The current state of politics: insipid, not inspiring

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States (Source: Wikimedia)

One film and two essays have come together in my mind recently that have caused me to reflect on the current state of politics.

The film was Best of Enemies, detailing how Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley came to blows throughout the US Convention season in 1968:

It’s noted throughout the film how the Vidal-Buckley debates introduced a new era of public discourse and punditry in politics, the consequences of which – essentially “news” that lacks any explanatory power – we live with today.

This linked in my mind to a case made by Public Policy and the Past that I personally find very persuasive:

Britain’s politics look a lot more sterile, and a great deal less fluid, than they did at the beginning of the year.

To watch BBC Question Time or the Andrew Marr show – both derivatives of what Vidal and Buckley started – you would never draw this conclusion about the state of politics. But yet this appears to be exactly where we are, as Public Policy and the Past sets out in some detail, concluding:

[W]e declared that Britain was entering a political ice age: but we thought that the snow and ice would fall only on the forest canopy. But now it is clear that the frost is penetrating the soil and the roots. It is threatening to kill the entire political ecosystem stone dead for years to come.

The irony is that this sterility is one part of a paradox, though, for:

We live in a time of unprecedented political turbulence – facing the rise of populism, the continuing long-term decline of old political loyalties and a febrile atmosphere of social media shouting-as-comment that undermines any and all alternatives in a welter of cynicism and contestation.

The second essay is a 2012 piece by Walter Russell Mead at The American Interest, titled “The Once and Future Liberalism“.  It is a, long, wonderful, historical view of the 4 flavours of Liberalism there have been since 1688. It’s simply not possible to do it justice through summary, and I commend the whole piece to you. But it’s opening gives a glimpse of the depths it serves:

The gaps between the social system we inhabit and the one we now need are becoming so wide that we can no longer paper over them. But even as the failures of the old system become more inescapable and more damaging, our national discourse remains stuck in a bygone age. The end is here, but we can’t quite take it in.

This is the same point as Public Policy and the Past’s, but writ large so that it isn’t just about politics but about the state and its institutions. Mead concludes:

The success of our institutions and ideas has so changed the world that they don’t work any more. We cannot turn back the clock, nor should we try. [Our] job is to boldly go where none have gone before, not to consume our energies in vain attempts to recreate the glories of an unattainable past. We need to do for our times and circumstances what other[s] have done before us: Recast classic liberal thought… in ways that address the challenges before us…

This should be a time of adventure, innovation and creativity in the building of [a new] liberalism. [We are] ready for an upgrade to a new and higher level; indeed, we are overdue for a project that can capture the best energies of our rising generations, those who will lead the [us] to new and richer ways of living that will make the “advanced” societies of the 20th century look primitive, backward and unfulfilled.

This couldn’t be more true, and yet we’re stuck: whilst there’s seemingly more and more for us to disagree about, exacerbated by a politics-as-entertainment media, the political environment is remarkably and ineffectively stable, whilst the world around us is actually undergoing fundamental shifts.

The current state of politics is insipid, when what we need it to be is inspiring.


Whither Twitter(?)

Some whales never make it back to the ocean: “The Whale Beached between Scheveningen and Katwijk, with Elegant Sightseers,” by the Dutch painter Esaias van de Velde.  (Via The Atlantic and Wikimedia)

A couple of terrific posts about Twitter from the last couple of weeks.

Why Twitter’s dying (and what you can learn from it), by Umairh Haque:

Abuse is killing the social web[.]

The decay of Twitter, by Robinson Meyer:

[O]n Twitter, people say things that they think of as ephemeral and chatty. Their utterances are then treated as unequivocal political statements by people outside the conversation. Because there’s a kind of sensationalistic value in interpreting someone’s chattiness in partisan terms, tweets “are taken up as magnum opi to be leapt upon and eviscerated, not only by ideological opponents or threatened employers but by in-network peers.”

I have certainly felt a lot less love for Twitter over the last 18 months or so. Taking 4-6 weeks out in 2012 or 2013 would never have been something I’d contemplate; now I consider doing it nearly every time I sign in. By using lists far more and reducing who I follow I am trying to protect what Twitter once was, but I don’t think it will be too long until I use it only sparingly.

