Getting it backwards

A glaring bit of nonsense in an otherwise sensible article by Simon Jenkins today:

One of many reasons for not subsidising national parties is that it will further encourage them to ignore the public and live in the lap of the national press.

I note that he says ‘national parties’ specifically and not ‘political parties’ more generally (i.e. he seems to accept a different case can be made for local politics). But leaving that aside for one minute, and the ongoing argument that it depends on what kind of ‘subsidy’ you’re talking about (giving political parties money every time it engages with a member of the public would surely encourage it to engage with as many people as possible), this is illogical in the extreme.

The tabloid press exists because it flatters the prejudices of the general public. It is very much ‘in tune’ with the public. Therefore, if political parties were thrown into their arms, far from ignoring the electorate, they would be indulging it.

It’s a common fallacy to assume that something that you think is common sense is a view shared by the majority, and that the only reason it isn’t public policy is because politicians are wicked or ‘out of touch’. You here it all the time from environmentalists, constitutional reformers and teenagers (all three of whom I’ve spent most of my political career hanging out with).

The problem with our political system is not that the majority of the public don’t get the majority of what they want most of the time – they do. The real problem is that the system doesn’t allow for minority or dissenting views to be heard with any real force. A society which lacks meaningful self-criticism finds the process of change extremely difficult, even when it is neccessary. As such, we are beginning to resemble more of a closed society than an open one.

Democracy, for me, is about more than the majority getting its own way: that’s mob rule. Democracy has to be about deliberation and hearing all sides of the argument before rushing to conclusions. Our great challenge is introducing systems – and a civic culture – that enable that to happen.


  1. I’m not sure if the majority do get what they want most of the time. It seems the British have a very limited choice in our democracy due to our largely two party system. Did we get a choice on going to Iraq? Do we get a choice on having a monarchy to rule us? Did we get a choice on European integration over the last 30 years? As I understand it – only 22% of the electorate voted for Labour – so the majority didn’t get a say who runs our country. No wonder support for political parties is declining. Why should the public pay for political parties? I certainly don’t want anymore of my money going towards Labour, the Tories, UKIP, BNP etc.

  2. Iraq being an exceptional case in which public opinion has veered wildly over the last four years, in the case of the monarchy, the majority of the public has consistently supported it. In the case of the EU, it is an issue that the British public has consistantly demonstrated that it doesn’t really care either way over.

    I’m not denying that the two-party system reduces choice. I’m in favour of both PR and some form of citizens’ initiative. But I’m not deluding myself that a lot of the issues that I care passionately about are out of kilter with public opinion. Under our existing system, it is a simple fact that if enough people feel strongly about an issue, Parliament and government will take action. The problem is that it is an extremely blunt instrument, not that it doesn’t work at all.

  3. James – my point is that most people are apathetic towards politics mainly because they feel politicians don’t listen to them. And this is mainly due to the 2 party system. What currently happens is that political parties make grand manifestos every General Elections littered with vague promises which they will probably go on to ignore if they so wish. Those who do bother to vote have a limited choice of probably only 2 candidates who policies may be from parties which aren’t actually aren’t too dissimilar. It seems the main way that actual issues from the public addressed (and hugely distorted) is by tabloid headlines which might prompt the government to take action. Not really effective nor democratic.

    Iraq has always been divisive and we can only go by polls as to what a small section of the public believe. However I believe it is true that a substantial proportion of the public (at times over 50%) is against the war. So politics failed there when both main parties (and the LibDems weren’t firm enough when the leadership was against the war but wanted to ‘support the troops’) supported an illegal war where hundreds of thousands of people died. I realise that most people probably want to keep the monarchy but they should be asked. That is democracy. Not assuming people are happy with the status quo based on polls and comments. When referendums happen then people hear the debate and start to think and get involved. I expect most people don’t care about anything political much but those that do – Europe is a hot subject – but unlike other countries like France who have had several referendums on different treaties – we haven’t had any since joining the EEC.

    I believe there is an issue with proper representation of minority views but I don’t accept that currently the majority view is particularly taken properly into consideration. We have a significant democratic deficit which desperately needs changing.

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