Monday, 1 April 2013

Don’t Know Much About Politics?

In the recent ‘No, Minister’ poll (conducted between February and mid March before the latest Budget announcement), people were asked to vote for up to three Cabinet Ministers in the UK who they would like to see removed from their post.

The three Secretaries of State the British public most wanted gone turned out to be Iain Duncan Smith (Work & Pensions Secretary, picked by 46% of those who voted), Michael Gove (Education Secretary, 35%), and George Osborne (Chancellor, 34%). [As each respondent could cast up to 3 votes, the % of voters wanting different Ministers removed add up to over 100%. It is also worth noting that in a Telegraph poll of Conservative Party members, the top two favourite Ministers were Gove (41%) and Duncan Smith (14%)]

Although the response mechanism was self-selecting, a number of observations can nonetheless be made. For example, the three ‘most unwanted’ politicians share one notable characteristic: they were unapologetic in pushing forward policies that are widely debated in the media for their likely harm to vulnerable groups (e.g., the disabled, jobless, children, the poor).

By contrast, despite the severe cuts and privatisation to which NHS services are subjected, Jeremy Hunt (Health Secretary) came a distant fourth (with just 17%) after routinely apologising for the faults of the NHS while consistently deflecting blame onto NHS employees. No other Secretary of State was anywhere near being picked by 10% of those who voted, even though their actions on cutting and privatising public services would also have major negative impact. But since the impact would be channelled through opaque processes of transfers to private contractors, or weakening of intermediary bodies (e.g., local authorities, legal aid providers), the Ministers concerned remain largely under the civic radar.

This raises the question that if the electorate in general reacts primarily to reports of blatant affront to our moral sensitivity, then politicians who are skilled at dressing up their policies with soothing words and delivery complexities may escape being held to account by the public. To counter this, we would need to increase our political understanding, and back our emotive responses with critical dissection of public policies.

Worryingly, the younger generation appears to be heading in the opposite direction. It is often said that young people are active in protests, but how many are engaged in shaping and securing support for policies to be implemented by government? The signs are that very few show much interest in what government does and how it can be changed. Indeed despite the support of many youth organisations in publicising the ‘No, Minister’ poll via Twitter and other social media, hardly anyone below mid-twenties took part in the poll.

According to a recent analysis of the British Social Attitudes Survey (from 1983-2010), today's young people are “less supportive of the NHS than their parents were; are less likely to favour higher benefits (though they are far more likely than their elders to be unemployed); and feel less connection to society at large than previous generations.” (‘Generation self: what do young people really care about?’, Guardian 11 March 2013)

The disengagement of young people from public institutions and collective provision undermines democracy. It could easily leave the wealthy elite to retain governmental control to serve the needs of the few. And unless political ignorance is radically dispelled, the prophecy of the government doing little for the people might just become perpetually self-fulfilling.