Twitter might not be dead, but it’s definitely zombie-like.

No news is good

Rolf Dobelli’s essay, “Avoid News: towards a healthy news diet” (pdf), has provided me with the final signing post of a journey I’ve been on for the last few months.

In that time, I found I’d grown tired of most sources of media. Their focus seemed only to be on trivial, untrue or highly creative interpretations of things to do with politics and policy, or fanning the flames of these things with news stories and opinion pieces. I’d also grown increasingly tired with social media, the majority of which was people sharing either trivial, untrue or highly creative interpretations of things relating to politics and policy, or sharing a news story or opinion column that had fanned the flames of their outrage. On top of this, I found myself frustrated with the never-ending wealth of blogs, reports, videos and so on which offered organisation x’s perspective on the latest thing y or z.

I was tired, and yet found it difficult to draw myself away from it. As a result, I wasted huge amounts of time consuming news, social media and what x had to say about y or z.

I was checking all of these things when I didn’t have anything better to do.

Actually, I was checking them when I did have better things to do.

But even with spending so much time consuming, to use Short Circuit’s phrase, input, I was left none the wiser. I felt like I still didn’t understand what was going on. In my mind I couldn’t answer questions such as: why is what’s happening happening? How and why did we get here? Where are we going? Why are we going here and not there? What can the past tell us about why here may be better than there and what we might be able to learn about the options for getting there?

I had reached a dead end. Or, rather, I had so many choices of which direction to go in that I went nowhere.

Dobelli’s essay provided me with some thoughts as to why I was feeling that way. His argument gives 15 reasons on why news is bad for us, including: news systematically misleads us, news limits our understanding, news massively increases cognitive errors and news inhibits thinking.

In what is a forceful argument, the line of argument that particularly resonated with me was:

News has no explanatory power. News items are little bubbles popping on the surface of a deeper world.

Instead, it:

feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don’t really concern our lives and don’t require thinking.

What’s worse, Dobelli notes that as humans we are more inclined to:

swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, like bright-coloured [sweets] for the mind.

As it goes for news, so it goes for social media and all the other brightly-coloured sweets on offer.

To some extent, and with one considerable exception, news, social and other media isn’t at fault; it is simply exploiting pitfalls in our make-up. Dobelli draws a parallel with food that goes beyond just sweets, but his essential argument is that we’re not rational enough to be exposed to the news – a thought that’s entirely reasonable to anyone familiar with Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and the work on heuristics it summarises. What’s worse is that the seeming availability of all this other input doesn’t challenge our thinking. Dobelli quotes Warren Buffet:

What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.

And so we have become, in Dobelli’s words, shallow thinkers; we can’t differentiate between what’s relevant and what’s new.

The considerable exception I note above is that news can and does shape the public agenda. The lament that politics is now about spin and not substance only captures one side of the problem, because:

Journalism shapes a common picture of the world and a common set of narratives for discussing it. It sets the public agenda. Hold on: do we really want news reported to set the public agenda?

It’s this question to which Tony Stoller, in a brilliant lecture for Gresham College, answers with a resounding “no”.

Bringing this all together, it’s no surprise that I was at a dead end. But the question becomes: where do I go from here? At the level of the individual, Dobelli argues we should stop consuming news entirely. Instead we should read books and journals, think and concentrate during uninterrupted time, and “go deep instead of broad”.

These, then, are the things I am doing.

It’s easy to consider this a New Year fad but the timing, I think, is just a coincidence. The process is one that began last year, and is why I refer to Dobelli’s article as the final signing post rather than a first step. In practice, I’m sure it will be harder than I think, and the outcomes of what this means I do do (for example, on social media) and the practicalities of how I’m going about doing it aren’t the point of this post (I may blog on them another time).

The crux is that I’m making a conscious and proactive choice to opt out of the news, social and other media. Instead, I am aiming to pursue the things that interest me and my mind – giving myself chance and space to be curious, to think, to create and to be.

