Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Lib Dems must learn to trust voters

"No entry to the general public": is this attitude the product of
political parties' inability to trust voters?
Whenever a political party finds itself in a self-created crisis, the common diagnosis is that its ills are a product of the public losing trust in that party.  This is true of the Conservatives in the 1990s, of Blair’s Labour Party in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion and the Scottish Liberal Democrats following their electoral annihilation in 2011.

The notion that parties suffer as a direct result of public losing trust in them is a compelling one, not least because it contains a great deal of truth.  But such an analysis is a superficial one that observes the symptom rather than the cause.

The loss of faith in political parties – and in politics itself – is simply a by-product of politicians losing faith in the people they represent.  Party structures are often archaic, products of old ways of thinking, inward-looking and relating only to an ever-decreasing number of party faithful.  If that is what political parties remain, then it is little wonder that people will lose faith in what they offer.

When parties become disconnected with voters, it is because the vital conversations are not happening.  And they don’t happen because, whether they realise it or not, parties don’t trust the public.  At our spring conference, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg suggested that even the party membership could not possibly understand something as complex as the Justice and Security Bill.  This condescending attitude, the assumption that mere voters can elect a government but cannot be trusted to grasp policy detail, is not an uncommon one.  It is further evidenced in Clegg’s dogged defence of coalition, which seems rooted in a fear that the public simply don’t understand what he’d trying to achieve.  He doesn’t trust the public, and so the public don’t trust us.

When politicians don’t trust the public, they become defensive. Very defensive. It’s not an attractive trait in someone elected to serve the public. Generally, it does little to win votes.  Clegg’s refusal to do anything more with the public verdict on his party reflected  in recent elections results other than to “take it on the chin” and stubbornly carry on is further evidence of an unwillingness to listen to and trust the voters’ expressed views, and again does very little to aid his or our party’s appeal.

Political parties must learn to trust, in order to be trusted.  How does this happen? Any political party aspiring to future success needs to think beyond innovative campaigning methods, however useful new approaches to political evangelism might be. Instead, parties need to root themselves in people’s experience, move beyond the tribal political landscape to engage and listen, become a focal point for a vibrant, open, national conversation and be able to bring people together to argue, collaborate and negotiate.

Politics is closed for many.  There is very little public participation.  But as the voluntary sector and pressure organisations such as 38 degrees and Unlock Democracy have shown, this isn’t for lack of interest. What these organisations recognise is the centrality of relationship to conversation.  Political parties, on the other hand, are too focused on delivery. Clegg is particular is keen to play up the role his party have played in “delivering” on various fronts.  All that matters for him is that something measurable occurs which can be claimed as an achievement. That, however, is not how the public work. The public cares little for management speak; nor do they want to be told how much is being done for them, if only they understood.  Instead they prefer approaches that suggest compassion, understanding and empathy. The managerial language itself is a product of a misguided attempt to convince those that don’t trust to do so, without ever showing a willingness to trust what the public are saying.

As a growing number of popular causes demonstrate, the public are not shy about expressing their concerns, fears, aspirations and hopes. This is changing our politics, but perversely many of the newly politicised don’t see conventional party politics as their natural home. The reaction of parties to such groups, especially single issue campaigns, is often one of suspicion – thus reinforcing the mutual inability to trust.

Top-down approaches and obsession with “delivery” is born out of an inability to trust and breeds distrust. This should be the politics of the past, but seems to be very much a feature of coalition thinking.  Not only do parties have to start trusting people, but those people have to feel this to be true.

The instinct to direct, control and lead the conversation speaks of a mindset that cannot trust voters; an imperial mindset that, even in the 21st century, believes that a disconnected cabal knows best.  The desire to control and command does not lend itself to trust others, or indeed to being trusted.  Neither do such inclinations do much for furthering positive relationships, whose centrality and importance to fulfilled living is self-evident.

A political party that trusts the public will not only listen but be receptive.  It will seek to empower rather than control. Its identity will stem from experience of engaging with voters, rather than vice versa. It will promote relationship above delivery; working with people rather than for them.  Such relationships will inevitably be challenging but they will also be supportive.

In the 1980s, the SDP realised this.  The SDP trusted people, perhaps insufficiently – but they were quick to style themselves as an alternative to the politics based on mistrust of “ordinary” people. The SDP failed to break the allegorical mould either electorally or culturally, but a new approach was pioneered: trusting people to stand up for their own interests.  Perhaps the sad demise of the SDP is one reason why trusting voters didn’t catch on – it seemed there was little electoral advantage to be gained from it.

The SDP (and, for that matter, their Alliance partners) knew that voters respond more positively to discussion about the kind of society we want to create rather than precise policy details and programmes for government.  They dared to suggest that people were more important than manifestos and political institutions – something also identified by Alex Salmond’s SNP who were elected to majority government in 2011 in spite of, rather than because of, their key political objective.

