Daily Archives: 7 May 2008

Does religion really battle apathy?

I posted this response to Martin Turner’s Lib Dem Voice article Apathy in the UK on the comments but I’m keen to see a response so I’m cross posting it here:

What he talked about was why he was backing religion in general (Greenbelt is a Christian arts festival), because it was a bulwark against the single most destructive thing in society: cynicism and apathy.

Really? Got any evidence for that? Or is it just based on “faith”?

The New Scientist has recently published a collection of 24 “Evolution Myths” one of the ones it debunks is that “Accepting evolution undermines morality” and in so doing it cites a recent study which demonstrates that most secular societies have lower rates of murders, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancies, etc. (pdf).

I’m willing to add another for further investigation: secular societies in general have higher turnouts than religious ones. Contrast the US (turnout: 47.5% in 2006) and Iran (turnout: 59.8% in 2005) with the Netherlands (80.4% in 2006) and Denmark (86.6% in 2007). (source: International IDEA)

I’m not claiming that religion is a cause of apathy, but I am certainly arguing that to claim the opposite is crass and without foundation. Some would even go so far as to say that to make such claims is an act of cynicism. Physician, heal thyself.

Another point I could make: religion is most active in London in the East, where the Christian People’s Alliance and TELCO are active, yet turnout there is lower than anywhere else in the city. Turnout in City & East constituency also increased less this year than the London-wide average (6.4% against 8.4%). Again, I’m not claiming religion is a cause of apathy, but where is the proof it is the cure?

Random points about the London elections

I have a few things to get off my chest regarding the London elections and so I thought I would include them as a miscellenia rather than write seperate blog posts about them.

Bozza and the bloke factor

One thing that continues to perturb me is the rapid rewriting of history from the side of the Conservatives. Specifically, they have gone from fielding a candidate who was clearly selected because of his celebrity cache to insisting (now he has won) that his main appeal to the general public was his policy agenda.

Pish, and indeed, posh. It wasn’t that Boris didn’t have policy – I actually quite liked much of his housing policy for instance (well, the bits they’d nicked off the Lib Dems anyway) – but the average member of the public would do well to remember anything more than the fact that he doesn’t like bendy buses. There was a big emphasis on crime and numerous specifics, but the main tactic there was to deny Paddick his USP (and it worked superbly).

I’ve already mentioned how the number of people saying they’d vote Boris for a “laugh” on Twitter outnumbered the more contemplative souls by something like 4-to-1. Twitterers are not exactly the most representative sample however. So if that doesn’t convince you, I would refer you to the Political Brain by Drew Westen (also namechecked by Martin Turner on Lib Dem Voice today I notice). To horrendously summarise this book, it suggests that what people vote for is not policy but who they make the best emotional connection to. Crudely, they vote for the bloke they would most like to have a pint with. That’s why George W. Bush did so well despite having anything resembling intelligence. It’s why people continue to remind the Lib Dems what a desperate mistake they made getting rid of Charles Kennedy, despite the fact that his shortcomings had become quite insurmountably by the time we did. It’s why Ken Livingstone won in 2000 and it’s why Boris beat him last week.

There’s no shame in that fact. But let’s be honest about it, eh chaps?

The Evening Standard Factor

Again, I’ve already briefly touched on this. In my view, the Standard’s coverage was less problematic than the Metro’s lack of coverage and as I suggested earlier, that was clearly a deliberate ploy of the Rothermere Press’s, taking into account the two paper’s differing demographics.

Listening to Andrew Gilligan’s endless bleating about how his was scrupulously balanced and committed to the facts though is hard to take, especially since I spent an hour on the phone with him two weeks ago being accused of being a Livingstone stooge just for attempting to produce an impartial tool for the elections (an accusation that ended up going nowhere). He might be scrupulous with the facts, but he was driven by a very clear agenda. And you can assemble a bunch of uncontestable facts in any order to make a case that a specific individual is a saint or a sinner.

To be fair on the Standard, having read it more than usually over the past couple of months I can attest that it did indeed contain numerous pro-Ken articles to balance out the negative ones. But the paper itself has a very clear demographic and very few people will be swayed by it one way or another. What the Standard does have at its disposal more than any other paper in London, is the capacity to circulate thousands of posters on a daily basis. The posters, clearly visible on pretty much every single street corner in the capital, were unrelentingly negative about Livingstone. They knew it, just as they knew that no amount of balancing articles in the paper itself would make a blind bit of difference.

And Gilligan knows perfectly well that it was his scrupulously researched articles that resulted in those lurid headlines. Again, I don’t particularly begrudge him, or his newspaper, for doing this. Long live our free press, even if it is a worry that London can’t sustain a second paid-for daily. But let’s have a bit of honesty.

How Labour Blew It

Oh let me count the ways. The major factors have already been covered ad nauseum: the cronyism scandals, the familiarity (read: contempt) of Livingstone himself, the walking disaster that is Gordon Brown. But for me there are at least two other factors which backfired on Labour spectacularly.

The first one was to frame the debate as Livingstone vs. Johnson at such an early stage. I commented on my frustration over this earlier in the year and there’s no question it made Paddick’s job harder. The point I’m making here though is different: it also made Livingstone’s job harder.

I can understand the logic behind it: the idea was that by forcing people to focus relentlessly on Johnson, his flaws would be exposed for all to see and he would collapse in a blond heap of crikeyness. The problem with that stratagem is that it assumed that Johnson would be allowed to do that, either by his own party or by a media that was spoiling for a big personality-fueled two-way contest.

What Livingstone and his supporters should have been doing as an alternative is to insist that the field was open; to talk up the chances not just of the Greens and Lib Dems but specifically of One London. Livingstone should have been insisting that all debates include all the main party contenders based on which parties were represented on the Assembly and done all he could to keep Damian Hockney in the race.

Why? Because if there had been a contender on the right with some credibility, it would have dented Johnson’s popularity. If Hockney had stayed in the race, Livingstone could have kept suggesting in debates that he was where all rightwingers’ votes should go. And Hockney, with his opposition to the Congestion Charge, support of Heathrow Airport and scepticism about multiculturalism would have been able to articulate what a lot of Johnson’s core support actually happen to believe.

A side effect of this also would have been to present potential BNP supporters with a more mainstream party to vote for, which may have kept Barnbrook out of the Assembly. This brings me to screw up Number Two: taking Boris too seriously.

To be fair, the Livingstone campaign team seemed to consistently understand the problems with presenting Johnson as a racist, homophobic snob – even if their candidate kept lapsing into this rhetoric from time to time. But they really failed to get their supporters to rein it in. The StopBoris website was a perfect example of this, as was Zoe Williams’ silly article on election day.

There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, it is simply logically implausible to expect people to regard Boris as a buffoon while taking every single word of his deadly seriously. It can’t be done and people already tempted by Boris will simply stare at you as if you don’t have a sense of humour. Johnson is a polemicist and raconteur. His articles are provocative. The right approach is to take his buffoonery head on and to suggest to people that it would be a bad idea to elect a clown as mayor. Whenever Labour stayed on message, they made progress against Johnson. Whenever they went into PC mode, they lost support.

The second problem was that it sent out the message that it is possible for a mainstream political candidate in the UK to be an appalling racist and homophobic bigot and still have a chance of winning the top prizes. Once again, I can’t help but wonder to what extent this helped the BNP who of course were only too happy to associate themselves with Johnson.

You would have thought that Labour would have learned the lesson about the limits of demonising your political opponents 12 years ago. Clearly not.