The Bell Curve, Federalist Paper 37, and public debate

Bell Curve - photo from Terry Blake on FlickrIn my work, it is more often than not the case that extreme examples are used – by both sides of an argument – to make the case for a certain policy or perspective.

It’s worse than policy-by-anecdote, and much worse than policy-based evidence.

It’s policy by the extreme ends of the bell curve (or “policy beyond two standard deviations”, if you’re mathematically inclined).

Not only is this frustrating, but it degrades the quality of public debate and the genuinely difficult issues that politics, policy, politicians and our society face. (It also helps sell newspapers, but that’s effect rather than cause.)

I was struck, therefore, by this passage from the Federalist Papers, specifically number 37:

It is a misfortune, inseparable from human affairs, that public measures are rarely investigated with that spirit of moderation which is essential to a just estimate of their real tendency to advance or obstruct the public good; and that this spirit is more apt to be diminished than promoted, by those occasions which require an unusual exercise of it…

[I]t has been too evident from their own publications, that they have scanned the proposed [work], not only with a predisposition to censure, but with a predetermination to condemn; as the language held by others betrays an opposite predetermination or bias[.]

It is right to be passionate about the causes we stand for and the work we do, and to bring values and views to inform these debates. But it is equally useful, I feel, to keep in mind the “spirit of moderation” highlighted above, and the conclusion the author of the Federalist Paper 37 (James Madison) came to:

[I] solicit the attention of those only, who add to a sincere zeal for the happiness of their country, a temper favorable to a just estimate of the means of promoting it.

“Voice” starting to rule the roost over “choice”

An excellent paragraph or two in a paper from the NHS Confederation, “Alive and clicking: information that benefits all“:

“In the lexicon of public policy there are two ways to improve public services: exit and voice. Exit enables people to choose a provider so they can leave services they do not like. In NHS terms, it is about choice, markets and the Any Qualified Provider policy. By contrast, voice is about getting involved and trying to change and improve services for yourself and your family. For NHS users, voice is about taking action such as complaining or becoming a member of a foundation trust or patient group, writing to the chief executive or even suing the organisation.

“Over the last 30 years, exit, markets and choice have largely ruled the roost while voice has been a whisper at the policy table. However, the costs of structuring markets are static or rising. Meanwhile, the costs of having a voice are falling like a stone.

“Successful providers will get much better at motivating and engaging their local populations, albeit through more people commenting about them, getting angry with them, making suggestions, and thanking their staff. Some of this will be on generic platforms like Facebook and blogs, and some will be on platforms dedicated to making feedback easy to use for busy staff like Patient Opinion and NHS Choices. These conversations will very likely play back into choice and the market because what consumers learn from their friends and other users of similar services is a powerful predictor of behaviour.”

Over £1m of Government funding awarded to grassroots disability organisations #dpulo

Below is a copy of a press notice issued about the Strengthening Disabled People’s User-Led Organisations, which has recently passed through a key milestone – over £1m awarded to DPULOs.

Over one million pounds has now been awarded as part of a programme to help bolster small grassroots disability organisations, the Minister for Disabled People, Esther McVey announces today.

The programme is now set to be extended to Northern Ireland so that other organisations can benefit from the GBP3million fund which was launched last summer.

Esther McVey MP, Minister for Disabled People, said:

“Disabled Peoples User Led Organisations are run by and for disabled people and play a vital role in making sure disabled people have their voices heard at every level.

“In many cases DPULOs already provide support and services alongside those provided by the public sector and often they are better at doing so as they can draw on their own first hand experiences of a disability.  They have clear ideas about what works and what doesn’t.

“The idea of the fund was based on feedback we had received from small disability organisations that a little funding at the right time can make all the difference to the support they are able to provide to disabled people.

“We still have millions of pounds left, so if you are already part of a DPULO, then this is an opportunity to raise its profile and build on the successes you have already achieved.”

The DPULO programme is making a significant difference to grassroots organisations and their local communities through awards from the Facilitation Fund to organisations such as the Communication for Blind and Disabled People.

