Published on September 4, 2014

The trust deficit:  What if it’s not about how well politicians listen to the public, but about how well they listen to each other?

By Amy Pollard

Dr Amy Pollard is Deputy Director at Involve. She has over 10 years experience working on accountability, policy and power, and a passion for using effective public engagement to drive positive change.

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Political boxing: photo credit Angie Accarriono

It’s not often that Radio 4’s political programming makes me laugh out loud, but there was something so beautifully subversive about Matthew Taylor’s interviewing style on his new programme, Agree to Differ, that there was almost a flicker of Chris Morris about it.  Chairing George Monbiot and James Woudhysen (two longstanding commentators on opposing sides of the fracking debate), Matthew asked George to describe his understanding of James’ position.  It was that simple.  He just asked George to spend some of his allotted speaking time to articulate the argument of his opponent (rather than tearing strips off it as per the usual convention for radio interviews). And George answered, doing his best to express the opposing view without supplementing it with his own critique.  It was so unusual I had to rewind to check I hadn’t misheard.

What a contrast with the Scottish Referendum debates, and in particular with the ugly and aggressive scenes of the leaders debates.  As reports flair of Yes and No camps physically coming to blows over campaigning territory, we have long past the point where the substance of the issues can be seen through the thick storm of personal grudges and vitriol.  If this what the bright new politics for Scotland is going to feel like, then I can’t help thinking the surge of interest in democratic engagement north of the border is likely to be short lived.  The darkest habits of Westminster’s debating culture will be no more appealing for being moved to Holyrood.

All of this got me thinking about the relationships between politicians and the public, and in particular what it would take to build a respectful relationship where both sides genuinely trust each other.

I’ve been wondering if one of the big reasons for public mistrust in politicians isn’t actually about with the way politicians treat members of the public; it’s about the way they treat each other.

Modern politicians spend more time out and about with the public than any of their predecessors.  With some notable slip ups, they generally do a good job at being charming.  They listen; they smile; they respond; they do all the things that they have no doubt been taught as part of public relations training.  Personally, I’m not so jaded as to rule out that they aren’t *always* just going through the motions on this.  Some of the time at least, I’m prepared to believe that politicians are genuinely interested in understanding what ordinary people have to say – as much as anyone can be interested in what another person has to say (limited, as we all are, by the human condition).  Most people, I suspect, would find it a challenge to listen, engage and respond day in, day out, under constant surveillance for any slip up.

So why isn’t all this effort doing the relationship between politicians and the public any good?  It seems, in fact, that the more politicians try to come across well in public relations terms, the more phoney and manipulative they are seen to be.  Try hard or don’t try hard, they are damned either way.

Here’s my theory:  Politicians see their own political opponents as fair game.  They consider them as equals, and so they have no hesitation in letting rip with all their most contemptuous point-scoring.  They construct straw men of their opponent’s views and pound them wherever they see an opportunity to bring the opposition down or advance their own agenda (regardless of whether doing do will occlude the bigger issues).  The combative style is actually a mark of respect: the other side is big enough to take it.

But when politicians talk to the public there is a dramatic change of pace.  The savageries of Westminster are set aside and there is generally a more measured, generous and convivial tone of engagement.  There may be flash points of conflict but the kind of no-holds-barred jousting that we see across the green benches is generally seen as off limits.  It would be unseemly for a politician to rake a member of the public over the coals in the way that they would one of their own.

What appears to be a more respectful mode of engagement with the public, then, is actually borne of a sense that the public couldn’t handle being treated as equals.  It’s not really respect, it’s just condescension.  This isn’t, therefore, primarily a problem that can be solved by listening to the public better.  It doesn’t matter how much meet-and-greet politicians do around the country; however many phone interviews they do; web-chats they host; whatever lengths they go to engage in conversation with those whose voices are least heard in society – there will always be a sense of fakery in these encounters because they are not treating the public as they treat their own equals (ie. other politicians).

Politicians will never succeed in persuading the public that they are genuinely interested in understanding their opinions, until they genuinely show an interest in understanding the opinions of their political opponents.  That means asking the kinds of questions that Matthew Taylor was asking in Agree to Differ.

The irony is that it’s only those with a rock solid grasp of the issues, whose intellect is thoroughly unimpeachable, who have the courage and credibility to ask such devastatingly simple questions.   Perhaps our political debate will stay elitist for a while longer.

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