I keep hearing from my local representatives that they simply do what the people want. I asked them, how they know what people want? The councillors reply “we speak to them and have surveys”. I ask: who to you speak to, and how many responses do you get to your surveys?
The answers to these questions will be known to most of us campaigning folks. Local politicians see their ward meetings as representative of the ward demographics, door knocking counts as getting feedback and surveys often have a couple of dozen people responding.
It is easy to see that the politicians’ sample is not representative for the wider population. Meetings are set at times where men attend rather than women. Meetings are often a grumbling forum for many older people, some can be serial complainants about singular issues. The doorstop is a self-selected sample. And a sample size of 40 tells us diddly about the will of the people.
I know of dozens of people who have written to my councillors, as I have too. But these voices have been conveniently and totally ignored by the representatives.
2: Political leadership
But it’s not just about what people want. Yes, we are fickle. Declaring to know the “will of the people” must strike most of us as a pure guessing game. There is a worrying and tragic trend of political inadequacies playing out here. Naturally we have individual and collective problems, and a natural tension between these two categories. Look at sociology, political sciences and psychology and you will very quickly know that people are concerned about the Here and Now, rather than the There and Tomorrow. Immediacy is the people’s game. Pet peeves may get an airing. This is why we have the political system in the first place: to bundle the concerns, check against the There and Tomorrow: and see the collective gains and losses.
Locally in Gosforth East (Newcastle ward) however, only little things get discussed. It makes for a depressive atmosphere. The big things (future, economic health, collective concerns) do not feature in the councillors’ arsenal. They have thrown away their most powerful tool, a platform for their ideology, and now only pander to singular complainants and then continue to pay lipservice to everything and everyone else: “We enact the will of the people!”. And not only that, councillors’ ears are nearly always deaf when it comes to hearing voices others than the ones their own imagination can conjure up. Or they lack the conversational skills to communicate their broader direction, but I doubt that.
Talking about selective hearing and that broader direction…
What can be done?
I have asked my local authority to give awareness training to councillors about these mental pitfalls, for example confirmation biases. These are things that befall all of us; it is nothing to be ashamed of. No-one is immune, but local leaders should be clued up particularly as they have power in their hands. I can only ask members of the political parties to go back to examine their political roots and rediscover their political ideologies. Lead from the front, get confident and use your platform. Otherwise you will be (over)ruled by the officers. When it comes to transport (my subject) please get wise and engage with interest groups and learn some nitty-gritties, as officers need direction.
The alternative is that politics (as an art) is slowly dying. So much connection with people has been lost already through the selective hearing process, dishonesty of politicians and the socio-engineering that councillors do. Heading further along that path spells out the end of politicians as community leaders. Just being robotic mouthpieces for the status quo – that your (council, political party) policies are mandating to change – surely is not politics.
This post has been inspired by “Policy Paradox – the art of political decision making”, by Deborah Stone, 2002, W. W. Norton and Company