Comment: The politics of public consultation over riots

Politicians love to listen – or at least they love to look like they're listening.

By Dr Matthew Ashton

Today David Cameron called for a major review of policy relating to social collapse in Britain. As was often pointed out in Yes Minister, a review, inquiry or commission is often used by governments as a way of kicking political problems into the long grass. Politicians set them up in the hope that by the time they report back everyone will have forgotten the original issue in the first place. Hopefully this will not be the case here as Britain does need a proper debate about social policy. This chimes with Ed Miliband's call over the weekend for a 'National Conversation' to discuss the recent riots that spread across the UK. Both things should be welcomed as they appear to acknowledge that explaining something isn't the same as excusing it, a distinction that seems to have become lost in the past week or so.

However we've been here before. In November 2003 Tony Blair and New Labour launched the 'Big Conversation'. During the launch Blair claimed that the priority of the exercise was democratic consultation over 'social justice' and that "big issues need real debate, a big conversation between politicians and the people". At the time many commentators accused this of largely being a PR gimmick with even Roy Hattersley describing it as a "confidence trick in a good cause".

The failure of the 'Big Conversation' can be judged from the fact that today most people increasingly feel that politicians and government are failing to articulate their interests. Westminster has often been compared to a goldfish bowl. However well-intentioned the newly elected members of parliament are, they eventually start to become disconnected from the public who put them there. This becomes worse when they're in government as they're surrounded by a small army of civil servants and drivers helping to insulate them from the real world.

Now politicians love to listen, or at least they love to look like they're listening. They like listening to each other, the media, polls, focus groups and various self-appointed community leaders. What they often don't like listening to are ordinary people on the street as ordinary people tend to tell them things they don't want to hear. Witness any politician who is ambushed by a member of the public and asked awkward questions as Tony Blair frequently was.

Of course it should be pointed out that just because people demand something doesn't necessarily mean they should get it. Sometimes the public lie about what they want, don't know what they want, want things we can't afford as a society or want things they shouldn't have. However none of this means they shouldn't be listened to. It's just that any exercise needs to be carefully run to prevent those with the loudest voices and the best organisational abilities from getting their own way.

Once the government has listened they need to draw up their policies accordingly and be open and honest about where and why they might differ from the desires of the public. If you make your case well then the public will back you. Alternatively they'll vote you out at the next election but that's the beauty of a democratic system.

One final point I'd like to make at the risk of sounding self-serving is that another group that aren't listened to as often as I'd like is academics. There are a host of academic reports and papers that both help to explain the civil unrest and point towards possible solutions. Far too often it seems like the phrase 'evidence-based policy' is thrown around but then politicians sometimes disregard academic studies that disagree with their own opinions. Winston Churchill once said "experts should be on tap but never on top" and I'd agree with this.

I'd just like politicians to turn on the tap a little more often.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University.

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