the area where our gloom really stands out is our lack of confidence in our government and in our prime minister. We have less trust than any other major country in the ability of the head of government to tackle the country's main problems.

A survey is only a survey - and you don't want to take the detail of this one overly seriously. As the pollsters accumulate more data, they will be able to give more of a feeling of how attitudes are changing over time and may be able to iron out some of the inconsistencies that have emerged. For example, if we think our education system is good, why are we so worried about it?

Still, some of the results are so stark that politicians of all parties should be on red alert. Crime is really hated. Most alarming of all, though, is our very low level of trust - the lowest of any major country - in the Government to fix things. We attribute our successes and our general sense of well-being to our own efforts and our concerns to the incompetence of our government.

That may seem unfair. I personally think it is a bit unfair. But if people don't want to buy a Ford there is no point in Bill Ford saying, "Gosh, this is terribly unfair. Our cars are great." Ford has to build better cars.

Words no longer count. Massaged statistics no longer count. This government, the next one, and the one after, have to set out on a long hard slog of rebuilding trust by just doing things better.