The public’s foul politcal mood: symptom or disease?

Is depression an illness? It can be. Many people suffer depression that is so severe that it overwhelms them. They need help and we categorise it as mental illness: a condition with a life of its own, where medical intervention is recommended.

But for most of us, most of the time depression is just part of the ordinary fabric of living. It is a necessary step in the way the mind adapts to new realities in the world around it, especially changes that are unexpected or unwelcome. We don’t understand why the human mind has evolved in this way, but it clearly is not a malfunction. We must accept it and work through it. This common wisdom is summarised in popular models such as the Kübler Ross model of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance).

We can compare this personal mental phenomenon to current public attitudes to politics, especially here in Britain, but elsewhere too. This is partly a simple metaphor; but also some of the same psychological forces are at work. The public mood with politics is foul. Is this a disease, or merely a symptom of an inevitable change that is taking place in our society, that we simply have to come to terms with? And how should politicians respond?

The latest evidence for the public’s mood comes from the recent Eastleigh by-election. The main established parties locally, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, both lost votes, and much of their support was grudging, based on keeping somebody else out. The grumpy anti-establishment protest party Ukip jumped from nowhere into second place. The official opposition, Labour, made no headway. And, in more classic depressive behaviour, turnout fell significantly from the General Election in spite of an extremely intense campaign, where voters were getting daily leaflet drops and their phones did not stop ringing.

If this is an inevitable response a changed reality, we don’t have to look very far for a culprit. In the 15 years from 1992 to 2007 Britain has enjoyed steady economic growth. If the benefits of this growth have gone disproportionately to the rich, they have neverthless been spread widely. Pay-rises regularly beat inflation. The benign effects were reinforced by easy money which supported both consumption and rising property values. This didn’t seem like a golden age at the time (though there was a brief note of euphoria at the turn of the Millennium), but it served to set some fairly stable and benign expectations. Politicians squabbled of the extra things they could do with “the proceeds of growth”.

But this collapsed in 2007, when the financial crisis started, with a sharp economic contraction in 2008-09. Worse, in 2013 there seems no sign of things getting any better. While politicians on the left and right argue that growth can be restored, the public remains entirely unconvinced. You have to be a real optimist to think that Keynesian stimulus would offer more than temporary alleviation; and it could make things worse in the long run by taking the national debt sky high. The right wing’s supply side revolution would make things worse for most people in the short term, and probably only better for the already wealthy after that. Monetary loosening seems to involve sucking life out of the Pound, and so making things like energy, cars and foreign holidays yet more expensive – probably with only share and bond prices showing any benefit.

What on earth has happened? The public suspects that something has changed about the economy and society which means that the benign years before 2007 will not return. This builds on the natural human tendency to project current circumstances into the future. It so happens that I feel that this public instinct is well grounded. Slow growth is here to stay. Much of the growth before 2007 was a mirage.

This need not be a bad thing in itself. There is plenty enough resources to ensure a decent standard of living for everybody. But the political priorities in a low growth world are very different from what they used to be. Distribution of wealth becomes a top political issue. Government must learn to be frugal. We must focus on improving wellbeing rather than monetary wealth. But these changed priorities require a big psychological adjustment, so it is no wonder that there is anger, frustration and depression amongst the public.

If that is all, then the bad mood is simply a symptom of the changing times, and politicians should see through it to focus on the changed priorities. Politicians need to show empathy with the public, but not be panicked into populist policies. Aided and abetted by an unhelpful press, much public anger is directed at such things as immigration, the European Union, health and safety legislation, and human rights. But politicians should not be fooled by this anger; the public is in fact deeply ambiguous about all of these things. Deep down they sense they are necessary to the way we want to live our lives, the odd silly excess notwithstanding. Instead politicians should focus on reform to the tax and benefits system, improving public services, developing a housing strategy, securing energy supplies and fixing the still-broken financial system.

But many thoughtful observers, Paddy Ashdown for example, are convinced that the bad public mood is much deeper than this. Its beginnings predate the financial crisis of 2007 after all. There is a deeper feeling of disenfranchisement that will not go away. This needs more direct intervention. While I am not apocalyptic as Lord Ashdown, I think he has a point. British politics is not corrupt, but it is conducted by an elite class that does all it can to avoid being held to account. Reforming this will be hard work though. Devolving more power to local level is surely part of it – though fraught with danger. Whether the current government’s localism reforms have achieved anything useful is open to doubt – though the growing number of City Deals are more promising. Taxation powers are the critical issue, and nobody shows signs of grasping this particular nettle. The opportunities to re-enfranchise voters are surely mainly at the local level – but that means the delegation real power, and responsibility for real trade-offs – rather than the one-sided lobbying of the centre that currently dominates local politics.

The public mood is both a symptom of change that is running through our economic system, and also a deeper problem in its own right. Both call for honest liberal reforms, and not the sour populism that it immediately encourages. Let us hope that the public, through its anger and frustration, recognises this. They often do, if any politician has the courage put the case to them.