I’d like to return to Tom Harris’ Land of Angry post from last week, which ended up with 96 comments, 3 of them mine – including a post on my own blog. In his post he’d been asking where all the angry single-issue commenters on his blog were coming from. He wrote:
The implication was clear. The single-issue commenters, ranting on about the EU, or the smoking ban, were "obsessives and cranks".
Is Tom right? Well, in some ways, yes he is right. In my own estimation, 70% of people – the non-smokers – are entirely indifferent to the smoking ban. Of the 30% or so of people who are smokers or occasional smokers, probably barely 10% of those are deeply angry at the ban. A great many smokers who never went to pubs much anyway were probably not much bothered by the ban. Of the rest of them, the smoking ban was another inconvenience to be endured along with all the other inconveniences of life. It was only for a small minority of smokers that the smoking ban brought the end of a way of life, and a profound sense of social exclusion.
My estimates are simply based on my own experience. For non-smokers, the smoking ban is not a subject of any interest. It’s actually very difficult to talk to them about it, because they’re just not interested. For smokers, the smoking ban is a subject of interest, but they usually don’t talk about it. And when they do, they come up with a surprising diversity of opinions. Some of them approve of the ban, on the grounds that it has helped them cut down or entirely give up smoking. Others don’t like it much, but can live with popping outside for a smoke now and then. Others, like me, absolutely hate the ban.
So, since by my estimate, 70% of people don’t care about the ban, and only 10% of the remaining 30% of smokers actively hate the ban, that means that only 3 people in 100 are going to be seriously angry about it.
Is it very surprising then, that Tom Harris never encounters anyone who complains about the smoking ban? Of every 100 doors he knocks on, he’s only likely to find 3 people mentioning it.
And furthermore, since pub-goers are almost by definition people who spend long periods of time in pubs rather than at home, is it very likely that Tom Harris would find them at home anyway?
And even if he did find them at home, is it very likely that the smoking ban would be uppermost on their mind when it came to airing their concerns. Smokers don’t just smoke cigarettes all the time: they very often have lots of other concerns. They have jobs and marriages and children just like most other people. They have plenty of other things on their minds than the smoking ban. And, prompted by Tom Harris on their doorstep, it’s just as likely to be one of these other concerns, or something they’ve just seen on the news, which is likely to spring to mind.
And then, add to that the fact that it’s not regarded as quite ‘proper’ to complain too much about anything. When people are ill, they don’t usually talk about their illness all the time, even if it’s the only thing that’s on their mind. And they don’t talk about it because they know it’s not interesting to other people, and that they can become bores if they go on about it too much. So they button their lips and don’t mention it, even if they’re in agony. Are they likely to say any more to their local MP when he comes knocking at their door than they will say to their friends or family?
Pub-going smokers might be compared to theatre-goers. They are people who enjoy a particular sort of experience – the peculiar magic of theatre. And they belong to a minority. In a city like Bristol, there are perhaps a half dozen theatres, and only a few hundred regular theatre-goers. If all the theatres in Bristol were closed overnight, it would only be a few hundred people who deeply felt the loss. And given a population of Bristol of 500,000, that would mean that a Bristol MP, knocking on doorsteps, would find that not one in a thousand of his constituents cared two hoots about the closure of Bristol’s theatres. Would he be justified in dismissing the few letters of complaint he received about theatre closures as the work of a few unrepresentative cranks, because he never encountered any on any Bristol doorsteps?
What doorstepping is likely to discover is not minority concerns, like in pubs or theatres, but majority concerns – things that affect most people. And that’s going to be jobs, and housing, and education, and healthcare and so on. And in some little town that’s been flooded by an overflowing river, it’s going to be floods that bother most people. All the other little single issues that bother people are mostly not going to get noticed.
But even if they’re minority issues, they’re still issues that affect people just as much as the main bread-and-butter political issues. In the case of angry smokers, 3% of the voting population is steamed up about the smoking ban. But these angry people are dispersed evenly across the entire land. If they all lived in the same parliamentary constituencies, and had all been flooded by the same river, they would have a representation of 20 MPs – a number sufficient to extract promises from government in return for their votes on other matters. But because they are dispersed everywhere, they have no votes at all, and no representation at all. And because they have no voice, they get angrier and angrier, and shout louder and louder, and they become the ‘obsessives and cranks’ that Tom Harris despairs of.
But it’s deeper than this. The smoking ban isn’t the only deeply divisive minority issue. There are lots of them. The EU is another one with the same character. Most people don’t give any more or a damn about the EU than they do about the smoking ban. It’s a small minority of people, dispersed evenly over the land, who care about Britain and British sovereignty and British (or English) traditions and customs. And they have no representation either. And so they also become ‘cranks and obsessives’. And then global warming sceptics maybe form another minority of people dispersed evenly across the land. And fox hunters. And Catholics. And theatre-goers. And so on and on and on. And so you end up with an entire country in which more or less everybody is a member of some minority whose concerns are being ignored. Everybody is angry about something. Or, if they’re not angry yet, they soon will be.
When it rains heavily in one localised area of Britain, like North Yorkshire, and hundreds of homes in one town are flooded, it’s national news and the Prime Minister and Prince Charles visit and promise prompt action. But if the same amount of rain falls evenly over the whole of Britain, and just as many houses in total are flooded, there is no response at all, even if the net suffering is just as great or even greater. We have a political physiology which is able to respond to localised problems, like a brick dropped on a foot, but not to systemic problems, like sunburn that slightly roasts wide expanses of skin. Yet they are equally dangerous to the wellbeing of the body politic.
Tom Harris’ doorstepping technique is one which will discover most of the political concerns of most people. It will provide a hazy, fuzzy overview. What it won’t discover is any of the burning single issues that affect small minorities of people dispersed evenly across the land. Issues like the EU, and the smoking ban, and dozens and dozens of similar issues which simply don’t get caught in the wide mesh of Tom Harris’ doorstep sieve.
What’s amazing is that he has noticed them at all. Because most MPs don’t even seem to be aware they even exist. If all the MPs in Westminster were as aware as he was of these depths of discontent, why, who knows, they might even debate the matter.