The British Perception Problem

A new survey by Ipsos MORI has revealed there is an unsettling gap between what the British public perceives to be true, and the actual state of affairs on a number of key political issues.

When asked about divisive issues such as crime, welfare, government spending and immigration, the public paint a caricature of Britain that is devoid of any resemblance to reality. Britons think crime is rising when it has actually fallen considerably in the past decade. We believe benefits are being claimed fraudulently en-masse when in reality less than 1% of welfare money is done so. On average we believe that foreign-born immigrants account for nearly a third of the population when the actual estimated figure is a more reasonable only 13%.

Equally as worrying as this widespread ignorance is people’s reluctance to accept fact. When those who were seriously off the mark had their claims challenged, their response was to dispute and question the data presented to them. Of those who thought the percentage of immigrants in the UK was 26% or higher, over half said they stated a higher figure as they believe ‘people come into the country illegally so aren’t counted’ by official stats.

These misconceptions are what you’d expect to overhear from the sorts in your local pub that lament the current state of affairs before concluding how that Nigel Farage bloke has got the right idea.

What causes the people of one of the most advanced, liberal democracies to hold views that are so out of touch with reality? Economic uncertainty can be attributed to fuelling these fears but also the sensationalist media should also shoulder some of the blame for creating this caricature of British life.

The top 3 most circulated daily national newspapers in the UK are The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Mirror and all are guilty for their frequent casual snippets of scaremongering and sensationalism. Better still, if you happen to have the pleasure of reading the online versions of these papers on any given article, you’d be forgiven for thinking Britain was a brewing cesspit on the brink of social meltdown with only a few gallant keyboard warriors willing to tell it how it is. The comments section from a Daily Express article regarding the survey is a particularly depressing read.

Sensationalism sells and our print and broadcast media is saturated with tales of the extraordinary so that it has become the ordinary. The results of this survey poses a significant question, how can voters effectively participate in a democracy when they are so misinformed on what they are voting on?

Hetan Stah executive director of the Royal Statistical Society believes the solution comes at three levels. Firstly, politicians need to talk in facts and stats not spin. Secondly, the media has to try and genuinely illuminate issues rather than sensationalising them. And finally schools should teach statistical literacy more.

His suggestions can’t be argued with, we would all like politicians to stop lying, the media to stop sensationalising and people to be more educated and aware, but are they realistic or really helpful suggestions? The most obvious way to enact the first two solutions would be through some form of regulatory legislation. Even the strongest advocate of government intervention should feel uncomfortable about the idea of the state deciding what is or isn’t news. Considering the authoritarian tendencies of governments it is irrational to assume this course of action will be corruption free.

Considering the final suggestion, I am sure it’s true that if people were more educated about statistics, they would probably think twice after reading a headline such as “Mick Philpott, a vile product of Welfare UK.”

But this is all a bit ‘state the obvious’. It isn’t just ‘uneducated masses’ reading tabloid headlines, watching channel 4 documentaries on obscure societal issues or asking the reactionary questions on Question Time. All sections of society fall victim of sensationalism and spin, and the left and the right can be equally as guilty. This is a fundamental flaw in democracy; it is impossible to have an electorate that act rationally with all information available to them.

As Sam Bowman identifies referring to the findings of a political psychology study, “the more information you have about something, the more resistant to new contradictory information you are – or, in other words, the more dogmatically ideological you are.” Just because an individual is highly educated about a subject it does not mean they will use this information in the ‘right’ way.

So if the answer is not more regulation and if more education isn’t going to cause much positive change, how can you solve a problem like the perception gap in British politics? By taking away power from central government that responds to the perception of the electorate is one way. By pursuing greater localism we can have a better politics insofar that people are more aware of issues concerning their local area. Through localism voters can be more educated about issues in their immediate area, and the sensationalism peddled in national newspapers will be marginalised. Local governments would be more responsive and accountable than a central one in Westminster and consequently policy would be tailored to benefit local needs. Instead of pandering to the public mood based on sensationalist headlines, politicians would be responsive to actual facts and stats.

