It is a problem not unique to the Liberal Democrats. My thanks to Nick Barlow, who recommends a recent blog post by Jon Worth titled “Behaving in politics as if we were normal people”, and to Jon Worth in turn for recommending a post by Mary Kaldor on the ‘subterranean politics’ of various new grassroots movements throughout Europe.
Jon Worth considers why we don’t behave in politics like we do in real life. He gives the example of the Labour Party adopting the ‘one nation’ message last year and how it rapidly became an unthinking mantra:
I have no idea how the mantra came into being. But now everyone follows it, shadow cabinet members and think tank wonks repeat it, and it has become party line. That process is not normal, it is not healthy. It is not practicing the kind of politics the participants imagine. Try changing the mission statement of a large corporation so abruptly and there would be harsh counter-reactions among the employees. In Labour there is slavish, flaccid loyalty among the devotees (at least in public), and a shrug from the 99.5% of the UK population that are not party members.
The problem is that being in a party for a decade squeezes the life, the straightforward honesty, the originality out of people. It is not that party people become dishonest per se, but more that the spontaneity, the vitality is drained from them. They will Google themselves compulsively to check how they are being perceived, rather than using the net to really make political change happen. They will use social networks to repeat the leadership’s line and show how diligent they are on #LabourDoorstep, rather than building networks beyond the party.Mary Kaldor, meanwhile, points out how participants in the current wave of street protests throughout Europe “cite concern with the failures of democracy as the reason for engagement and protest rather than austerity per se”. Behind these protests is a widespread frustration with political elites and the lack of participation.
What is turning people off conventional politics? In 2006, the Rowntree-funded Power Inquiry (full report here and executive summary here) investigated popular disengagement from formal democratic politics in Britain. Two of the most important reasons for disengagement are that “citizens do not feel that the processes of formal democracy offer them enough influence over political decisions – this includes party members who feel they have no say in policy-making and are increasingly disaffected”; and that “the main political parties are widely perceived to be too similar and lacking in principle”.
Underlying these factors is the shift from an industrial to a post-industrial economy, which has created “a large section of British society which is now better educated, more affluent, expects greater control and choice over many aspects of life, feels no deference towards those in positions of authority, and is not as bound by the traditional bonds of place, class and institution that developed during the industrial era.”
The Power Inquiry concluded that political parties have failed to adapt to this profound social change:
The response of the political system to post-industrialism and to political disengagement has been either technocratic or self-interested in the sense that the parties have adapted their policies and campaigning simply to win elections. The political strategy of “triangulation”, for example, is democracy by numbers. It is a mathematical equation that secures power but in the end drives down people’s desire to be politically engaged. It hollows out democracy because it inevitably means by-passing party members who want debate and neglects the democratic channels of engagement which might get in the way of the strategy.The people responsible for the Liberal Democrats’ ‘message script’ appear to have ignored these lessons entirely. The problem with their script is not merely the empty rhetoric of the messages themselves but also the underlying premise that voters will be impressed by a Leninist-style party line. The insistence on party mantras is intended to convey a sense of coherence but it is counter-productive because it serves only to confirm the sceptical views of people who feel alienated by the whole political process. Even if some of the messages had any merit, it would be immaterial; the whole tone puts people off because it sounds insincere and makes politicians who talk in this contrived manner seem abnormal.
As the Power Inquiry pointed out, increasing numbers of people feel no deference towards those in positions of authority. But the repetition of mantras makes this worse. It makes politicians sound slavishly loyal, calculating and synthetic, and creates the impression that political parties do not tolerate debate or dissent.
As Power also pointed out, “the main political parties are widely perceived to be too similar and lacking in principle”. Yet mantras fail to differentiate the parties but make them sound the same. Just as most modern cars look the same because rival manufacturers’ wind tunnels produce the same results, so the mainstream parties produce similar messages because they get similar results from their opinion research.
The political system looks dysfunctional to most people because the political elites don’t seem like normal people. Speaking in robotic slogans can only make that worse.