Two MPs’ Views on Public Political Engagement

This post is a complement to one that I wrote to report the launch of the Hansard Society 2015 Audit of Political Engagement. There were two MPs at the event to respond to the findings of the Audit and, after making many and varied points and sharing some (often very funny) anecdotes and quips, they took nicely distinct positions. I’m not going to name them or their parties because I’m more interested in the ideas that they presented than in the individuals themselves (engaging though they were).

The first MP’s response to the Audit can be pretty much summarised as ‘the public are a confusing and contradictory lot.’ I find this sort of sentiment frustrating because it suggests judgement of the public by a politician and because it seems to expect the public to coordinate their opinions so that they are more easily interpretable, rather than expecting politicians to think about the possible reasons for superficially contradictory opinion. Further, I don’t think that the public are necessarily any more confusing and contradictory than any other big group of people (be they MPs, party activists, or another group) who are confronted with complex topics on which they are expected to have an opinion. I have written on this more extensively in relation to vote choice elsewhere, but it seems clear to me that there could be many factors affecting the positions that people take on politics at any given time. More importantly, the examples cited by the MP were not, to my mind, necessarily contradictory.

To take a specific case, it was observed that 75% percent of respondents to the Audit think that referendums should be used for important decisions, but only 59% report that they are certain to vote in the EU referendum. This was taken as a contradiction but it isn’t. It’s perfectly possible to think that referendums in general are a good thing but to accept that circumstances might stop you voting in a particular referendum. Further, it’s perfectly reasonable for members of the public to indicate their uncertainty on a complex topic like, say, the EU by stating that they aren’t sure to vote on that topic. If someone doesn’t feel sure that they understand an issue should they be expected to vote on it because they think voting is a worthwhile thing? I don’t think so and, in fact, I think that the logical corollary of the right to vote is the right not to vote, for instance if you are uncertain.

Similarly, the MP suggested that the public is ‘schizophrenic’ about Prime Minister’s Questions because it is the event for which most people want tickets and yet polls consistently show a majority who disapprove of the conduct and manner of debate there. Of course, it’s not difficult to see that this isn’t a contradiction; a majority of the public can disapprove of something but that leaves a (potentially sizeable) minority who approve of it. In other words, it’s perfectly possible that all those people who want tickets to Prime Minister’s Questions are members of the public who approve of how it currently works. Or alternatively, because it’s probably the most prominent example of parliamentary debate in the UK it’s also possible that people know about it and thus apply to see it when they want to see Parliament in action. There may be other explanations but the key point here is that it’s not necessary to think that the public are confusing and contradictory. Indeed, as I noted when I wrote about the range of motives for voting for candidates, when politicians dismiss political behaviour that doesn’t make sense to them it demonstrates a lack of willingness to think about why the public might be behaving that way.

Much more positively, the second MP who responded to the Audit showed a greater willingness to accept the idea that it’s easy for politicians to become disconnected from members of the public. This was a nice counterbalance to the first MP’s view in the sense that it acknowledges that MPs have some responsibility to engage with, and understand, the public. Indeed, the second MP gave a fascinating and vivid example of how the actions of politicians can dampen public engagement. Citing the hypothetical example of a leisure centre being built, they noted how a local MP would be sure to get their picture taken at the opening and claim credit for getting it built. In fact, such projects are usually the results of a whole host of actors coming together. Members of the public might make comments to councillors, who could then start raising the issue with the officers at the council, who may then note that the area is affected by problems relating to lack of exercise, resulting in a proposal for a leisure centre. The local MP will probably only get involved in the process towards the end, and even then is only likely to intervene by offering support for an existing plan. Thus, for the MP to take credit for the leisure centre is inaccurate and, crucially, removes agency from all the other people, including local residents, who contributed to the process.

The second MP also went on to say that the public wants MPs to get on with doing things for the country rather than be seen to do things for their own benefit. Indeed, it was noted that when people say ‘you’re all the same’ about politicians it may well be an observation that they’re not seen to care about ‘normal people’. This was a polite rebuttal to the first MP’s observation that there is a contradiction between the public wanting MPs to work together but also to have distinct positions. This may be a difficult balance to achieve but I think it’s a lot easier to move towards it if you make the effort to understand and interpret what members of the public say rather than dismissing their opinions. Thus, again, I had a lot for sympathy for the second MP’s position, and was pleased to see such obvious efforts to understand some of the reasons for the opinions that members of the public express. Crucially, whilst I disagreed with the first MP it was great to have two such distinct positions expressed in the same space so that they brought each other into contrast. Thus, I thought the Hansard Society did a good job of complementing their presentation of the 2015 Audit of Political Engagement with some lively, if indirect, political debate.

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