If you can’t inspire them, bribe them
In offering iPods to people who vote, the New Labour government is taking its cue from the Fidel Castro School of Public Engagement.
When I lived in Havana, Cuba, during the economic crisis of the early 1990s, there was often a flurry of excitement when a political rally was announced.
On one occasion, we traipsed to the Malecón to hear Fidel Castro himself address the crowds. After his interminably long drone about US imperialism and the strength of the Cuban revolution – which most of the tens of thousands of attendees seemed to find dull – Castro stopped speaking, and it finally became clear why so many people showed up: out came the tanker trucks full of beer and the food stalls dishing out free hamburgers, croquettes and fried fish.
Such were the cynical ploys of an ageing and lacklustre ruler: if you can’t inspire the people with political arguments, bribe them with burgers instead. Now, reading the latest White Paper on local democracy from the British government, one could be forgiven for thinking that Hazel Blears, secretary of state for communities and local government, has been studying at the Fidel Castro School of Public Engagement.
Presented to the UK parliament last Wednesday, Communities in Control: Real People, Real Power, comes across more like the Frequently Asked Questions section of an iPod user guide than a serious proposal to reinvigorate popular sovereignty. Chapter two is titled: ‘How can I be an active citizen and volunteer?’ Other chapters answer questions such as ‘How can I find out information in a way I understand and can use?’, ‘How do I have my say and influence the decisions being made on my behalf?’, and ‘How can my friends, neighbours and I own and run local services ourselves?’
The comparison with an iPod user guide becomes even more appropriate when you get to Chapter 4, which tackles the question of how to challenge voter apathy. It is proposed that local councils should run ‘information campaigns to explain the processes and implications of voting’ and ‘schemes which recognise people who have turned out on polling day, for example every voter getting an “I’ve Voted” sticker at the ballot box’, and that local authorities should have ‘the power to provide incentives for voting in local government elections, for example by entering voters into a prize draw’ (1). Yes, citizen-cum-consumer, vote in the local election and YOU could be in with a chance of winning an iPod!
Giving ‘incentives for voting in local elections’ – didn’t we used to call that bribery? ‘Voters to get iPod “bribe” to beat local election apathy’, said a headline in The Times (London) (2). However, the proposal is not just ‘daft’, as the political commentator Peter Riddell said (3). It is a quite serious proposal, which is entirely in keeping with the government’s raft of initiatives to increase voter turnout and popular political engagement. It also provides a striking insight into how the political elite has come to view the democratic process, and us, the demos.
Firstly, a key argument of the new White Paper is that if the public is uninspired, then it must be because the practice of voting is too dull and boring. The paper explains: ‘Voting incentives should not be construed as “paying for votes” or create a major new financial burden on councils. Instead, they should be viewed as an eye-catching method to increase awareness and engagement, especially with young people who have never voted and who might view the process with suspicion.’ (4)
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Leaving to one side the fact that ‘paying for votes’ is precisely what the White Paper is proposing. The notion that voting itself is too dull, or that people don’t really know how to do it, overlooks the fact that it is a dearth of political ideas that means people are not rushing to the ballot box. Everyone knows how to tick a ballot paper; they know where to do it. But they also feel that there is little worth voting for these days.
The second argument in the White Paper is that if people fail to take part in the political process, it is because they don’t know just how important that process is – in other words, they’re ignorant. This is why the White Paper begins with a potted history of the popular struggles for democracy, from the Putney Debates of 1647 to the Suffragettes at the beginning of the twentieth century. Its message is that people fought and died for the right to vote, and the contemporary public doesn’t even care. Voting is presented as the duty of responsible, aware citizens.
Thirdly, the White Paper gives the distinct impression that people are not participating in politics because they don’t have the necessary information and skills. ‘Lack of basic information about how and where to vote’ and ‘ignorance of the political system’ play a large part in ‘depressing turnout figures’, the paper states. The people, in other words, are ‘ignorant’. The view of people as historically unaware and a bit thick explains the government’s obsession with citizenship education – for children and adults. Indeed, in line with other recent government proposals, the White Paper promises to support programmes to provide even grown-ups with ‘information and training on how to be an active citizen’.
Another problem, apparently, is that people lack the confidence to be political. So the White Paper says government should ‘increase people’s confidence and skills’ (5). There should be more effort to ‘recognise’ people and make them feel valued – which explains why they want to slap a sticker on our chests proclaiming ‘I’ve Voted!’ Being recognised as a good and active citizen, and wearing a badge to demonstrate that fact, will be good for our sense of self-worth, apparently, because ‘evidence shows that those who participate… gain from a sense of achievement, increased confidence, and enhanced skills and self-esteem’ (6).
This is voting as handheld therapy to make us (and politicians) feel better. No one – not the Putney Debaters nor the Suffragettes – put their lives on the line for the right to be patronised madly by an aloof and idea-lite elite. They wanted the right to engage in serious politics on an equal footing, not to have their self-esteem massaged by someone like Hazel Blears or to get an ‘I’m special’ badge for using a biro to tick a box.
All of these new proposals point to a contemptuous view of the electorate. Hazel Blears has for a number of years been at the forefront of an official movement to redefine the meaning of politics. In 2006, in a speech to promote ‘active citizenship’, she argued that ‘the average person has 17 up-to- date memberships’: ‘The fastest expanding membership organisations are online communities, and the average adult belongs to eight. They include video site YouTube, whose worldwide membership has grown from 2.8million to 72million in one year. If we can channel just some of this energy and enthusiasm into local active citizenship, then we can transform our communities.’ (7)
From this viewpoint, engaging in politics is little different to the myriad other distractions and pastimes that we pick from on a daily basis: surfing the internet, playing football, watching TV, going to the pub, shopping. If politics is to compete with all of these daily endeavours, then it must be made to look more like them: it must be less of a burden for people who lead busy lives; it must be more fun for younger adults and people normally turned off by politics; and it must involve giving incentives to people, because casting a ballot is apparently just the same as buying an iPod: a consumer activity.
Communities in Control fundamentally misinterprets why popular engagement is at an historic low. The real problem today is that the politics on offer is largely banal, technical and devoid of ideas that might allow us to make a connection between our interests and our actions in the political sphere. Yet instead of recognising this, and potentially doing something about it, the political establishment simply thinks the general population is too ignorant, too busy or too easily distracted to bother voting. In seeking to entice us with bribes and badges, officials reveal how truly devoid of political ideas or inspiration they are; they don’t give us new ideas or arguments, but cheap gimmicks and prize draws.
James Panton is politics lecturer at St John’s College, Oxford, and co-founder of the pro-human campaigning network, the Manifesto Club.
(1) See Communities in Control
(2) Voters to get iPod ‘bribe’ to beat local election apathy, The Times, 10 July 2008
(3) Good, bad and plain daft ideas of power to people, The Times, 10 July 2008
(4) See Communities in Control
(5) See Communities in Control
(6) See Communities in Control
(7) Hazel Blears, ‘Rewarding Active Citizenship’, Speech to City & Guilds Individual Profile in Active Citizenship Launch event, Monday 11 December 2006