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The confusing nature of public opinion

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It may be a somewhat arbitrary measure, and we couldn’t have done it without the BBC, but yesterday’s RSA fringe meeting at LibDem conference was a mark of great progress. This time last year we held only one fringe meeting and attracted an audience of about 30. This year we are having a meeting at each conference and we started last night with an audience of over 150.

The event discussed the question ‘what do voters want’. An excellent presentation from Bobby Duffy of Mori underlined the confused and confusing nature of public opinion. The facts are surprising, and they got some rueful laughs from a good humoured and feisty audience.

So satisfaction with the NHS is at its highest recorded level, but 56 per cent believe it is in crisis. Or try this one - voters are very worried about climate change with 74 per cent saying we are heading for environmental disaster if we don't change our ways. But then 59 per cent say they themselves are doing nothing about it. People think it's up to government to solve our environmental challenges, but green policies won't actually be the deciding factor when it comes to the ballot box. In fact it won't even be close.

This goes to the heart of a key problem in modern politics. The voters, or more accurately the general unwillingness of politicians to have an honest conversation with voters. As citizens we have insight into the problems are that our society faces but we seem to want to have our cake and eat it. We don't want government to meddle in our affairs, but we want it to protect us from all ills. We want American tax levels but Scandinavian welfare provision.

As we approach an election politicians will be increasingly tempted to pander to rather than confront the public’s contradictory desires, which is why these fringe meetings are timely as well as entertaining.

We are looking forward to the next debates - over the next two Sundays David Miliband and then Oliver Letwin will be giving us their take on what the voters want and what their parties can and should do.

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  • Prompted by your comments at the Fabian Conference on what messages and strategies resonate with voters, I would like to revisit the question on whether public opinion is inherently conflicted and why the public seems not see a problem with insisting on having both: ‘American tax levels and Scandinavian welfare provision’.

    Although I agreed with a lot of the insights expressed by the panel, I was astonished by the framework of the entire debate – the whole discussion was structured around the dichotomy of ‘spinning’ on the one hand, and ‘getting the analysis right’, on the other!

    Whereas descriptively this is no doubt a correct assessment of what actually happens in most campaigns, I do wonder if we should not approach this question normatively, rather than descriptively. That is to say, instead of dwelling on how to strike the right balance between the psychological manipulation of voters on the one hand and the facts on the other, perhaps we should reflect on what an ‘electoral discourse’ ought to be in order to pay the due respect to both the voters and the democratic process. First and foremost, we should reflect on the shocking neglect of standards such as the power of best rational argument and the consistency of one’s values and policies when it comes to determining election outcomes. In other words, we should demand more rational argumentation as the norm of electoral campaigns.

    It seems to me that you might be tempted to make two points in reply:

    a) Firstly, you could rehearse the claim that human behaviour is irrational, and hence, to insist on a rational debate with the public is to miss the point. And yet, here perhaps once again the distinction between descriptive and normative levels could be helpful. That is, although human behaviour can in fact be contradictory, it ought to be driven by rational scrutiny. I realise that this may sound awfully ‘Kantian’ (act on the dictates of reason out of respect for reason, etc.), but I think that what makes this view more plausible is that I’m limiting its scope to the area of politics rather than extending it to the whole spectrum of individuals’ private/emotional/intimate lives. Arguably, appealing to emotions - most certainly appealing to people’s aesthetic sentiments - should not be ok in the political domain.

    b) Secondly, you might want to point out that the idea of unconstrained rational communication and better argument as a driving force of politics is a part of the long discredited ideology of Enlightenment which suffered from a tendency to confuse workable ideas with ideas which could never be put to practice. And indeed, it does seem that the time when it seemed genuinely possible that the ideal of the public sphere - where individuals come together to resolve political disagreements relying on the power of better rational argument – could become a historical reality was short lived. And yet, another idea of Enlightenment which has not been entirely discredited was that of the perfectibility of human kind – that is, people should be properly educated to rise up to the task of being rational.

    Instead of inventing better ways of manipulating an uncritical electorate (which disparages the dignity of both, those who are manipulated and those who manipulate), we should focus on educating people to be citizens. Introducing media literacy in schools could be the very first step. Indeed, the fact that the voters seem to think that it is possible to insist on both ‘American tax levels and Scandinavian welfare provision’ has a lot to do with the persistent undermining of the habits of rational thought perpetrated by the media… and many campaigns strategies. Perhaps making journalists, politicians, and those running political campaigns take political and journalistic equivalents of the Hippocratic oath should be the next step. What do you think?

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