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Monday, 2 April, 2001, 11:46 GMT 12:46 UK
Living in cyn
Public man... Mr Blair warns of "corrosive" cynicism
Who cares when the general election is called? Judging by turnout at recent polls, millions of people are indifferent to the prospect. But from where does this cynicism come?

The May 1997 election produced the lowest turnout since 1935. It was followed in 1998 by local government elections in which less than a third of those eligible to vote did so.

A year later turnout in the European election dropped to less than a quarter.

Most people would be hard pressed to get a laugh out of voting
On the same day a parliamentary by-election in Leeds attracted the interest of only 19.6% of voters - the lowest figure for more than 80 years.

Labour politicians claimed the credit by saying voters were satisfied with the way things were going and so did not feel the need to vote.

More recently they have blamed a growth in public "cynicism" - a "media-fuelled" belief that politicians are acting in their own and not in the public's interest - for voter apathy.

At Labour's spring campaign conference in February Tony Blair accused the Conservatives of trying to "foster" cynicism as a deliberate campaign tactic.

Private lives

And in a speech to Christian Socialists last week he said cynicism was not only a fact of political life but a "corrosive" danger to democracy itself.

TV programmes
Does self-improvement get your vote?
Yet leading thinkers say the growth in apathy and cynicism is down to the so-called "privatisation" of social life and a consequent decline in public activity.

The trend has been most vividly portrayed by American intellectual Richard Sennett, now professor of sociology at the London School of Economics.

Mr Sennett's book, The Fall of Public Man, describes the way in which consumer society promotes a self-obsessed "culture of narcissism".

According to the academic, people:

  • see only their private personal lives as authentic;
  • go to extraordinary lengths to "insulate" themselves from contact with others, especially "strangers";
  • increasingly do not understand the purpose of public institutions.

The trend has spread across the Atlantic, Mr Sennett believes. In Britain, as in the US, if you "speak the words 'public or 'social', the metal shutters of the mind come clattering down," he wrote recently.

TV watching
Home leisure is not an entirely new concept
Increasing numbers of people, especially the young, no longer see the answer to their problems as coming from the "public sphere" - including politics. They are more likely to hope to win the lottery or, otherwise, concentrate on "self-improvement".

Many of Mr Sennett's views are shared by Robert Putnam, the best-selling author who visited Tony Blair last week to discuss Labour policy development.

In his book, Bowling Alone, Mr Putnam picks up on the fact that 10-pin bowling - once a group social activity in the United States - is now becoming a solitary pastime, similar to the "personal development" idea involved in going to the gym.

The absurd activity of bowling alone is a metaphor for "the cult of individuality" relentlessly promoted by advertising and home entertainment, says Mr Putnam.

'We want to be alone'

He provides reams of data showing that Americans are spending more and more time alone or in family groups. Membership of public organisations from political parties and churches to the Boy Scouts and rotary clubs is in steep decline.

Masses of people are concerned with their single life histories and in particular their emotions; this concern has proved to be a trap rather than a liberation

Richard Sennett
Even within the home, people are retreating into their own rooms. Family dinners are on the decline, having friends over to visit is down 45% and the number of people attending club meetings has more than halved in the last 10 years.

America, he says, is losing the "vibrant civil society" on which its democracy is based as people shut themselves inside luxurious high-security homes packed with consumer electronics.

Life outside the home means either a visit to the shopping mall or commuting to an office where work, increasingly, is a matter of sitting in relative solitude in front of a computer screen.

Both Mr Sennett and Mr Putnam say the same sort of changes are also taking place in the UK. The problem is not so much that the "public" is somehow preferable to the "private" sphere, but that institutions - such as parliament and political parties - are lagging way behind social change.

Bubble trouble

But not everyone accepts we are becoming a nation of "Bubble People".

Bubble from Ab Fab
The "Bubble People" have no interest in a life outside their own
Pam Giddy, director of Charter 88, says apathy and cynicism are the "wrong words" to describe disenchantment with the politics.

"If there is cynicism it is because even after the constitutional reforms we have had, politicians are still out of touch. We still have the 'old politics'," she says.

The introduction of proportional representation, she believes, would bolster confidence and interest in the political system.

"PR is not a panacea. But the fact is about 100,000 people decided the last election. If you are a Tory in Scotland or a Labour supporter in much of the south, it is hard to see the point in voting. It is no wonder some people feel they are wasting their time at elections.

"People have a healthy scepticism about politicians," she adds. "But that does not mean they are apathetic. Polls show huge interest in 'single issue' politics and in big political ideas.

"The feeling that politicians might get up to no good if they are not held accountable, shows that people want to be active."

See also:

02 Apr 01 | UK Politics
16 May 00 | UK Politics
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