A national 'talk-in' between New Labour and the public will mean that even less of substance is said.
On Friday, the government will begin what has been billed as the ‘biggest talk-in of all time’ – a massive national consultation that over the next few months will canvas the public’s views on key political issues (1).
The national poll is an attempt to bridge the chasm between political leaders and the public – a chasm that has became particularly glaring since the Iraq war. To all intents and purposes, prime minister Tony Blair and his coterie sit in their citadel while the masses go about their business in the fields. Few now believe that parliamentary representatives represent anyone but themselves – any notion that parliament stands for the popular will has vanished.
While a mass public consultation may help to preserve the myth of representative democracy, however, it will further erode its substance. If politicians and the public need special ‘talk-ins’ to connect, this can only drum home the fact that they inhabit separate worlds. More importantly, a consultation of this kind will reinforce political disengagement and passivity. It will favour the vapid ‘listening’ politician rather than the man or woman of conviction. And it replaces the citizen with the survey respondent, who only gives their opinion when asked.
The fact that Blair has launched this consultation is a sign of the New Labour elite’s extreme isolation. In the past parties have launched such exercises at moments of political despair, usually after a severe election battering. After Labour’s 1993 election defeat, Roy Hattersley launched a much-derided ‘Labour listens’ exercise in church halls across the nation. William Hague conducted his £250,000 ‘listening to Britain’ consultation after the Tories’ 1997 defeat. Blair’s consultation will outstrip its forerunners in scope and intent; it will also be the first carried out by a party in power.
The prime minister knows that, while more voters may put a cross by him than by his rivals, this does not equal a popular mandate. There is a widespread perception that Blair is only out for himself – that he and other politicians are illegitimate crooks, who represent no one.
This situation is due to a broader malaise in political life. With the end of the left/right debate over competing visions of society, politics has become reduced to managerial tweaking of the system. Today, all the main parties have marginally different versions of the same dry policies. With no political ideas to trumpet, politicians parade their own personalities, insisting that they are more sincere or trustworthy than the next guy; and the public has turned away from politics in droves.
However, the solution is not for Blair to start wandering around asking people what they think he should do. In his speech to the Labour Party conference, the prime minister promised to ‘listen’ more: ‘I know the old top down approach won’t work any more. I know I can’t say “I am the leader, follow me”.’ (2) As well as overseeing this national consultation, Blair will also apparently start taking more account of cabinet and Parliament.
Politicians have little enough of substance to say for themselves as it is; the last thing we want to hear is them asking what policies they should have. It is not the case that successful political leaders suppress their own convictions and desires in order to represent the public. The most decisive, determined and convinced politicians have had the greatest popular mandate, while the bland, please-everyone types never leave the back benches. The problem with the government’s policies is not that the public wasn’t consulted on them first; it is that they are uninspiring, and not convinced or decisive enough. In the end, ‘listening’ policies such as this national consultation will foster bland leaders, with empty heads and ears cocked to the winds of public opinion.
The national consultation will also help to reinforce current public passivity. It recasts political engagement as something akin to responding to a survey. It is telling that this Friday’s consultation event is advertised in the Guardian as an ‘unmissable opportunity’; to apply for a place, you are asked to ‘send your name, occupation, postal address and telephone number plus one idea, in no more than 200 words, on how you would improve our public services’. We await the ‘give two ideas on how you would create world peace’ consultation, or the request for ‘three ideas on how you would make New Labour more popular’.
Rather than citizens engaged in national debate, consultations address isolated individuals – who, once selected, are invited to suggest one idea or to choose between options A and B. As Guardian columnist Madeline Bunting found out when she received a consultative phone call from a government adviser, there is only a choice within pre-established boundaries. When asked whether to spend money on higher education or the under-fives, she asked why we couldn’t have both, funded by a tax hike: ‘The phone instantly went dead.’ (4) New Labour may be roaming the country to find out What Britain Thinks, but it is doing so very much on its own terms. The man with the clipboard may want your opinion, but he’s the one holding the form that your opinion must fit into.
Also, the government can choose which views to listen to and which to ignore. Chances are that the result of the poll will be something like the government’s opinion at the start, only now this view can be represented under the guise of ‘public opinion’. We have these bogus surveys all of the time – ’80 per cent of Iraqis are glad that the Americans got rid of Saddam’ is not so different from ‘nine out of 10 cats prefer Whiskas’. The public is merely being used as a stage army to parade the opinion of the survey-holders. A consultation essentially means leaders listening as a kind of patrician favour rather than because public opinion is forced upon them – which is not the idea of democracy at all.
A consultation model of engagement leaves us with a much narrower view of political life; political participation becomes little more than individuals saying what they think. Public opinion, in these terms, is somehow the sum of all these survey responses. Politics becomes what a person thinks off the top of their heads in their own sitting room (multiplied by several million). This is a world away from what politics should be – a sphere of public debate, where people come together and discuss what should be done in the world.
(1) Politicians risk biggest talk-in of all time, Guardian, 2 October 2003
(2) Full text: Blair’s conference speech (part 1), Guardian, 30 September 2003
(3) See ‘make yourself heard’ on the public services section of the Guardian website
(4) Citizens or consumers?, Guardian, 24 November 2003
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