Thursday, January 7, 2010

What matters?

I've previously suggested that there's no point campaigning for reform of politics.

In particular, there's no point campaigning to tighten the rules on MPs' expenses. There's no point campaigning to increase openness and enhance accountability. And there's no point campaigning to reform the electoral system.

This is, somewhat perversely, despite the fact that reform is needed, and that proposals for reform need to be discussed. But these are not ultimately issues that will determine votes. I suggested that typical voters see these issues as secondary to their real concerns. And now I want to consider briefly what those real concerns might be.

I also suggested yesterday that political soap opera - the personalities, events, spin, gaffes, gossip, put-downs etc. that have high entertainment factor - might well be a higher factor in deciding the outcome of the election than we might like. Those are not the kind of concerns I'm talking about here. It's the so-called "issues".

No doubt there'll be a swathe of public opinion surveys about the main issues for the general election. However, it seems plausible that generally, the economy will be seen as the main issue, particularly how to safeguard public services and jobs while dealing with the deficit. [1, 2, 3] Immigration seems important to many voters, perhaps to a greater extent than reflected in the agendas of mainstream politicians and commentators. Defence, Europe and climate change are also deciding issues for many. Terrorism, health, education, crime, housing, Iraq, Afghanistan, pensions, MPs expenses, specific taxes, specific scandals, and the like might well crop up in the election campaign as it progresses. However I doubt they'll be deciding issues, except as part of a portfolio case against a particular party, a portfolio in which the economy appears.
Nevertheless, I'm largely with Anatole Kaletsky in The Times, in his argument that...
"... the vast majority of voters do not focus on the minutiae of economic policy debates ... but [on] broader issues of trust, judgment, character and ideology."
In practice, attempts by voters to assess trust, judgment, character and ideology might well make use of motifs from the political soap opera for evidence. Cameron and his bicycle; Brown and his abrupt manner; Clegg and his mythical 30 sexual partners.

Some observers might find this irritating: elections should be decided on more rational grounds than superficial trivia, they might say. But I would suggest that while an examination of the details of policy would be the ideal act of the responsible voter, where there is at least a real concern for the particular problems facing the country rather than solely an obsession with entertainment, this approach to decision-making is at least a start at engagement. Real engagement in the political arguments would of course be better, but even with the best efforts of politicians and journalists, the proportion of the electorate that votes continues to be poor and the basis for decisions unclear.

So I'm suggesting that, in a situation in which a significant part of the electorate continue to fail to engage in the arguments, the political soap opera actually matters, for valid reasons, so long as the voters don't lose sight of the challenges the country faces.

Oh dear. I think I've turned into an apologist for Malcolm Tucker.