One of the DPULOs received an award after developing a smart phone navigation app for blind people. The app – called “Georgie” – has since won the “Google Outstanding Use of Technology in the Field of Diversity” award at the European Diversity Awards 2012 at the end of September.

Roger Wilson-Hinds of Communication for Blind and Disabled People thanked the DPULO programme and said:

“Without you it wouldn’t have happened!”

Cheshire Centre for Independent Living was awarded £28,735 to develop an online peer support forum in the north west. Lindsey Walton-Hardy, Deputy Chief Executive of the Centre, said:

“We’ve wanted to develop our peer support offer to disabled people locally for a long time. This welcome award provides us with the opportunity to turn our idea into reality. Not only will this be of great benefit to disabled people locally, but it will also support Cheshire CIL to become more sustainable.”

Any organisations wishing to bid for money for specific projects and help shape the future provision for disabled people, can do so by visiting – or

Note to editors:

Over £500k of Government Funding awarded to Disabled People’s User-Led Organisations #dpulo

This is a copy of a press notice released today, highlighting the work that Strengthening Disabled People’s User-Led Organisations Programme is doing and the difference it is making.

Disabled People’s Use- Led Organisations have benefited from £509,124 of extra Government money, Minister for Disabled People has announced today.

These Disabled People’s User-Led Organisations run by and for disabled people, often provide support and services alongside those provided by the public sector.  Drawing on their own first hand experience of disability, they have clear ideas about what works and what doesn’t.

More than half a million pounds has now been paid out by the fund since the Strengthening DPULOs Programme was launched in July 2011.

As well as offering financial support, the Strengthening DPULOs Programmes provides DPULOs with support and advice on how to strengthen and make their organisations more sustainable through its Ambassadors.

61 applications for funding have been received from DPULOs across England, 41 of which have been successful.

Examples of how the Strengthening DPULOs programme is making a difference to the lives of disabled people in the local community include:

  • A DPULO in Hillingdon is supporting disabled people in the local community by setting up a ‘one stop shop’ service. This will enabling disabled people who are being assessed for equipment by an Occupational Therapist to have their prescription redeemed a few doors down the corridor in the organisation’s office
  • A Sheffield DPULO is using funding to develop a range of services for disabled people to purchase using their personal budgets. This will enable local disabled people with specific impairments such as mental health conditions, or learning difficulties, as well as those in particular communities, including BME communities, to influence the type of support and personal care they receive. This will result in a service more tailored to individuals needs
  • A DPULO is developing apps for a Smartphone which will provide emergency remote help if a blind traveller is lost, or in difficulty, as well as providing a GPS and speech function to inform the traveller of their location. The app will explain where to get off public transport and when they arrive at their destination. This will support blind people Nationwide to travel safely outside their home.

 Minister for Disabled People, Maria Miller MP, said:

I am delighted the Strengthening DPULO programme is successfully promoting the growth and improving sustainability of Disabled People’s User-Led Organisations, as well as making practical real improvements to the lives of disabled people and their communities.

We have already awarded more than half a million pounds, but a large amount of the £3 million funding remains, so I would encourage more DPULOs to now apply.  In particular bids would be welcomed from the Midlands, and East of England.

Notes to Editors:

The online presence of DPULOs – anecdotal findings (updated)

I’ve spent much of the last couple of days mapping what disabled people’s user-led organisations there are. This work is part of the Strengthening DPULOs Programme that I’m involved with, and draws upon other mapping exercises that have happened previously.

(It goes without saying that mapping and gapping is an art in itself, which people often pay very good money for others to do. Still, at this stage of the work I’m involved with, a relatively rough and ready mapping exercise – building on much more extensive work that others have done – will suffice.)

As part of the mapping, I’ve been finding out what kind of presence DPULOs have online. The results – as unscientific and anecdotal as they are – make for interesting reading.

