For someone who is quite good at it, British Prime Minister David Cameron is not very interested in politics. Britain’s prime minister does not read Robert Caro’s monumental works on American statecraft for fun. He avoids Borgen, the television drama about a Danish government, because it is “too much like work”.
He never talks policy or strategy with friends, most of whom pre-date his career. His Downing Street is not Bill Clinton’s White House: There are no late-night symposia over pizza, no infectious enthusiasm for politics as sport. When he retires, he will retire easily.
All politicians understand Yes, No and Undecided. Only the winners understand Don’t Much Care. Cameron communicates crisply because he knows most people only tune in for a few minutes a day. He does not lose himself in marginalia that no swing voter will ever notice. Rousing a nation through force of personality is something leaders do in films: the real art of politics is accepting apathy and bending it to your purposes.
And it all starts with the realisation that apathy is not a type of sickness. Unlike the Labour party, opinion pollsters chose self-examination over self-indulgence after flunking last year’s general election.
The inquest into their failure to predict a Conservative majority is published by the British Polling Council on Tuesday, but early studies have already converged on an answer. The polls, it appears, over-sampled people who are “politically engaged” (to quote Matt Singh, an analyst who saw the result coming) and under-sampled the indifferent, who were leaning Tory.
This is intuitive enough: Anyone who submits to a survey is likely to be more political (and keener to vent) than average.
Young respondents were particularly unrepresentative of their peers. The outcome of this sampling bias was a grievous overestimation of turnout, and of Labour support. In his post-election research, the psephologist Professor John Curtice found Labour had a six-point lead among easy-to-reach voters. Among those who took between three and six calls to respond, the Tories were favoured by 11 points.
So, unengaged voters were disproportionately happy with the status quo. Apathy does not imply alienation. It does not even imply ambivalence. A person can be satisfied with the way the country is run and refuse to say or do any more on the matter other than vote to keep it going.
Tedious old Britain
Apathy is a respectable disposition in a country where, for most people most of the time, life is tolerable-to-good. There are nations with much hotter politics, and they tend to send refugees to tedious old Britain.
This should be the most obvious thing in the world. You will have several friends who match this profile of contented languor. But among politicos, on the Labour side especially, it is a shock finding. They priggishly elide apathy with dysfunction: If voters do not care, something must be wrong with the body politic.
Over the past decade, the British left has fallen for civic engagement as an end in itself. United States President Barack Obama’s campaign for the US presidency; the street politics of Spain and Greece; the Scottish National Party, with its rallies like rock concerts — all served as templates. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, imagines himself the frontman of a movement, not a mere party. Ed Miliband, his predecessor, spent five years talking up a “new” politics of mass participation. Labour centrists do it too.
The modern left — far more than the right, and more than the left under Tony Blair — is a pullulating scene. There are workshops on movement-building. There are conferences called Change: How and even worse names.
There are alliances across old lines: students and trade unions, activists and commentators. There is sensational commotion to near-zero effect. These people are sincere, resourceful and uniquely bad at understanding the country they live in. They see in apathetic voters a river of petroleum begging to be ignited.
This is what happens when people spend too much time in central Athens and not enough watching shoppers trundling their trolleys through the Tesco in Leighton Buzzard.
Apathetic Britons are not waiting to be redeemed. They just have lives to get on with. Not only are they apolitical; they rouse themselves to vote every five years precisely to stop hot heads and crusaders from running their country. They like Cameron because he governs well enough to save them having to think about politics. He is prime minister because someone has to be.
— Financial Times