Despite all of this doom and gloom about British perceptions there is a silver lining about the current state of affairs. Even though the survey appears to reveal the average Brit to be a frothing at the mouth bigot, in reality our democracy does function first rate in keeping out the views of the more extreme and reactionary wings of the political spectrum. It’s just that it could do a better job of not rising to it for cheap political gains.

 

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Theresa May – Crazy khat lady?

Theresa May’s move to ban the herbal stimulant ‘khat’ flies in the face of common sense and has worrying implications.

Theresa May has gone against the advice of experts from the government’s own drugs Advisory Council (the ACMD) and on Wednesday announced plans to ban the herbal stimulant ‘khat’, which will soon be treated as a class C drug in the UK. Khat(or Qat) is a leaf that when chewed gives the user a buzz likened to the feeling of drinking numerous cups of coffee. A number of worrying issues arise in relation to this new legislation.

The first issue at hand is the government’s constant disdain for the advice it receives regarding drug legislation. The ACMD was set up to provide expert advice to legislators, so that informed decisions could be made regarding drug laws.

In a report published in January, the ACMD said khat should remain a legal substance stating that there was ‘insufficient evidence’ that the drug causes health problems. However the Home Secretary has ignored this advice and has set the wheels in motion to make the drug illegal.

Since 2010 the Conservative led government has ignored fact-based advice regarding drug legislation on numerous occasions. When the ACMD advised that cannabis should remain a Class C substance, the government’s response was to reclassify it to Class B. A similar suggestion that Psilocybin (Magic) Mushrooms should also not be reclassified was also ignored. When the council suggested lowering the category of MDMA and also that more research should be conducted into Mephedrone before it is further criminalised, the government’s response was again to show contempt. Ecstasy was kept a Class A substance and Mephedrone was elevated to a Class B, before any extensive research was carried out.

This government prides itself on its credentials for clawing back the intrusive state it inherited from the last Labour government. However this latest disdain for the recommendations of the ACMD has an aura of nanny-statism and reeks of a ‘the government knows best’ attitude.

One of the reasons put forward by those wishing to make khat illegal is that trading of the drug has been dubiously linked to organised terrorism in the Horn of Africa. This line of reasoning has been ridiculed by the ACMD and history tells us that when something is criminalised, only organised criminals prosper under the legislation – see Al Capone during alcohol prohibition in the US, Pablo Escobar in Columbia during the failed ‘war on drugs’ and contemporary cartels that run amok in Mexico. This is the second problem with May’s actions; by making the drug illegal she is driving out legitimate businesses trading within the law, and instead creating an environment where only illegal dealers benefit with the added bonus of enhanced profits as the price of khat is set to rise.

In Britain the plant is chewed by around 90,000 people and the majority of its users are people with roots in East Africa – Ethiopians, Kenyans, Yemenis and most predominantly Somalis. The third underlying issue with the plans to ban khat is that the policy will disproportionately affect ethnic minorities and turn thousands of people into criminals overnight for using something that has been a staple part of their culture for hundreds of years.

A ban on khat would inflame already existing tensions between the ethnic diaspora and the police, as it will inevitably lead to more stop and searches of ethnic minorities. Ironically, earlier this week the Home Secretary boldly lamented current stop and search laws and called for an overhaul of police powers citing that they have been disproportionately used against black and minorities.  However this is a case of giving with one hand and taking with the other as May happily enacts legislation that will target ethnic peoples. Banning khat will not have the intended purpose of stopping people from using the drug; it will just make innocent users criminals.

Making a herbal stimulant that is used by less than 0.2% of the population illegal appears on the surface to be no big deal. However, there are various reasons to be concerned. This is further evidence of the government displaying their contempt for fact-based evidence from the ACMD questioning the point of the council’s existence. Coinciding with this is an embracement of nanny statism, something the Conservatives have been happy to warn against in opposition. Finally the government is showing a worrying willingness to target an ethnic minority using very contestable reasoning.

The policy will only prove to do more harm than good: crazy khat, indeed!
@harry_fraser

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Nelson Mandela – Enemy of the (Worst Kind of) State

Regardless of Mandela’s past activism, his legacy to South Africa speaks for itself.