Why should politicians trust voters?  Firstly, because they need to abandon the false belief that it is politicians, and political parties, that wield power – a belief that undermines plurality and democratic values. This notion is in any case faintly ridiculous today, not least in the aftermath of a global recession. Secondly, when all of today’s political parties all have a problem with diversity and rapidly shrinking memberships, trusting voters and daring to engage positively with them will bring much needed vitality and freshness into the political sphere.  And thirdly, because if parties refuse to change they will inevitably die.

Labour mistakenly placed its trust in PR consultants, managers and professional politicians.  For all the talk of “the Big Society”, the Conservatives show no willingness to do things very differently.  The Liberal Democrats (largely in order to play up our achievements in – and the benefits of – coalition government)  are focused on “delivery”, lacking the insight to recognise that the attitudes at the heart of this emphasis are entirely at odds with their claimed ethos of empowering society.

A parent or teacher hopes that they can, via their efforts, help a child to fulfil his or her potential.  They place trust in the child. It is through such relationships that the child in turn learns to trust.  This is a simple metaphor but it applies to modern politics.  A politics that is above this reality of human relationship and interaction does not deserve to survive. As the desire for love is everywhere, so is that for democracy – even those cynical about politics support democracy. That democracy must be deepened rather than demeaned, expanded rather than diminished as people are enabled to positively impact the world in which they live.

That is the reality, and it is one central to party development. People treated as strangers and outsiders are not trusted, and thus it is no surprise when they don’t trust in return. Learning to trust could be, for the Liberal Democrats, the key to a revival in electoral fortunes.  But electoral good fortune cannot be an end in itself.  Trevor Jones famously told Liberal Assembly “I love those votes!” but times have moved on and we must be far more focused on the voter than the vote. Real pluralism demands quality conversation between political parties and the public – with support groups, charities, trade unions, service users and non-partisan political groups.

Political conversation in recent decades has essentially been a matter of politicians presenting their pre-conceived schemes to the public and asking for their approval. That arrangement is no longer fit for purpose.  Our political parties must learn to lead democratic conversations, trusting the public to do what politicians themselves do: talk, debate, argue, negotiate, find solutions, work together, look forward, consider options and make plans.

We have to again learn to trust to the voting public rather than ourselves.  This is more than a listening exercise, and represents both the product and pre-requisite of strong democracy. This will be neither easy nor comfortable but the inescapable reality is that, whether we trust the verdict of the electorate or not, it will have its say in 2015.  If we can demonstrate that we trust them to make decisions, the understand what is best for them and their communities,to identify how we can do things better then there could be more reason for hope in the future than many commentators or political observers imagine.

Trusting is never easy but, if our democracy is not only to survive but be strengthened and revitalised, it is essential.  Are the Liberal Democrats up to the challenge?


Anonymous said...

It is difficult to discern what it is that you are actually proposing to do here. What exactly do you mean by learning to trust the voters.

Do you mean government by plebiscite?

Do you mean governing by focus group and opinion poll as was the mark of much of Blair's Labour government? They won 3 elections so perhaps that was successful to a point but to what end?

What if the voters are saying something profoundly illiberal such as "Bring back hanging.", "We don't want any [insert minority group of your choice here] in our community." or "Criminalise homosexuality" , do you still trust them then? Are you suggesting Liberal Democrats should not trust their own values and instead have truck with such views in the name of democracy?

Your ideas seem a bit too apple pie and not fully developed enough to represent a practical way forward yet. I look forward to reading future articles refining these ideas further.

Andrew said...

No, I'm suggesting nothing of the sort.

I certainly don't believe in government by referendum or plebiscite, as dealt with elsewhere on here.

What I do advocate is a way of thinking. That is we trust people, not necessarily accept their views. As you rightly say, there are many who hold distinctly illiberal views and plainly stupid ones. But these people's experiences and humanity should be trusted; we can't afford to be afraid of them, disassociate ourselves from them or consider them in some way beneath us because they've arrived at different conclusions to our own.

I was referring to trusting people rather than values. It is through trusting people, and via their recognition of it, that we can change their values.

I am not remotely suggesting that the public should have any final say on policy, but that by opening ourselves up to them, but trusting them to come forward with ideas, allowing them to inform our thinking, we can be better equipped to make decisions. I want a different method of consultation that the current "this is our policy, what do you think" and a move towards, "OK, we'll take on board what you say and let it inform our decision making process." We still lead the conversation, but it is a real conversation - one that is open and two-way. The final decisions remain with the party.

I will happily discuss this further and hope also to expand on the initial prescription in the near future!