Opinion: Apathy in the UK

I went to see Billy Bragg in August. Not canvassing, mind you. He’s one of a very few celebrities who doesn’t seem to have a house in my constituency. It was a gig at the Greenbelt Festival. He tried to play his entire first album in just nine minutes, but broke a string and had to talk instead (in the early days, I think he would have performed the next night as well without replacing the string).

What he talked about was why he was backing religion in general (Greenbelt is a Christian arts festival), because it was a bulwark against the single most destructive thing in society: cynicism and apathy. Which is really two things. But they’re obviously linked.

By the time you read this, the local elections are probably over. Right now, we’re in the thick of them. I was on the stump last night canvassing in a run-down part of town (where, paradoxically, house prices are still so high that first time buyers can’t get started, but that’s an issue for another time). The canvas card swiftly filled up with NV, NV, NV, NV, NV… (what do you mean you don’t know what NV means on a canvas card? Non-voting. Now get down to your local party HQ and volunteer for some canvassing!)

The reasons people give for not voting are varied: “No, mate, I know this councillor, and…”, “No, I asked for my bins to be fixed and it wasn’t done…”, “Vote for the politicians??!!??”, “You politicians never give me a straight answer—” (reply, “How many have you actually met”, answer “You’re the first one.”)

Ultimately, though, it boils down to the fact that they don’t trust us. To be fair, they probably don’t trust anyone. The notion that someone should want to help someone else out of pure altruism has been carefully drilled out of them.

As Bragg would put it (Billy, that is, though I’m sure Melvyn would agree), it comes down to cynicism.

Unfortunately, as Liberal Democrats, we are probably net contributors to cynicism, and it’s time we revised our approach. At least, that’s my view.

As far as political-micro-biology has been able to determine, there is no gene for distrust of politicians. Bacteriologists might speculate that there is some as-yet undiscovered micro-organism which is endemic to these shores, since people seem to be infected with it shortly after arriving — even Americans, who, in their native habitat, have a strong degree of natural immunity.

If, though, it really isn’t biological, political cynicism must surely be some kind of allergic reaction to a pollutant. My tests have determined that this pollutant is generated in three places. A small proportion of it is generated in the course of daily life, such as in conversations down the pub. A rather larger part is generated by the media. Regrettably, the vast majority of it is generated by politicians themselves. That is, by politicians ourselves.

We clearly have an important role to play — especially when in opposition — in exposing the misdemeanours, broken promises, woolly-thinking and general wrong-headedness of our opponents. And they with us, although they have a built-in disadvantage because of the greater inherent wrong-headedness of their cause.

However, alongside all the fair, targeted criticism, we – and they, but it’s we who are reading this, not they, and we need to put our own house in order first – do engage in a fair amount of the corrosive veiled accusation, ridicule and innuendo which is the carcinogenic muck which political cynicism thrives in. Actually, we probably engage in an unfair amount of it. There’s more than one Liberal Democrat who takes pride in never failing to kick a Tory when he’s down.

Let me get this straight in case you’re wondering. I really, really, really dislike the Tories. Their programme for society appears to me to be about advancing the advantage of the already advantaged, and letting the weak (and foreigners, unmarried mothers and the unemployed) go to the wall. The Tory dream of everyone being richer has been largely fulfilled over the past 50 years (except for the poor, but see the previous sentence), and yet people feel more miserable than ever before and there has been no increase in any of the things that make society a good place to live. David Cameron — for all his posturing — would be just like Margaret Thatcher but without the chemistry degree if he ever got in.

And I really, really, really don’t believe in Labour. New, Not-so-New, Old, or (as we will no doubt soon be reading) Labour Classic. Their aspirations are often things which I praise. Their approach to them, though, is so flawed that it will do little more than deprive us all of our freedoms for a chimera of supposed security. In the 80s it was job security, these days it’s security from terrorism. The rhetoric has changed, but the underlying greyness of the Labour vision really hasn’t.

So I am not remotely renouncing our right (and duty) to oppose and demolish.

But when we move into the realm of unsubstantiated allegation, weasel words, sly jibes, innuendo, and such like, then we contribute to the corrosive cloud of public distrust. It is unethical. It is destructive. And, what’s more, I believe it is counterproductive.

There’s a wonderful book called ‘the Political Brain’ which I want to recommend to every Liberal Democrat. It’s by an American, Democrat, psychologist, who has conducted a series of experiments to understand how people make political decisions, and, more importantly, to understand why the Democrats keep losing to the Republicans. A lot of what he says has real resonance for us.

