People are interested in policy, not politicians

If you follow 'Big Brother', you can influence the drama; in the debate on EU enlargement, you can't

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People are losing interest in politics; or so goes the accepted wisdom that is so often quoted to us by pollsters and journalists and, of course, politicians. You can see that from the falling numbers of the electorate who are bothering to vote. You can see that from the falling audiences for political programmes on television. You can see that from the falling sales of serious publications.

People are losing interest in politics; or so goes the accepted wisdom that is so often quoted to us by pollsters and journalists and, of course, politicians. You can see that from the falling numbers of the electorate who are bothering to vote. You can see that from the falling audiences for political programmes on television. You can see that from the falling sales of serious publications.

But who would have guessed it? Those people, if asked, will say that on the contrary, they are just as interested in politics as they ever were. That is the news given to us by the new British Social Attitudes survey. It has found that ever since 1986 a substantial minority of people say that they have quite a lot, or a great deal, of interest in politics.

The size of that minority – at around three in 10 of those interviewed – has not changed over the 15 years in which alienation from politics is meant to have increased so much and apathy is meant to have grown so fast.

I'm fascinated by that finding, because it bears out my own belief that this growth in so-called apathy is not really apathy at all. How can it be, when the pressure on politicians to take note of the burning issues of our day, such as fair trade and environmental protection, have not come from within the concentric circles of Westminster politics, but from ordinary people who have chosen to inform themselves and to act on their information?

This so-called apathy is a selective disengagement. It is commonplace for commentators to lament the fact that young people are happier to follow every nuance of the latest eviction from Big Brother rather than to follow the minutiae of the debate over public-private partnerships, or the enlargement of the European Union.

But the reason for this lack of interest in certain political issues isn't hard to grasp; if you follow Big Brother, you can influence the unfolding of the drama. If you follow the debate over the enlargement of the European Union, you cannot – unless you are a commentator or a politician – have any influence over the outcome. Not only will you be unable to influence your own government, your own government is only one player in the narrative.

I don't think that commentators quite recognise this sense of powerlessness among ordinary people, because the leading commentators are themselves always a little drunk on their own proximity to the wielders of power. Warmed as they are, almost daily, by their own access to press conferences and parties and breakfasts and briefings, where they get to catch the attention of the movers and shakers, they see the circles of power as very much more accessible than they really are.

Because they have been invited into a milieu that remains closed to the outside world, many journalists do not understand why other people do not see the fascination that they find in the sly gossip, the off-the-record briefing, the personal spat, the simmering feud. The response of journalists is, so often, to try to encourage readers and watchers out there to take more of an interest in politics by playing up this personal aspect of politics, its feuds and rivalries.

And why not? If people are so interested in celebrity gossip, in the personal breakdowns and quarrels that make Big Brother and Popstars so attractive, then won't they be all the more interested in the spats and gossip surrounding the most powerful men in Britain?

Typically, for instance, much of the debate over top-up fees for universities has concentrated on the story of splits within the Cabinet rather than the potential effects on students. Sure, these splits are one essential part of the unfolding story, but they are not the centre of it.

After all, what has concentrated the minds of those students who marched through London yesterday was not the attitudes of Gordon Brown and Clare Short, but the effects of such policies on their own lives. To hear and read some journalists you would be forgiven for thinking that the only interest of the whole furore was its effect on Tony Blair's authority rather than the education of British students.

The long-standing fascination among journalists with the animosity between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair shows this clearly. There is an ideological clash between the two men; in their attitudes to the funding of higher education, to how far private provision should be used in the National Health Service, and to the timing of a referendum on the euro. But the coverage of their differences tends to concentrate on the idea that Gordon was robbed.

And why not concentrate on this aspect of the tale? Don't we love stories of pique and betrayal? Surely a nation that could be so entranced by the possibility that Javine was robbed of the chance to stay in the final line-up of the Popstars: The Rivals should be enthralled by the idea that our brooding Chancellor was robbed of the chance to be Prime Minister?

But perhaps we should ponder what people really mean when they say that they have a lot of interest in politics. Since a third of people say that they are really interested in politics, but only one in four can identify Gordon Brown and only one in five can identify Jack Straw, as a survey by Whitaker's Almanac found last month, it is pretty obvious that interest in politics does not necessarily equate with interest in political personalities.

Westminster scandals are just not as much fun as many journalists think they are. They can't compete with gossip from more colourful worlds. If commentators and politicians really want to reconnect with ordinary people, then this concentration on the personal splits and spats of the politicians is not going to be the answer.

In this environment, in which gossip looms so large, a clearer picture of the realities in which the Government operates often gets lost. The other striking aspect of people's views of politics revealed by the British Social Attitudes survey was how very ignorant many of us are about some basic truths about social policy and how our money gets spent.

For instance, the researchers found that people exaggerate the impact that very small rises in income taxes would have on services such as the NHS. That kind of misconception, encouraged by politicians, makes it impossible for any party to make the case for higher taxes, which is the only policy that will improve our public services to the standards we demand.

If people are to re-engage with conventional political debate, then a basic pre-requisite would be for politicians and journalists to join hands in the honest relaying of such – perfectly explicable and comprehensible – facts. But though this is necessary, it won't be sufficient.

At the moment, as Westminster seems to float inaccessibly in its own bubble, more and more people turn elsewhere, as for instance to reality television, for a collective situation that they feel they can influence. Or they look to marches and protests for a political situation that they feel they have a stake in.

If politicians are to give people any sense that they could feel more engaged in day-to-day politics, then the politicians themselves will have to give away not just more gossip, but more power and more responsibility. And that is another story.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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