Nelson Mandela is a unique contemporary political figure insofar as anyone that believes in democracy and equality before the law should admire him irrespective of their political allegiances.

Often his legacy is smeared through the shutting down of discussion about Mandela by dismissing him as nothing more than a terrorist. It should sadden anyone who believes in the equality of people regardless of race that the legacy of Nelson Mandela and the subsequent end of Apartheid is still seen as debatable and even as negative to some.

The definition of a terrorist is always subjective and the word is always used pejoratively.  In South Africa, Mandela alongside communist sympathisers, helped co-found Umkhonto we Sizwe (‘MK’) and became its chairman soon after. The group is infamous for its bombing campaigns against the Apartheid government that consequently also led to the deaths of innocent civilians.

When using ‘terrorist’ by its literal definition, “a person who uses violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims,” the evidence is clear; Mandela did establish an organisation that is guilty of committing acts of terrorism. However it is important to remember that Mandela was imprisoned for life one year after the group’s founding and he was incarcerated throughout the period when the MK committed their most notorious attacks.

It is easy to slur Mandela from ivory towers when devoid of a real understanding of the situation in South Africa. The Apartheid government had taken away all forms of political representation for black people in South Africa and aggressively discriminated against them through legislation. When you leave people without democracy or even the basic of rights then you leave them with no choice but to resort to extreme, non-protest methods to achieve liberation.

Mandela outlined the reasoning behind the formation of the MK: “It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle… We did so not because we desired such a course, but solely because the government had left us with no other choice.”

Reducing discussions about Mandela to a dispute of definition is fruitless. It implies a disdain for him that does not objectively view him within the historical context and ignores the rightful cause he stood for. It should speak volumes that someone like Nick Griffin recently described Mandela as a “murdering old terrorist”.

The real enemy of freedom and democracy in this scenario was always the Apartheid South African government that was guilty of state terrorism and its actions are wholly indefensible.

Mandela was an enemy of the worst kind of state and this should never be forgotten. The National Party governments that ruled South Africa throughout the latter half of the 20th century pursued racial segregation enforced by legislation. It actively disenfranchised an entire race of people by creating two classes of citizen and restricted freedoms of all its citizens with the implementation of illiberal policies, influenced by restrictive, socially conservative values. The horrifying repression that Mandela was fighting against should never be ignored.

Mandela’s struggle and the rights he fought for embody the values that we hold dear as the fundamentals of a liberal democracy in the west. Mandela envisioned a South  Africa based upon western democracies; he was not a tainted revolutionary like Castro that wanted to impose a dictatorship or like Che Guevara who was a racist homophobe. He held views that are constants across the political spectrum in liberal democracies and he should be applauded for his efforts to change South Africa.

Another charge against Mandela points to the economic decline and relative instability in South Africa since the fall of apartheid. Mandela liberated an entire race of people from a vulgarly constructed, over powerful state and laid the foundations of democracy in the country. To imply the world would have been a better place without Mandela suggests that what he fought for is wrong. What has happened since he stepped back from politics is irrelevant to his legacy and it is lazy to blame him for the failings of his successors.

With his condition worsening it is likely that Nelson Mandela will pass away soon. He should, however, be remembered for his achievements in bringing freedom and democracy to South Africa. The world could do with more individuals like Mandela that are able to unite people from across the political spectrum.

Although a huge cliché, the phrase “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” could not be truer when applied to Nelson Mandela and I know which man I would rather be.

@harry_fraser

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Cameron’s modernisation of the Conservative Party needs completing, not retrenching

David Cameron should remember the principles that got him in to Number 10 in response to the growing discontent from the Right.

In 2005 shortly after becoming party leader, he declared that he would not be a ‘prisoner of an ideological past’, and in the run up to the 2010 election defined himself as a ‘one nation, relatively liberal Conservative’. To stand the best chance of achieving a Conservative majority at the next general election, Mr. Cameron must reaffirm these testimonies and broaden his appeal further rather than turn his back on modernisation.