One of the the crucial experiments demonstrated that when faced with an attack on their own preferred politicians, voters went through a series of rationalisations which resulted in strengthening their confidence in their candidate, even when it was blatantly obvious that their candidate was wrong! Although actually uncovering the skeleton in the closet really does work (it worked especially well for Richard Nixon), allegations on their own do not.

More importantly, he goes on to explore the language of passion, and how the earnest-sounding Republicans have been able to exploit it, despite being ‘in the wrong’ on many of the issues which are key to American voters.

If I could persuade Liberal Democrats up and down Britain of one thing, it would be to be people of passion and to put appeals to cynicism behind us. Oh, yeah, that’s two things. Yes, we should oppose, debunk, and demonstrate the inadequacies of our opponents’ policies, words and actions. But I believe it’s time to leave behind the sneering, vilifying and the cheap shots.

Let’s stand tall with Billy Bragg (oops, and with religions as well) in reducing our cynicism-footprint in the run up to the Europeans and the next General Election.

* Martin Turner is Vice-Chair of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Norman Scott 7th May '08 - 10:17am

    I can’t be bothered with apathy. But I suspect Martin you need to follow your own advice when accusing the Tories of letting the weak go to wall. If they really were so cartoonishly villanous they’d be easier to beat.

  • Grammar Police 7th May '08 - 11:58am

    I disagree about the bar chart. Absolutely nothing cynical about showing that, er, actually we *can* win here. The local Labour and Tory party are very keen to say that a vote for us is wasted. The bar chart is the simplest and most effective way of showing that’s not true.

    The Tories and Labour love nothing more than to shout that we can’t win, and the media happily repeat it parrot-like and so I’d love to see any MP or councillor win where at least part of his/her campaign wasn’t given over to showing that a vote for him/her is not wasted (even if not by bar chart).

    Now, I think there are some dodgy bar charts and I don’t think they should be used. But you can put whatever you want on your leaflets as long as it’s clearly marked and not misleading.

    On the subject of misleading literature – for example, our Conservative MP recently put round a leaflet on mock House of Commons paper (ie says “House of Commons” at the top, but it’s not) with a supposed “report” of his activities and included the claim that he did not call for his own salary to be almost doubled *before Parliament*.
    Oh no, he didn’t say it in the chamber, but he *did* argue for an increase before the Senior Salaries Review Body and in a press interview immediately afterwords said he thought MPs should earn nearly double what they did. The implication in his leaflet is that the reports of his views on MPs’ salaries were lies. Now that’s misleading.

  • Grammar Police 7th May '08 - 12:07pm

    I think Alix is right; pointing out the bad things about another party or candidate’s views is fine. Nasty is not.
    Pointing out that actually you can win in an area is fine. Pointing out that it’s unlikely that a third party will win in an area is also okay. Chris Paul doesn’t like it because it works and because he needs to oppose it to fit with the very simplistic binary view of politics that many Labour/Tory members have to hold (otherwise their heads might expload?): that the only valid political viewpoints are Labour or Tory. People who purport to hold other viewpoints are opportunistic and nasty – and they try to grab onto any scant evidence to back this up.

    I’ll tell you; if I was a cynical opportunist in my neck of the woods (and all parties have them!) I wouldn’t be a Lib Dem.

  • Grammar Police 7th May '08 - 12:16pm

    On the binary view of politics: at the London count I overheard Labour counting agents discussing the fact that people “won’t risk a protest vote” when the Tories might get in, and Labour councillors discussing the demographics of wards turning against the Tories (and in favour of them). Whilst there’s an element of truth in both, taking people’s votes for granted like this just reinforces why I could never be in the Labour party.

  • Harry Hayfield 7th May '08 - 1:56pm

    Billy Bragg had better not come to the rural parts of Ceredigion then! Turnout in the local elections in my ward was 52%.

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th May '08 - 2:09pm

    Joe is right. We live in a complex world where the ability of politicians to directly control the way we live is much less than it used to be in the past. The job of politicians these days seems to be the people who sit in the front and get all the blame. Our real masters these days are the big businessmen, not the politicians, but the businessmen sit in the background and let those of us fool enough to put ourselves forward for public election take all the flak. Much of the problems of current society are the flip-side of the social and economic freedoms we enjoy.

  • An interesting article. I wonder what the book would read now after the advent of the Obama campaign which is certainly a passionate and hopeful campaign. Doing the vision thing is definatly important but you have to do it in a way which makes people relate to what you are saying. The reason fear has worked so well for the Republicans (and our own politicians) is that it is something people feel in a post-9/11 world.

    In terms of what is negative and nasty I think the recent Edward Timpson thread on here provided a concrete example of what is too far. In football it is called ‘playing the man not the ball’ something that is only permissible when there is something about that man that directly does bear on suitibility for office.