To summarise:

  • The vast majority of DPULOs have a website
  • The websites themselves are very mixed: some are incredibly good, some are standard, a small few are quite poor
  • Associated with this, some have clearly had professional design and input
  • Others – though only a handful – are using slightly customized, off-the-shelf products like WordPress, Movable Type and Squarespace to run their online presence
  • In terms of social media, many more than I expected have a Facebook presence – approaching around a third of all DPULOs I’ve identified so far
  • Each has around 50-100 “likes” for their Facebook page, which I’m guessing is around the average for voluntary and community sector organisations
  • Relatively few DPULOs are on Twitter. I have compiled a fairly comprehensive list of those that are on Twitter here
  • There is a spattering of organisations using channels such as Flickr, YouTube, Audioboo, LinkedIn etc.

I’m working on the basis that this position is not dissimilar to any other subsection of the voluntary and community sector. If it is dissimilar, then I’d be keen to know the reasons why, as this would suggest a stream of work that could be particularly useful for DPULOs.

In the meantime, there are 4 (superficial) implications that occur to me as a result of this:

  1. A relatively low cost and low barrier means by which DPULOs can establish a local presence is not currently being fully explored to its potential
  2. Facebook is a popular tool that DPULOs are beginning to recognise is of value to their offer
  3. Twitter is less popular with disabled people’s organisations. Where individuals have used it to a great extent, the same can’t be said of organisations that are controlled by and for disabled people
  4. There is a business opportunity for someone to develop the websites (based on off-the-shelf products) and social media offering of DPULOs through a relatively low-cost offer. The added value of such of an offer would be significant, since the use of websites and social media are under-utilised by the DPULO “sector” as a whole.

Would be really interested to know if people have any other reflections on this, and importantly any ideas or stuff they know is already happening that can help address some of these points.

Update: this article from the Chief Executive of the Media Trust is pertinent to this post:

In a world in which local voices can have global reach, charities and NGOs have urgent and exciting new opportunities to give voice to their causes, to empower communities and citizens, and to be responsive to their needs and aspirations. Digital media has the power to enable charities and communities to become more integrated and cohesive – but finding the skills, strategies and resources can throw up some huge challenges to small and large organisations, many of which are juggling complex bottom lines around service delivery, campaigning and income generation.

Debating the debate: responding to my fisking

The 3 leaders’ debates have been and gone. Stef gave me a good fisking after the first debate, based on a post I wrote a few weeks ago. Now taking the long view, I thought I’d respond to each of his points.

Note: my original points in italics; Stef’s argument in italics below.

1. Debating points and issues in the debates won’t really be the aim. Instead, it will be used as an opportunity to trade blows, irrespective of the content of those blows
Stef: Some real issues were aired and some interesting debates did occur, albeit they were somewhat stymied by the short amount of time available for each question.

After the first debate, it did seem that some interesting debates might occur. But they didn’t. I was wrong in the sense that the debates would be used to trade blows. Instead, they were used to just say and then repeat their key messages. This wasn’t really 3 debates; it was one debate repeated 3 times. (And the format of the debate, as Stef rightly says, stymied the debate.)

2. What goes on in the debates is almost neither here nor there; it’s how they get spun afterwards that matters.
Stef: Whether the debates were of Aristotlian profoundness or playground pettiness, how they get spun afterwards was always going to be as important, if not more important than the debate itself. This does not invalidate the debates themselves, what went on in the debate did make a difference to how the debate was spun.

My original point safely holds. There were clearly prepared lines and put-downs which were echoed in the post-match spin. Related to point 1 above, the debates weren’t genuine debates; they were just an opportunity to establish and repeat key messages, not debate the merits or otherwise of each other’s policies.

3. I’m not one of those that complains about the American-isation of politics, and in particular the cult of personality in politics. The leadership debates will do nothing to assuage people who do complain about this.
Stef: Agreed.

We were agreed on this, so I don’t need to re-emphasize I was right in the first place.

4. Does anyone remember the one-to-one interviews between Jeremy Paxman and each party leader during the 2005 general election? If you do, you’ll remember they were not known for their jibber and jabber on policy issues but instead adversarial tosh focused disproportionately on specific issues (e.g. the number of illegal immigrants in Britain).
Stef: [T]here was a disproportionate amount of focus on the issue of immigration. Yet because of the uniquely non-adversarial format of the debates, we got into more detail and more clarity on policy positions than any PMQs or Question Time.