Recently there has been a marked growth in discontent towards the Prime Minister, and most notable is the grievances from the Right rather than the Left. The rise of UKIP and their populist message has frustrated the established political parties and has prompted calls for the Conservatives to assert more ‘traditional’ conservative values and reflect this with policies of that nature. A debate regarding the Party’s future is becoming more evident, a battle between ‘Swivel Eyed Loons and The Cameroons’, if you will.

In response to the growth of electoral support for UKIP the Tories’ right-wing, anti-Cameron sentiment has currently culminated with the ‘Alternative Queen’s Speech’, a number of proposals from various backbench MPs that they describe as a “genuine attempt” to show what policies a future Conservative government could deliver. Most notable of the 42 bills proposed were calls for a referendum on the Same Sex Marriage bill, abolishing the Department of Energy and Climate Change, renaming the late August Bank Holiday Margaret Thatcher Day and reintroducing National Service. All of these policies you wouldn’t be surprised to find between the covers of a would-be UKIP manifesto.

Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin identify that UKIP’s recent converts are much more likely to be low-income, financially insecure, and working class. The party is widely seen as to the right of the Conservatives – but that is not how UKIP voters view themselves. Whereas 60% of Tory voters place themselves to the right-of-centre, the figure for UKIP supporters is only 46%. Also interestingly 25% of Tories say they are in the centre, or even left-of-centre, the figure for UKIP voters is higher at 36%. (See here). This suggests it is more a protest thought process behind voting for UKIP rather than being ideologically drawn to the party.

Whilst it has enjoyed some gains recently this appears to be more of a blip than what is set to be a long-term trend. UKIP’s time in the limelight has led to just as much ridicule as acclaim and their support has already begun to dwindle.

Come 2015 the electorate will not be voting in protest as many did so in the May local elections, they will be voting for the party they believe is most competent at running the country. UKIP’s populist pick n’ mix manifesto will come under greater scrutiny between now and then, and Farage’s party have a long way to go before mounting any serious challenge of the political establishment.

That does not mean the reasons why people turned to UKIP should be ignored, however; nor should the fact that UKIP have a higher proportion of supporters from lower incomes than the other two parties. Cameron appears to be in a Catch-22 situation: He cannot afford to turn to the socially conservative right, which left his party in the wilderness for 13 years, yet he also can’t ignore the fact that increasingly he is seen as out of touch with the views of everyday people. When the public were asked, ‘Do you think that David Cameron understands people like yourself?’, the overwhelming response was a resounding ‘no’.

There is thus a belief that to restore Conservative fortunes and appeal to those that have jilted us for UKIP means reverting to more socially conservative, right-wing policies evident within the ‘Alternative Queen’s Speech’. The zealous ideological pursuit of social conservatism conflicts with the notion that the Party is the party of pragmatism. Cameron’s modernisation of the Party has been more beneficial than damaging; we have seen a 100% rise in support from younger people since he became leader and it would be wise not to stifle trends such as these. Instead of pandering to divisive politics of the past, Cameron should stand firm by his One Nation principles that he committed himself to pre-2010 in order to offer real benefits to working people.

“One Nation Conservatism” is the idea that the country is strongest and most stable when united and when social antagonisms are kept under control with relatively centrist, pragmatic politics. The debates of the 2015 election will be centred on the economy and facing the realities of government has meant that the pursuit of Thatcherite economics has replaced the compassionate conservatism Cameron promoted before 2010.

The electorate are not screaming en-masse for more Thatcherite economics in light of hard economic times. In 2009 when launching The Big Society, Cameron warned of the dangers regarding a “simplistic retrenchment of the state which assumes that better alternatives to state action will just spring to life.” As the economy shows signs of recovery Cameron should spend the next two years reassuring the public the Conservatives are not ‘enemies of the state’ but are the real One Nation Party that can represent all.