    Politics is at it’s best when it is connecting to people and inspiring them with ideas about how their own lives can be changed not just by their own action but by what the state and government can do for them.

  • Geoffrey Payne 7th May '08 - 3:27pm

    I agree with you entirely. Politics is very competitive, and all political parties are guilty of cynicism, even the Labour party Chris!
    Read the “Theory and Practice of Community Politics” by Gordan Lishman and Bernard Greaves. It is all about Liberal principles and one of which is “Community Politics is not about winning elections”.
    I often think that the electorate do not share our obsessions of one party getting one over another. I notice the way some activists who got excited about the Ken-Green-Brown pact as though that would sink them for our benefit are now claiming that the Greens benefitted from that after all (at GLA level).

  • simon croft 7th May '08 - 6:09pm

    Interesting thread,

    Joe , I think you are on the money there. IMHO the rise of cynicism and BNP / UKIP is partly down to peoples perception of a lack of power over their future – Then seeking to blame immigrants/foreigners/Europe for global troubles – Like food, petrol prices , jobs moving abroad.

    Europe does have a democratic deficit but the real power is the WTO and its goals. Unfortunately when the euro elections come to the boil (next year?) this will be the elephant in the room.

    The fallout from ever increasing growth Vs finite resources and climate chaos will be even more cynical people and real pain to our voters and third world deaths.
    Time for some honesty about the choices of the world from all politicians.

    sorry for rambling – its been a long day!

  • I’m not sure it is helpful to insult the non-voting public by calling them apathetic when their non-participation in elections and the political process is merely a reflection of their personal choices.

    Cynicism often fulfils the positive function of providing a balancing check on fervent belief so I can’t be too negative about that either.

    I’ve always found that the distaste and generalised distrust of politicians stems from the public response to political failure as it impacts (or doesn’t impact positively) on our lives. So I’d prefer to campaign for more (personal and social) responsibility by educating people about the benefit that participation has and the satisfaction it provides when success arrives.

    We need to point out that the level of failure correlates identically will the level of illiberalism in official policy.

    Politics isn’t about having an easy life but making a better life.

  • Yasmin Zalzala 8th May '08 - 4:49pm

    Well said Martin.

    However, I am slightly disturbed by the direct relation to religion.

    I am religious myself. However I do not think one has to be religious in order to be ethnical and have high standards and integrity.

    Don’t you agree?

  • I must agree with the points above re passion and that ‘Community Politics is not about winning elections”.

    There is a clear example of this from the recent local elections. A candidate from the Green Party (Rob White) only missed out of kicking out the Labour candidate for Park Ward in Reading by 20 votes. Rob is someone who is passionate, committed and appears to do what he believes to be right not just to get elected. This is so different IMHO from the sitting Labour group in the ward. A few years ago their regular leaflets about what they were doing in the local community seemed to show commitment to ‘doing the right thing’. Recently however, it all seems to be about presenting themselves in the best possible light and kicking their opponents. It’s a subtle but telling difference that us humble voters pick up on.

    People didn’t vote for Rob because he’s a Green. It does NOT signify that the Green Party as an organization is close to a breakthrough in the ward. People voted for Rob as a positive choice – someone who appears driven, positive and committed. Rob has been standing for election for many years and growing his support each time. He should be in next time and is a great example of how cynicism can be overcome at a local level.

    (And before the comments come in, I have no link to the Green Party or Rob whatsoever. Just a straightforward non-aligned voter with enough interest to browse political blogs from time to time.)

  • As someone involved in the Lib Dem campaign in Park ward, I can tell you that whatever it might look like, the Green Party were treating that ward as a regional target and shipping all kinds of outside help to try and win it. Furthermore, Rob White is a consumate PR operator – just witness his appearance in nearly every edition of the Reading Post since New Year.
    Whether or not he genuinely holds his beliefs (and I am sure he does), every press stunt, interview and piece of literature has been designed solely to win that seat. Greens are politicians like everyone else on the ballot.

  • Even from where I am I heard about the Green effort in Reading’s Park Ward and I have to agree with Benjamin on most points.

    Rob White is an ambitious career-orientated eco-socialist, but his PR leaves something significant to be desired – and so does his speaking ability.

    The Green Party’s Park Ward campaign was concieved and run as a protest against the drift and failure of Reading’s Labour administration over the past few years, by positioning himself as a TruLabour left-winger and pushing the line “85 votes to go” over ANY real policy – because he presented himself as the closest thing to a positive choice did not make him one!

    The question now rises how long he can keep the protests up now that RBC has turned NOC for the next two years. We shall judge whether this half-serious candidate believes in community politics by seeing whether he has got any staying power – maybe it will prove a lucky escape for the unfortunate residents.

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