247- Political Distrust

A recent Facebook conversation, in itself an increasing rarity, raised a point about trust in politicians. I say we don’t, Andrew says he does. Here I discuss the background to such apparently divergent attitudes.

Context:  I have an ex-colleague, Andrew, a fellow mathematician. His politics are as far away from mine as can be and leave the two of us prepared to converse. Each of us holds opinions that the other has difficulty responding to politely but both are articulate enough to at least attempt to explain how they reach their opinion. This has generated conversation during which I hope we both inspected those opinions for value and, perhaps, modified them accordingly. I suggest to you that mathematicians are, at heart, honest. That demands a standard of internal consistency that we (as mathematicians) might call truth but is probably more accurate to call honesty – no internal deceit, recognition of points of divergence, ability to question why that might be so. And so on.    It is perfectly possible that we two have enjoyed past conversations to the point where we deliberately, even unconsciously, take opposite viewpoints; you might even call that ‘for the sake of argument’ since I might well claim that such discussions tended to explore a point to exhaustion (well, mine, at least).

MORI1 has taken surveys of opinion since 1983 of the professions. Medics and academics tend to do well, politicians and reporters tend to do badly. I have added (well below) the total results chart taken from thew 2017 poll, showing change over the 34 year period. Politicians have stayed arouund the 20% mark, as shown by this figure to the right…

So my question is Why? Why do we have such distrust of politicians?

The immediate answer would have to be because they lie. Or are perceived as liars. 

Let us separate campaigning from election from daily work in parliament. On the campaign trail every politician is telling us what would be if (i) returned to office (ii) returned with sufficient majority to enact what the party proposes.  The electorate tends to hear these words as promises – with good reason, because the conditional aspects of all such declarations was lost almost immediately. These promises are inevitably broken, as it is rare to have such a majority that all policies are enacted. It would also be true that even large majorities in parliament are not elected by a majority national vote (because the FPTP2  system is sensitive to change), so it is a good thing that parliament serves to temper any extremes of opinion about the direction in which we, as a nation, should go. 47% of the possible seats seems to mean coalition, 60% is a large majority. The number of possible seats has varied with time, currently 6503. It is unfortunate that the campaign habits seem to spill over into the other ways we see politicians.

Few of us actually interact with politicians, more is the pity. They are our representatives, yet there is precious little time for them to spend discovering what we think when their daily job (or acting as representatives) seems to be entirely obscured by the demands of being a member within parliament. So for most of us, what we see and hear of politicians is what the press chooses to share with us. That is itself a biased view: the fixation on what ‘sells papers’, which I have long felt untrue4, drives a concentration on 'he said, she said’, on providing false ‘balance’ and on bad behaviour instead of educating the public as to the difficulties of a parliamentary decision, or the content of a debate and what we need to understand so as to follow that subject.  This means that the portrayal of politicians as received is biased by whatever it is that we find to study (watch, listen to, read; first hand or secondhand). Far too often what we receive is already distorted by being second source. For example, much of what Boris Johnson is reported as having said makes a lot more sense if you can find the statements in context and understand that context. Nigel Farage and Michael Gove similarly. I dislike each of the three from the public image, but each time I have listened to the material in context I find myself a lot more willing to agree with some of the content. I don’t have the same reaction to Enoch Powell; some of what Michael Heseltine has said makes me see red (haha), but less so than content from Rees-Mogg. Most content from Paddy Ashdown  and Chris Patton makes sense to me and, while I agree with what Nick Clegg wants, I don’t agree how to get where he wants to be. Those comments made from bothering to go look at what was said, not what was said to have been said.

We had an adventure on radio recently where Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood speech was analysed and delivered. Link, perhaps. However your reaction to the content, that speech had a profound effect upon subsequent attitudes to immigration. That makes it significant. People who misunderstand the programme as pushing the sentiments received are missing the point of making the programme. One might even suggest that Powell knew what he was doing thoroughly enough to recognise what changes might well occur – if one is extreme enough, the opposite effect can be the result, which is the source of a lot of British humour. No doubt some people will now say I wrote that Powell was a comedian; I did not. His speech was incendiary and a few found themselves in agreement. I remember my parents’ reaction being along the lines of "Hey, we believe in free speech, so this must be expected.” And discussion of the wider topic ensued – which is surely a good thing?  Maybe we need our politicians to sometimes be so extreme in putting forward a viewpoint; maybe sometimes we choose to decide that what is offered in debate is what is also sentiment. Yet if pursuing debate as a skill, one learns to argue for either side. I wonder therefore if our politicians are confused about performance and pursuit.