Our problem is not that the Conservatives aren’t ‘right-wing’ enough, it’s that people still don’t believe they care. David Skelton provides a useful conclusion. He notes how Cameron has rescued his party from the scrapheap once, but his modernisation is still a job half done. The move away from divisive social policies of the past is half of Conservative modernisation, but until the party does more to connect with ordinary working people, Cameron’s mission will remain unfinished business.

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The Only Crisis Here Facing Men Is….Dianne Abbott

An analysis of Shadow Minister for Public Health, Dianne Abbott’s, ‘cry wolf’ statements lamenting a “crisis in masculinity”.

This week Diane Abbott declared that we are facing a ‘crisis of masculinity’, I believe that she is right to raise the importance of men’s issues and how gender equality needs to be analysed from all angles. However her narrative about the causes and fear-mongering about a ‘crisis of masculinity’ does nobody any favours.

Diane Abbott is no stranger to controversy of course; half her Wikipedia page covers her various political misdemeanours.Now, in a week when the Shadow Minister for Public Health thought using the word demented pejoratively was fair game, her latest assertion that Britain is facing a ‘crisis of masculinity’ provokes more than it aims to help.

‘Male issues’ and discussions over masculinity are important and this article’s aim is not to discredit that or any discussions regarding gender issues. Gender inequality is still a vast contemporary issue for men and women and the incorporation of men’s issues in to feminism is of great importance. However, Diane Abbott’s attempt to create a moral panic over masculinity is misguided and unhelpful.

 To her credit, Diane Abbott draws attention to issues facing men that are often not discussed in mainstream politics. She identifies, “the first rule of being a man in modern Britain is that you’re not allowed to talk about it”. There are various men’s issues that need to be tackled and Abbott highlights them. Issues such as, the reality that men are more likely to take their own lives than women. Men have lower educational attainment at all levels of the education system. Men are more likely to be homeless. Common psychological disorders, including depression and anxiety, are under diagnosed in men and men are less likely to access NHS services available to them.

These problems need to be addressed but the way Dianne Abbott frames the debate is counter productive and comes across as disorderly. Abbott argues that rapid economic change is warping male identity and encouraging machismo and misogyny leaving us in a crisis like situation.  This is like putting two and two together and getting five.

What this assertion ignores is that society and its attitudes towards being macho and issues regarding masculinity have changed. This is not to say that there aren’t issues to be dealt with, but we are not entering a new era of crisis. The notion that the economic crisis causes men to lash out in a macho and misogynistic manner is grounded in little evidence and appears to be little more than a tribal attack on the government.

Diane Abbott has identified male issues, but has wrongly asserted the causes. Abbott contends that Britain is facing a crisis of masculinity that celebrates heartlessness and normalises sexism and homophobia.

Firstly, one of the successes of feminism over the past century has meant that men’s attitudes to women have improved dramatically. Tony Parsons’ argues in response to Abbott that ‘Men have never been better than they are today. More involved in bringing up their children. More genuinely supportive of their partners. More willing to discuss their fears with those closest to them.’

The idea that this contemporary crisis of masculinity normalises homophobia conflicts with evidence that suggests that homophobic attitudes are vanishing in schools.

Abbott also contends that porn is part of this concoction that has led the modern man to crisis point. Whilst the jury is still out whether or not porn causes violence, assertions like that are not helpful.

In regions such as The Middle East, Asia and Africa where women are treated worst, access to the Internet is also more restricted. Violence against women is a problem that needs to be addressed, generalising the problem is not the way to do so.

Albeit tongue in cheek, this clip from comedy film 21 Jump Street exemplifies changing attitudes to masculinity. Being violent, macho and homophobic is far more socially unacceptable in contemporary society.

Abbott is right to raise men’s issues, it’s just a shame that her narrative is about men who she contends are still massively homophobic, misogynistic, hyper-macho and obsessed with pornography and drinking. If we are apparently entering a crisis of masculinity, then what has been happening over the course of human history? We certainly haven’t had the ideal golden age of masculinity.

@harry_fraser

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Welfare Reform; a political minefield the Conservatives should tread more carefully.

Tackling the ‘welfare reform’ debate.

