Opinion: A million doors or a moral vacuum?

Fifty years ago, the Labour MP for my home town of Lincoln was Geoffrey de Freitas. In those days, Lincoln was a very safe Labour seat and Geoffrey de Freitas was a very wealthy man.

In common with many MPs of that era, de Freitas did not maintain a home in his constituency (a practice that at least had the merit of incurring no controversial expense claims). Indeed, he spent little time in his constituency at all. On the rare occasions he paid a visit, he and his wife would get in the Rolls Royce and drive north to Lincoln, his chauffeur following in a Morris Traveller. When the convoy reached the constituency boundary, it came to a halt. Mr and Mrs de Freitas would get out of the Rolls and into the Morris, and make a suitably modest entry into the city. The chauffeur followed at a discreet distance in the Rolls.

I was reminded of this story by the Liberal Democrats’ constant refrain throughout Make it Happen (.pdf) and the Million Door Challenge about the need for politicians to “listen”. The recent cold-calling debacle and last year’s ‘Community Canvass Week’ were based on a similar premise. But is this really the problem?

Far from politicians not listening, they have never listened more. In the 1950s, most MPs – not just Geoffrey de Freitas – put in only token appearances in their constituencies, while local councillors were never seen from one election to the next. Yet electoral turnouts and party memberships were at an all-time high. Nowadays, most elected politicians conduct regular surgeries and carry unprecedented loads of casework; they are accessible online via e-mails, websites and blogs; they deliver leaflets and appear regularly in various local media; and they conduct frequent surveys and polls. Today, a politician with Geoffrey de Freitas’s hauteur would not even get selected, never mind elected. Yet people still moan that politicians are “out of touch”.

There is clearly a widespread sense of powerlessness and alienation but, given all the listening that is going on, it is doubtful that more of it is the solution. Might the real problem lay elsewhere?

To find out why people feel so alienated, it is worth studying the conclusions of the Power Inquiry (.pdf), published by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust in 2006, which examined why people are disengaging from democratic politics. This report found that the underlying cause of disengagement is social change, a shift to a post-industrial society in which voters are less deferential, better educated and no longer feel bound by traditional class loyalties. Notably, a significant factor behind people’s disillusionment is a feeling that “political parties and elections require citizens to commit to too broad a range of policies.” In other words, in our atomised society, people are less willing to make compromises and unrealistically expect a bespoke offer from their politicians. This chimes with the analysis of the effects of consumerism on politics in my essay in Reinventing the State.

To remedy the situation, the Rowntree report makes several recommendations. These do not include knocking on a million doors, having nothing to say and merely asking people what they want. (For a more detailed criticism of the ‘Liberal Democracy = asking them what they want’ school of thought, see my article in Liberator (April 2008), pages 8-9 – .pdf). In fact, ‘listening’ campaigns such as the ‘Million Door Challenge’, ‘Community Canvass Week’ and cold-calling do more harm than good:

  • They fail to empower people but instead encourage the idea that voters are merely supplicants.
  • They foster the expectation that politicians can satisfy millions of individualised wants simultaneously, when politicians’ inability to do so is at the root of popular disillusionment with the whole democratic process.
  • They assume that public opinion is fixed and deny the party any confidence in its ability to change people’s minds.
  • They fail to establish a clear brand image, the lack of which is the Liberal Democrats’ biggest handicap. Instead, by ducking moral choices and avoiding clear statements of values, they make the party’s image even vaguer.
  • By failing to establish moral clarity, they contribute to the widespread sense that all the main parties look the same (the Rowntree report identified as a major cause of alienation the fact that “the main political parties are widely perceived to be too similar and lacking in principle”).

And anyway, these superficial consultation exercises ought to be redundant in a party that practices community politics as it was originally intended. Surely all our activists are already genuinely empowering people as part of their year-round campaigning. Aren’t they?

It would be bad enough if the ‘Million Door Challenge’ were just a vacuous marketing exercise. In the current political climate, it is obscene. The financial markets are on a precipice, the war in Afghanistan is being lost, the Arctic ice cap is shrinking, and all the party can say is, “Dunno, mate, you tell me.”

Running on empty is not a serious option. Politicians of all parties must stand for something, not blow with the wind. Their job is to lead, not follow; to persuade, not accept public opinion as a given. This does not mean being arrogant. Politicians should engage in debate and connect with people’s concerns. But they can do this effectively only if they have a clear sense of right and wrong, and they should not be afraid to communicate that moral clarity to the electorate. The people have the right to elect or reject them on that basis. But any politician who has no idea of what he stands for and instead can only ask “you tell me” is unfit for office.

