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The lessons of the by-elections

Two countries, four by-elections, and three dissident candidates elected- and with another one only missing out by six hundred odd votes! What’s going on? Whether they live in Clacton or in County Roscommon- there is obviously something that the voters don’t like about the mainstream parties. That much is clear. But what is it? Obviously there are local factors involved. Turf cutting and water charges were not big issues in Clacton. But despite the local variations across the two countries, a pattern can, I think, be discerned.

The mainstream has become bland and uninteresting, and when eloquent as it sometimes can be, it sounds over rehearsed and unengaged? It is as if we are hearing an echo of our voices, and yet at the same time we seem to be hearing whispers from another planet far removed from our concerns. How can this apparent paradox be explained?

The key is surely to be found in the way in which professional polling experts are dominating the language of the larger parties. The root of the trouble is the part played by marketing companies in modern politics. More particularly the blandness of much recent political language can be attributed to the way in which these marketing companies, which are now almost universally employed by politicians, rely for their information on the results of focus groups. The idea, although it isn’t put quite like this,  is the ensure that the politicians do not get too far out of touch with the electorate by sampling what the voters are really thinking. To do this, groups of voters, selected so that they represent the demographic make up of the electorate as a whole,  are carefully interviewed about their concerns. The trouble is though that all the parties are doing same thing. And since all the participants of focus groups are selected by the same criteria, and since they are interviewed by the same sort of people, who have themselves been the subject of the same cultural influences and education, then unsurprisingly the concerns expressed by focus groups all turn out to very much the same. Indeed if it should happen that the result from a focus group were to depart too far from the norm it would be dismissed as a “rogue” and ignored. In short all the parties are getting the same information, and consequently they all start saying much the same thing.

We have here an almost perfect recipe for a political process that has been denuded of content. “They are all the same” or even more pointedly “You’re all the same!” say the voters, and to a great extent they are right!

And then comes along some like Douglas Carswell or Michael Fitzmaurice. And what ( honestly now! ) are the electors supposed to do?- especially in a by- election when they are specifically NOT choosing a government, and when they know full well that they are going to have another vote in few months time. The choice between a human being who has perhaps taken considerable personal risks to be a candidate, and someone whose political persona has been largely moulded by marketing experts is not difficult. And as recent events prove the voters on both sides of the water are increasingly taking the easy option!

As is often the case diagnosis here is relatively easy. But it is more difficult to suggest any possible solutions, especially as to ban marketing techniques from politics would merely drive them underground. Nevertheless my thoughts would be though, that if the mainstream political parties are to flourish once more, they need to:-..

  1. …focus to a far greater extent than they have recently done on political education of the kind- which in living memory- was practiced by The Conservative Political Centre.
  2.  ..develop distinctive political themes…
  3. …which express themselves in policies which embody and popularise these themes- in the way – for example-  in which in the early eighties, the Tory policy of selling council houses made real conservative ideas about a “property owning democracy.”
  4. Moreover the parties need to ensure that the results of such focus groups as are NOT used for formulation of policy, only to help in its presentation.
  5. Those who commission research by marketing companies need to be fully aware not simply of the value of such research; but more crucially of its limitations.
  6. More particularly they need to make certain that such focus groups as are used ( and they should be relatively few), are REALLY  representative of the electorate as a whole. ( I suspect that this is a real weak spot in politically marketing as currently practiced.)
  7. The parties concerned also need to train their own canvassers to listen far more effectively to what the electorate is saying. This would provide them with an additional source of information with which to check the accuracy of what the marketing companies tell them is going on in the focus groups.( They should also remember that the marketing companies have an interest in rubbishing canvassing returns.)
  8. In order to further bridge the gap between politicians and voters, the parties need to make sure that their own governance is as democratic and transparent as possible. The fewer secrets the better in politics. Moreover all political parties should at least consider the introducing open primaries. This is especially particularly important in the case of by- elections.

I do not for a moment suggest that adopting all or  any these proposals will make surprises in by- elections impossible. Orprington man is a remarkably resilient, and now an international a  figure. But unless we take some such steps to revivify our democracy, we may well run greater dangers….as there are ugly people all too keen to take advantage of the frustrations of the electorate with excessively bland politicians