Anyone with the most minimal of interests in current affairs will have been subjected to all levels of delirium regarding welfare reform this past week. Whether it was drawing the connection between receiving benefits with the repulsive actions of the Philpotts, or   misty-eyed romanticism of the day dear old Blighty changed. Welfare reform can only be defined as a political minefield, one in which policy makers should tread carefully.

The reality of the welfare debate situation, like most things politically, lies somewhere in the middle. Dan Hodges of The Daily Telegraph compared the welfare “debate” to the immigration debates of the past. On the one hand there was hysteria about Britain being “swamped” by immigrants. On the other were accusations of “racism” leveled at anyone who dared suggest immigration was now presenting problems that needed to be addressed.

The Conservative Party treads clumsily and dangerously close to the hyperbole of the Daily Mail and its ilk with rhetoric of ‘shirkers versus workers’. The Labour party are just as guilty: shadow work and pensions spokesman, Liam Byrne, drew the same analogy when the times suited him.

The reality is this exaggeration doesn’t help anyone except to fill the pockets of tabloid newspaper owners. The battle between ‘shirkers and workers’ does not exist; well at least not to the levels implied. Unemployment only counts for 3% of the welfare bill as the vast majority of benefit recipients are in work.

There is a serious discussion to be had about welfare and pandering to the Daily Mail does not contribute to it. Neither does equally panicked ‘end of times’ scare mongering. Readers of the Mirror the past week might have assumed that the welfare system came to an abrupt halt on April 1st. The reality is the growth of welfare is being curbed, not the levels of it. The pre-coalition welfare system was not a perfect institution that should be left untouched: welfare spending rose each year, yet so did poverty levels and the complexity left thousands of pounds of benefits unclaimed.

It is reckless to assume that the current state of the welfare system is sustainable. However, there is a fundamental flaw with the current methodology of reform. It is a legitimate argument to enact reforms to ‘make-work pay’, but if there is no work, and little done to help workers, the idea is undermined.

The coalition promised a ‘private sector led recovery’ to economic prosperity and the idea is to compensate for jobs cut in the public sector. However employment figures are being bolstered by record growth in numbers of part-time jobs, this is neither sustainable nor desirable. Of course getting people into work is better then trapping them on welfare, but the government should not take these figures as evidence of success.

The government can do more to foster the conditions that will help small and medium businesses thrive and get people back into the job market and earning better incomes. The Adam Smith Institute has produced a report  that calls on the government to take radical steps to kick-start employment in small and medium-sized enterprises, by reducing regulation, taxation and freeing up the labour market.

David Cameron has defined his brand of Conservatism as compassionate, fitting with the One Nation Conservative tradition. The idea of One-Nationism is to prevent social class antagonisms and to prevent social unity but this is only achievable if the government do more to help those at the bottom.  They have taken steps towards helping those on low incomes by raising the personal allowance but there is more it could be doing – attacking those receiving welfare is not the right course of action.

The debate over welfare reform has politically been won. The public tend to agree that the system is in need of reform; the Labour Party are now in a testing position as to where to manoeuvre on the issue. However, just because the government has the backing of the nation, doesn’t connote what they are doing is the best course of action.

So before bashing those out of work, the coalition should focus more on creating the conditions to get people back into work. If the goal is to get people off welfare, this is only achievable if there is an alternative to welfare. The return to economic prosperity and issues regarding welfare reform are far more complex than the media have presented them in the past few days.

 @harry_fraser

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Republicans Must Lose the Nasty Party Tag to Win 2016

The Republican Party remain unelectable with socially divisive policies

The 2012 presidential election exposed how deeply divided America is, with,  historically the popular vote results being one of the closest. Gone was Obama’s rhetoric from 2008 of a ‘United States of America’ as America proved to the world that it was still a collection of ‘Red and Blue States.’

On divisive issues such as welfare, the economy and social legislation Americans are firmly in either the Red or Blue camp. Granted, Romney and Obama are notorious flip-floppers and there is a compelling argument both candidates stood for ‘business as usual’ on many issues. On the economy & foreign policy, differentials in position were in the detail. However on divisive social issues such as gay rights, women’s issues and immigration the split is clear, Democrats remain the progressively liberal party whereas Republicans are firmly rooted as not.