One of the difficulties we have lies in the sort of person we elect, which of course in some ways defines who is offered for election. Our typical politician is very thick-skinned (or they won’t survive); claims to be a public servant, yet sees no imbalance in blatantly serving themselves; is seen to chase very short-term solutions to problems. Partly this situation is created by the system we have, which forces all decisions to work within the parliamentary cycle, partly by the aforesaid portrayal of politicians. What is obviously missing is connection with the electorate. See [3], which shows you the list of blogs from MPs; quite clearly the Labour MPs have been incentivised into blogging, though I do wonder at the age of this list, when Boris is described as Mayor and David Cameron is still in the list.

This suggests to me that if we wish to change our view of politicians we should engage with them. In theory at least you are represented by your MP. Up to 2007 I had always met my MP in the sense of having at some point been within 20 metres of them. I have never succeeded in having a face-to-face nor extended conversation with any such. Nor indeed, with a party worker. Statistically, I am more than unlikely to agree with any party worker and indeed, ‘on the doorstep’ conversations would be mostly directed by me towards getting rid of this enthusiastic face that doesn’t want to listen only to hear that I will vote in their favour. Dream on; as if I’d tell you even if I were.
Look up your MP [4]; from the result you will see voting record and suchlike, including website and social media contacts, so you could go listen, get in touch, share an opinion whatever.  

<Pause while I write to my (new, as yet unknown and unmet) MP>

So my conclusion is that we clearly don’t trust our politicians, so what are you going to do about it?

DJS 20180503

1  https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2017-11/trust-in-professions-veracity-index-2017-slides.pdf
http://www.power-to-the-people.co.uk/mps-blogs/   Uselessly out of date. Mrs May is a 404 !!
4 https://www.theyworkforyou.com/mp/

1  MORI Veracity index. 2017, bottom end. The question is binary: “Now I will read you a list of different types of people. For each would you tell me if you generally trust them to tell the truth, or not?”
MORI = Market & Opinion Research.  Ipsos (is French, so should be pronounced Ip-soh, and not Ipp-soss). The name Ipsos may develop from ISOS, its predecessor (in the sense that the founder, Didier Truchot, worked at ISOS). Ipsos has always been in market research.

2  FPTP First past the post. The most votes in the constituency elects that candidate. This is then surprisingly sensitive to small changes in national opinion, since any change is multiplied by the 650+ constituencies. Writing ratios as 1st:2nd:3rd etc and calling ‘holding’ as % of seats available, here is a run-down of large majorities. I’ve used integer percentages.  All data from wikipedia entries – and yes, I contribute annually.

The 1931 election (Baldwin won) went 470:52(:35:33) or if you prefer, a 76% holding. 76% turnout, too.The 1945 election, Atlee displacing Churchill went 393:197(:12:11) a 61% holding on a 73% turnout.The 1974 election (Wilson / Heath) 301:297:14, 47% holding on 79% turnout. Conservatives failed to coalesce with Liberals; Labour went into power and there was another election later in the year. In large part, this was the moment for the Liberals, with 6 million votes for only 14 seats, a 12% swing. By failing to reach an accommodation with the Conservatives, there was no electoral reform and the Liberals fell back into decline.The 1997 election which elected Blair to PM gave a majority of 253 (418:165:46) vs 271, 63% holding). 71% turnout.The 1979 election that launched the Thatcher years went 339:269:11 a 53% holding on a 76% turnout.The 2010 election Cameron replacing Brown and a hung parliament went 306:258:57, a 47% holding on a 65% turnout and a coalition government. Compare with the 1974 election, which also produced a hung parliament.

3 1885-1918, 670 seats. 1918-1922 707 seats. 1922-2011 615 to 659 seats, as determined by the national Boundary Commissions. 2011 Act sets 600 seats, to be ratified some time in 2018 or 2019. It is likely that the 2020 election following Brexit will be a bit different in more ways than expected. Intention then is to make constituencies roughly equal in population, around 75,000 (voters, 45 million of them). 'Turkeys voting for Christmas’, as the report says.

4 See source 2, among others, which tells us the extent to which what you read defines your views. I found it distinctly difficult to discover the variability in newspaper sales and whether people do actually change that choice at all often. MORI tells me that we still have one of the largest and most diverse newspaper markets in the world, with over 60% of people (some 35 million) still regularly reading a daily or Sunday newspaper. I point out that if 35 million is 60%, then that implies a population of 58 million, suggesting that newspaper readership starts very young, well before voting age (we have 45 million voters). In turn that suggests a diversity of understanding in terminology – what I call a newspaper and what has been deemed such for the number creation, are clearly different things. Or just typically bad maths.Of course being among the readership of a paper and the relationship with your opinions could be cause or effect – do you read the paper because it agrees with you or to you hold opinions because the paper does?


 However, © David Scoins 2017