My advice to Liberal Democrat activists is to ignore the empty ‘Million Door Challenge’ and not attempt to communicate with the electorate unless they have something worth saying. They would do better to emulate, for example, the clarity and rigour of Vince Cable’s bold statements on the economic crisis, or the passion of Henry Porter’s speech about freedom at the recent Liberal Democrat conference rally.

My advice to any unfortunate voter on the receiving end of the ‘Million Door Challenge’ would be to ask the canvassers on your doorstep one simple question: “What do the Liberal Democrats stand for?” If they cannot provide a clear answer, a short message about sex and travel is in order.

Simon Titley is a Liberal Democrat activist who helps write and produce Liberator magazine.

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15 Comments

  • neverapriest 29th Sep '08 - 10:30am

    An armchair general speaks.

    Any campaigner of any party worth their salt would find out pretty quickly that they need to have something to say in order to have any impact. That needs to be road-tested somehow.

    There is a certain vacuity about the exercise – but also an internal synergy, that those who do get involved should (if they have any ability at all) learn something from it.

  • Welsh Lib Dem 29th Sep '08 - 2:18pm

    “Nothing to say !” Trouble with me (and not alone !) is that we can have a great deal to say. Both Labour and Tories are destroying fundamental liberties – (nothing to say ?) Millions are dying unnecesarily – poverty, aids, hunger (nothing to say ?) An illegal war still claims hundreds more deaths in Iraq (nothing to say ??
    Come on fellow Lib-Dems pick yourselves up and start knocking and talking !

  • Simon Titley 30th Sep '08 - 10:54am

    The critics should re-read my original posting. At no stage did I argue that politicians should stop listening or that listening was a bad thing.

    My basic question – which none of them seem able to answer – is this:

    Why is it that popular respect for politicians has declined in inverse proportion to the amount of listening that politicians do?

    Politicians are much more accessible than they were fifty years ago, so why are the public disengaging from democratic politics?

    Doesn’t this suggest that popular alienation from politics is not a function of the quantity of listening but of something else?

    The second point the critics cannot answer is why a ‘listening’ campaign is necessary in a party that practices community politics.

    If our activists are practicing community politics properly (i.e. as an exercise in empowerment, not merely as a shallow electoral technique), they will already be engaged in two-way communication with the electorate all year round and the ‘Million Door Challenge’ is superfluous.

    If they are not already empowering people as an integral part of their day-to-day campaigning, what the hell have they been playing at all these years?

    Finally, have you seen the news today? Has it occurred that we in one of those momentous phases in history that happen only once in a generation (1945, 1989)? At a time like this, is the appropriate campaign priority for the party to go round the country with a blank sheet of paper?

    There is a crisis in democratic politics alright, but it is not for want of listening. It is the lack of moral leadership. It is politicians who check the opinion polls and tabloid headlines before deciding what to say. Yesterday’s disastrous vote in the US Congress was the nadir of this “press the red button now” type of politics.

    The ‘Million Door Challenge’ is an act of desperation by a party without the moral clarity or moral courage to argue a distinctive case. We Liberal Democrats can do better than this, surely?

  • Simon,

    Quite right. If we cannot answer the simple question “What do the Liberal Democrats stand for?” then the party is only useful as a vehicle for protest votes – a plan only likely to attract at most around a fifth of voters.

    Hmmm – could this possibly have anything to do with the fact that our support flatlines even as the ugly sisters take turns to trash the place yet both remain electorally far stronger.

  • There’s nothing unusual about the idea that an increase in the amount of time politicians spend listening to the general public can correlate with the decline of public membership of political parties. In the past, joining the party might have been the only way of getting influence, which is not the case when just about anyone can walk into a surgery and receive the attention of their MP or councillor. Why bother with political membership when it confers no real advantage in getting things done? This is reinforced by the general decline in influence that party members have over their parties (even in the Lib Dems who are mostly an honourable exception to this trend) and the rise of alternative centres of influence, mostly the media but possibly even the blogosphere (I’d bet that there’s a sizable contingent of Lib Dem blogosphere regulars who aren’t actually paid-up members of the party, because there’s not really much reason for them to be).

    Simon is generally right though. Listening is overrated; most people want to know that their politicians understand the problems that they face and then propose solutions. This requires a certain amount of listening to begin with, but if you’ve had people’s problems staring you in the face for years and you’re still trying to figure out what the problems are then you start to look a little bit dense – particularly at times like these when there’s a fairly obvious national problem to be confronted. You shouldn’t need telling about that. I’m not sure that ‘moral leadership’ is necessarily the right way to go, as I’d prefer politicians to be advocates rather than leaders, but that’s a hair-splitting distinction when I otherwise agree entirely.

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