For the Republicans to have a stronger chance of winning in 2016 they clearly need to increase their support base, one way of doing this would be to become more open to socially liberal ideas.

The Conservative Party in the UK faced a similar problem following the landslide defeat to Labour in 1997, calling for a detox of the brand and to remove the tag of the ‘nasty party’. Cameron’s relatively successful modernising project was rewarded by more success in the 2010 election. If the GOP undergoes a similar venture, they too may fare better at the polls.

Romney was a candidate prone to gaffes, jumped on by the media for sound bites such as ‘I am not concerned with the very poor’, ‘corporations are people’ and his awkward anecdotes about ‘binders full of women’ and the ‘irrelevant 47% of voters’. Romney truly earned the tag as the ‘nasty’ candidate, and if the Republicans want to win again, they need to remove this reputation.

The social conservative message, especially on women’s issues and equal marriage, turns off young voters. In 2012, 19% of those that voted were under the age of 30, and that demographic itself voted strongly in favour of Obama (60%). To win the White House the support of the youth is necessary: worryingly for the GOP, coinciding with this is a trend of their voter base getting smaller and older.

However the disposition of the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) shows that there are promising signs of the GOP addressing these issues.

A straw poll of younger conference attendees found that only 15% saw their most important goal as ‘promoting traditional values by protecting traditional marriage and the life of the unborn.’ Compared to the 77% who stated that their ‘most important goal is to promote individual freedom by reducing the size and scope of government.’

This is by no an indication that the social conservative’s influence has been significantly marginalised within the party. LGBT groups still found themselves excluded from CPAC and the response to Republican Senator Rob Portman’s endorsement of Gay marriage from an older generation was unfavourable, to say the least. However with a younger generation of Republicans coming through, the rhetoric is clearly smaller government in all aspects of political life, social and economic

The Republicans consistently define themselves as the party of ‘small government’, yet the reality is they are currently in favour of big government legislation and are fiscally irresponsible. Only if they choose a candidate that truly confronts these problems can they attract a youth that grows ever more sceptical of government.

Following CPAC, the Republican National Committee produced a 98 page report detailing where the GOP needs to focus to win the next election.  The report identifies that the GOP appears out of touch and must be more inclusive to win in 2016 instead of just ‘preaching to the choir.’

What is significantly lacking in the report is the discussion of fundamentalist Christian principles on abortion and homosexuality that turn off floating voters. This willingness of senior Republicans to change course is encouraging, but not without limits. It does not recommend any specific policies to win over voters, yet it has still led to attacks from the Christian Right of the party. Religious voters are worried the party is undermining their principles for cheap political gains.

On the surface the Republicans appear to be in a catch-22. They can’t afford to exclude their traditional base but at the same time, if they don’t change their stances they cannot win over voters. However, in the post-Bush era the evidence suggests the religious right is gradually losing its influence on the party. The Republicans no longer have to be the party of religious fundamentalists; it is not permanently ingrained into their ideology.

Romney successfully became presidential candidate on a fairly non-religious platform compared to his opponents and the party’s youth are focused more on libertarian values as opposed to traditional ones:  the path to the White House is clearly in this direction as the Religious Right become more marginalised.

Following 2012 the Republicans have nothing left to lose and their party is seen as growing in irrelevance; this is their chance to incorporate more socially liberal values in order to win in 2016. Instead of being tarred as the socially ‘nasty party’ they can win the election based on being fiscally responsible and more inclusive.

@harry_fraser

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Young People Identifying more with Libertarian Positions?

There is arguably a much more sympathetic view amongst students towards state intervention to solve problems facing society. With this in mind I recently attended the recording of BBC 3’s current affairs program Free Speech in Liverpool.

The panel consisted of contemporary pop star Kate Nash, Conservative MP for Glamorgan Alun Cairns, Liverpool Council’s spokesperson for young people Stephanie Till and finally Sam Bowman, Research Director at the Adam Smith Institute.

