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Saturday, May 21, 2005


What the hell is on your mind?

There is a very good article in Spiked (4 May) by Frank Furedi on the extent to which the political classes are out of touch with public opinion. Furedi begins by examining the Tory election slogan.

From a sociological point of view, the Conservative Party's slogan - 'Are you thinking what we're thinking?' - is the most interesting political statement of the British General Election campaign.

... A lot of interaction consists of gestures, hints, intimations and bluffing, especially when we want to establish points of contact and share experiences as much as tell it like it is. Being vague sometimes assists the dynamic of interpersonal relations. However, when this kind of communication is applied to public life, it represents a cry for help. So when the Tories ask 'are you thinking what we're thinking?', what they really want to know is: 'What the hell is on your mind?' The question is posed in a way that suggests the Tories possess a privileged insight into the minds of the British public, but scratch away the thin layer of smugness and all that is left is a group of dazed politicians, genuinely unsure about what they are thinking, never mind us.
Not that the Tories' opponents were any better.

The fact that opponents of the Tories were worried that a wink-and-nod campaign might make a big impact on the public suggests the entire British political class is out of touch. None of the main political parties feels confident that they know what the electorate thinks. A wink and a nod only works when everyone involved has a sense of shared meaning; gestures are effective only as part of a repertoire of taken-for-granted public signals. Only when the meaning of such rituals is understood by all can a casual gesture elicit the same response as a clear and obvious statement.
The lesson we must all take away is the need to establish real political engagement.

Political parties spend millions on deliberative polls, opinion polls and surveys to try to find out what the public thinks. But such effort does little to enhance the oligarchy's understanding of what's in people's minds. Opinion polls provide raw data that can provide some insights but not knowledge about what people are really thinking. That understanding can only come about through systematic interaction with the public. It is political engagement and genuine dialogue, not formal consultation or other artificial deliberations, that put politicians and public figures in touch with the electorate.
Gladstone defined Liberalism as "trust in the people", so we Liberals ought to be better at this sort of thing. Judging by the hysterical claims made last week, however, the Liberal Democrats' present leadership doesn't even trust its party's own members.

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