We did get into a bit more detail about a very few things; but focusing disproporionately on specific issues – particularly immigration, interestingly enough – did happen. The debates were narrow in their focus.

5. The worry about ‘losing’ the debate, or being the subject of a terrific putdown is precisely what leads to the score-draw results assigned to most presidential debates of the last 12 years. Even though this is the first time debates have been held here, the tendency will be for the candidates to play it safe.
Stef: Yes, it was a play-it-safe debate for all the candidates but especially the ‘incumbents’ but Clegg did better because he played it less safe. Here’s betting that the next two will be a bit livelier. A real good put-down may win it.

The perspective of the 3 debates shows that the debates were primarily safe. For all the media tried to find one, there wasn’t a significant moment in any of the debates.

6. Most people think these debates will be good for Gordon Brown. I don’t agree because (1) the Tories are good at precisely this sort of thing, being the presentation of policy rather than what the policy is; and (2) it depends which Gordon Brown turns up. I suspect it will be the one that has turned up at Prime Minister’s Questions for the last 2 years, which is no good thing.
Stef: Patently wrong on both accounts. Cameron inexplicably failed to present himself and his policies at all well, usually his forte. Brown, clearly dreading the event, actually did much better than he thought he would. Although in my opinion he came ‘last’ it was not by much and he, along with Cameron, can only improve over the next two debates.

I was certainly wrong on (1): Cameron did an awful job in the first debate, did marginally better in the second and was his best in the third. Brown was consistently stodgy. The polls for each of the debates bare this out – only in rogue polls did Brown not come third.

7. The spare wheel: there will have to be air time for Nick Clegg as leader as the Lib Dems. This will just be embarrassing for everyone concerned.
Stef: Erm, I’ll let Rich defend himself on this one. Yes the Lib Dems won’t be the largest single party but hell, the kaleidoscope has been well and truly shaken.

I wouldn’t try to defend it: Clegg clearly did well. I’m going to write a post on my wider thoughts on the Lib Dems over the last two or three weeks.

8. Which television stations will cover this? If not everyone can cover every debate, what will the implication be?
Stef: 9 million viewers for a 90 minute political programme on ITV without adverts is absolutely astonishing. The Sky debate will have next to bugger all viewers, mores the shame. What I’d give for a Channel 4 debate with the mighty Jon Snow.

The ITV debate had 9.4m viewers – around 37% share of the viewing audience that night if I remember correctly. Sky had just over 4m and I still don’t know the figure for the BBC debate (which I expect will be the highest viewing audience). This partly anticipates my riposte to point 9 below, but I don’t think the turnout will be higher than the 1997 election (i.e. 71.4%). Viewing figures aren’t much of a proxy for this, but I think the media is more excited by them than the voting public.

9. Does anyone seriously think the debates will engage a wider audience than those engaged in politics anyway? I doubt it very much.
Stef: Policy by anecdote warning! This weekend I had my first ever party political conversation with my brother whom is not atypical of the disengaged voter but a good proxy. He did not watch the debates but read about them afterwards and looked at some of it on YouTube. His verdict. Cameron “Don’t trust him” (Incidentally my mother thought he looked like a porn actor) Brown “Doesn’t know what he’s doing” Clegg “Seemed straightforward and normal”. Policy by anecdote completed. This is why anecdotes are, in the right context, very powerful. My brother and many like him will possibly vote for the first time ever because of the debate and many may well vote Lib Dem, fundamentally changing the political landscape in this country. This would not have happened without the debate.

I’ll leave the point about whether or not the landscape has been changed by the Lib Dems to a later post (here’s a quick preview: I don’t think it has). But I stand by my original point: the leaders’ debates have not engaged a wider audience than those engaged in politics anyway. Ultimately, this will be borne out by the turnout of the election. But beyond the bubble that the media has created, and which has been supported by social media (especially Twitter), I suspect a significant proportion of the public will remain disengaged by this general election.