Viewers at home could interact by tweeting either #Yes or #No followed by a panelist’s name to cast their vote of approval or disapproval to what they were saying, the results of this represented on a ‘power bar’. By the end of the night, interestingly it was Sam that was the decisive winner.

The first question posed to the panel was, “Should the government subsidise housing payments for first time buyers?” Alun did argue for more liberal planning laws and less restrictions on banks lending money, however the crux of his argument was that the state should do more in terms of building affordable housing. He made the case for the government’s Social Housing Guarantee, to replace any sold off social houses in the hope of keeping housing affordable.

Stephanie championed Liverpool City Council’s policy of derelict properties being sold off for as little as £1 to developers to replenish the housing stock. As well, she promoted the Council’s scheme of providing money to first time buyers to underwrite mortgages. The consensus from the two was that the government should do more to solve the issue.

Sam offered an alternative to this narrative by focussing on freeing up the planning system, and as well making the case that a lack of supply could be solved through a market auctioning system, rejecting the use of the state as a solution to this problem. He added the point that government benefits have had the unintended consequence of acting as subsidy to landlords thus driving up the costs of housing and rent further, an argument not often found in mainstream politics. The audience liked what they heard and in contrast to the others, applauded Sam’s message.

When asked to respond to the British Medical Association’s proposed solution to the obesity crisis – a ‘fat tax’, Sam again rejected any state intervention on the matter. Citing results from Denmark and the US, he took apart the argument for ‘fat taxes’. Using evidence that shows the policy to be ineffective at curbing obesity and simply acts as a regressive tax, he argued that it is cheaper to eat healthily and ultimately it was down to individuals to control their diet.

The audience again approved this message, but what followed was a fruitless ill-informed  debate over the costs of food, highlighting the real fundamental problem at the heart of the obesity issue, a lack of education. The consensus amongst the audience agreed with Sam that a tax would not work, however the argument put forward by Stephanie to have subsidised healthier food also had approval. A score draw between the market and state intervention approach.

When the panel were asked, “Is drug addiction a medical or criminal issue?” Sam took the lead and argued that it is an addiction and to treat it as criminal is counterproductive. He reasoned, drug addictions tear individuals apart, and then the state escalates the problem by putting people that need help in to prisons, an environment in which their problem will only get worse.

Using Portugal to illustrate his point, a country that does treat it as a medical issue and has legalised drugs. Sam pointed out this has led to a decline in crime, addiction levels and health complications related to drugs. Current legislation means the main beneficiaries of the ‘war on drugs’ are criminal gangs just as they were in the age of prohibition.

Encouragingly, Sam received overwhelming approval for his argument and agreed that criminalisation is hurting those that need help. Stephanie’s rebuttal was incoherent and appeared out-dated. Wrongly stating that legalisation will lead to problems such as increased drug cutting and giving more power to dealers, which are already symptoms of the current legislation situation. Alun also appeared out of touch by trying to rationalise an addict’s behaviour so that it should be treated as criminal. This authoritarian position did not sit well with the audience.

The only answer from the panel that really addressed a concern expressed by many in the audience over funding for treatment was from Sam who argued with less money spent on imprisoning users, then more can be spent on rehabilitation. The power bar following this discussion showed that Sam was way ahead compared to his opponents.

Granted the topics discussed only scratched the surface of market solutions to society’s problems. It is fair to question if the audience and viewers responses would have been as approving if libertarian stances on the minimum wage, banker’s bonuses or welfare were discussed. It is hard to say, but if more people like Sam argued for the market in an articulate and reasoned manner backed up with evidence then minds can be changed.

The program format is no formal evidence and discussion fell victim like all shows of this type to at times populism, not helped by the anecdotal ramblings of Ms Nash. However it did display that the ideas put forward by Sam Bowman were as a whole being understood better and seen as more relevant to the young audience than the solutions put forward by the other members of the panel.

I never thought I’d sit in an audience of students and watch them clap hardest at free market individualism, this can only be an encouraging sign for supporters of greater individual liberty to solve the problems we face today.

@harry_fraser

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