Election candidates do themselves, their electorates and democracy itself no favours by implying that people will always get what they want.
Every so often, certain words attract a currency that culminates in overkill and, ultimately, become meaningless. Who will ever forget, during the first few months of the pandemic, the daily parade of government ministers telling us they would “ramp up” such and such a measure? Presumably the spin doctors consider words with a more precise meaning, such as “increase”, are considered unsuited to the task; and ministers don’t have the balls to overrule them (or, worse, they agree with parroting this same language day in day out). The fact that the promised rampings-up often failed to happen, or if they did, failed to do the jobs claimed for them, added to the unreality.
“Sustainable” is another word that has been abused to death. Brought into political dialogue in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission which defined sustainable development as the concept of “understanding how to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”, it was seen as a means of balancing economic, social and environmental demands.
Over the intervening years, the term found itself dragged into service to justify all manner of doubtful practices. In particular the UK’s coalition government’s planning policies – the ones that weight the planning system in favour of volume house builders and other developers – have the gall to claim to be “sustainable”, irrespective of the environmental and social consequences of allowing housing estates to run rampant on greenfield sites and accommodation barely fit for human habitation.
And now, as we engage (or not) in a periodic bout of democratic activity, another word is joining the overkill category: “listen”. It’s an old and well-understood word, which has again been hijacked for a specific message. If you look at leaflets from candidates in the forthcoming local authority elections, almost all promise to “listen” to their residents as if this is a novel political talisman which will blow away the widespread alienation of people from political processes.
Depending on who the candidate is, this promise has a value. A candidate who is a leading member of the party in control of the council, and which is expected to retain control after 6 May, can make that promise with at least some prospect of the results of “listening” being carried through into policy decisions made by the council. Or perhaps not. However, the value of that promise is potentially greater than the same promise made by a candidate who may win the seat but who is not a member of the ruling party. Such councillors can listen all they like but – unless the council turns out to be finely balanced in party terms – conveying views not aligned with the ruling group will not get them anywhere.
Implied in the “listening” promise is some sort of result. The trouble is that the views councillors have to listen to do not always want the same thing. Heritage buildings or new premises for green jobs? Buses, trams or trains? Edge-of-town shopping malls or redevelop the High Street? 20 affordable houses tacked onto the village, or nowhere for young people to live there? Renewable energy from wind turbines or unsullied landscapes? And so on.
Eventually, every councillor – unless an absentee or a total wimp – ends up having to take a position on controversial issues. Whatever conclusion they reach will lead to accusations of bad faith from the voters whose views did not prevail. “You promised you’d listen”, they say, misinterpreting – as may well have been the candidates’ intention – the electoral commitment. So, another load of people become disillusioned with democratic politics because they think they were sold a pup.
What candidates need to do is be more open about how they’ll work. They need to admit that, though they’ll listen, they may not be able to deliver. They can promise that they will consider all sides of argument and ensure that those positions are aired in front of the decision-makers. They can remind people that democracy means that not everyone will get what they want.