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Tony Travers: The electorate do not care about the May-Gove spat


Last week’s titanic struggle between Theresa May and Michael Gove about their different approaches to extremism in Birmingham schools was a prime example of the way British politics is packaged and displayed. 

The full glare of public attention is focused on a tiny number of people and places. The activities and views of a handful of national politicians have become the sum total of how British politics is reported.

Every aspect of the motivations of the warring politicians was explored by reporters, the commentariat and leader writers. The press, TV and radio opined at length about the May-Gove spat, which they decided was the opening shot in the next Conservative leadership contest. There was also analysis of the approaches of different Whitehall departments to communities and extremism. Then the two ministers apologised and we were provided with analysis of who had been most damaged by the affair.

As far as Britain’s centralised media and political culture is concerned, ‘politics’ is something which about 25 people do, reported on by about a further 25. Opinion polling about public recognition of senior politicians suggests that very few are present in most voters’ consciousness. It is small wonder political parties are in decline and there is growing disconnection between the ‘political class’ and the rest of the population.

If almost all power in a political system is vested in a tiny number of people, decision-makers will inevitably be cut off from the masses. The ongoing struggle about the presidency of the European Commission, still less the arcane new method of making the selection, is even more remote from the electorate.

It is hard to think of a better way to undermine interest in a country’s government and politics than to arrange it in such a way that 99.9% of reporting is about a tiny number of people in a single place. For most voters, the best chance they have of meeting the political class is to turn up at College Green, the tiny patch of Westminster where so many British political interviews take place.

A more decentralised system of government would allow more people to meet those who govern them. Until and unless this happens, disengagement will continue to flourish.

Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics


Readers' comments (2)

  • Absolutely spot on Tony. Further illustrated by other politicians not knowing how much things cost in the real world outside the Westminster bubble.

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  • Quite. I was making exactly the same point in an outreach session of the Political and Constitutional Select Committee last Thursday, using this very example. Decentralisation might provide a vehicle for a vehicle for renewing democracy and countering disengagement. However, that will not be sufficient unless there is real commitment from Parliament (not government) and Councils (not Cabinets) to promote and secure engagement.

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