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Saturday, March 26, 2005

 

Ask a silly question...

Telewest has just published an interesting opinion poll on e-voting. Sadly, it consists largely of tendentious questions and helps perpetuate several myths, which the BBC's news report swallowed hook, line and sinker.

The first of these myths is the idea that e-voting is the answer to declining public interest in politics and low turnouts. To entertain this proposition, one has to believe that the 200-yard walk to the local polling station is a serious disincentive to vote. One also has to believe that the use of paper and pencils is another major factor turning off voters.

E-voting is an answer in search of a question. It is a technological solution, but popular disengagement from politics is not a technological problem. Further, we are learning the hard way that the indiscriminate extension of postal voting causes a catalogue of corruption. E-voting is likewise wide open to abuse. Despite this, there is even an absurd suggestion that people should be allowed to vote via their mobile phones.

The second myth is that politicians are 'out of touch'. This is a widely-held assumption that does not bear close scrutiny. Never in our political history have politicians been more in touch. I am old enough to remember the era thirty or forty years ago, when most Labour and Tory MPs represented safe seats and many of them rarely even visited their constituencies. Few held surgeries and the idea of doing 'casework' would have seemed ludicrous. E-mail and local radio did not exist, and campaigning took place only at election times.

Nowadays, the average MP works a 70-80 hour week. Most MPs hold regular surgeries and manage a mountain of casework. They appear frequently in the local media (of which there are many more outlets). They have websites and e-mail, and distribute leaflets all year round. Yet there is a perceived 'communication gap'. Clearly the problem is far deeper than MPs' use of e-mail.

The third myth is that disillusionment with politicians is a new problem. As I reported in a
posting last month,

In August 1944, after five years of the Second World War and on the verge of final victory, 35% of people told Gallup they thought politicians were just out for themselves.
So what is really going on? Why is there a perception that politicians are 'out of touch' when they are actually more accessible than ever before? Why do people relate less to democratic politics and what is the underlying cause of this recent phase of disengagement?

The answer is fundamental social change. In an
academic paper published two years ago, I suggested this explanation:

The most profound social change to occur in the past half century in Western societies has been a transformation in the way people perceive themselves. Until the 1960s, most people had their identities given to them by the traditional groups to which they belonged (family, geographical community, social class or church). Today, most people create their own identities and select their own peer groups. This individualism has been brought about by a combination of affluence, education, secularisation, technological advance and sexual liberation, which has released the majority of people from lives that are circumscribed by day-to-day subsistence and group dogma, and has popularised the concept of lifestyle choice.

... the process of individual liberation has proved something of a double-edged sword, because, although it has enabled most people in Western societies to lead easier and more pleasant lives, it has also led people to forsake social cohesion for material individualism, and deferred pleasure for instant gratification.

When it comes to electoral behaviour, therefore, one can observe a concomitant shift from deferential/group attitudes to more assertive individualistic postures, with a growth in an infantile expectation of immediate gratification. The inability of politicians to satisfy these self-centred wants is at the root of popular dissatisfaction with the whole democratic process.
This is why we have moved from party-based politics to issue-based politics. It is good news for pressure groups but bad news for political parties. It explains why none of our political parties can now be considered a genuine popular mass movement, the way they were until the 1970s.

We are confronting a profound social shift. Whatever the answer is, it is not e-mail, e-voting or any other technological gimmick.

Comments:
Quite agree. What I think is especially interesting is that society is simultaneously adopting a 'pick-and-mix' approach to issues undefined by class, religion or political party; while also looking for a 'big picture' moral approach to issues - hence President Bush's gay marriage sledghammer and Mr Howard's abortion dog-whistle. The challenge for political parties now is *not* to try a 'dutch auction' of higher/lower taxes/spending promises, but to demonstrate how they will lead the country along the right-track.

I've posted on this at http://www.stephentall.org.uk/articles/27.html

cheers, stephen
 
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