Danny Dorling: a better politics?

Ben Evans is heartened by Danny Dorling's overall vision of politics, but unimpressed by his specific analysis

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Professor Dorling’s presentation on his new book, A Better Politics: how government can make us happier, at Blackwell’s bookshop last Monday evening, began with a promising vision of a new politics, only to devolve into a tired rehearsal of Corbynite talking-points.

The talk commenced with a clear and compelling introduction to Professor Dorling’s book, whose primary conclusion was that governments need to move from targeting economic growth and wealth accumulation to focusing on individual happiness. Professor Dorling claimed that surveys showed there were significant gaps between reported happiness levels in different Western European countries: Finland, for instance, was much happier than the UK. Further studies revealed that individuals tended to be happier in societies with better health care and schooling; whilst disease and relationship breakdown were perceived as the most significant impediments to self-reported happiness.

From this, several proposals were formulated: better regulations to improve working conditions and commute times in order to reduce stress (a key cause of a variety of health and relationship problems), coupled with greater spending on health and education. The methodology of many of the studies was questionable; none seemed to account for linguistic or cultural differences in self reported happiness, nor consider whether reflective perceptions of happiness were equivalent to direct happiness over time, but this was a lucid and insightful beginning. Unfortunately, the beginning remained only that.

Ten minutes on the goals of happiness politics were followed by 50 on their means of achievement, means that boiled down to tropes of popular Corbynism. Apparently the media was conspiring against Labour (even to the extent of “the Guardian refusing to print a single one…[of Professor Dorling’s] articles about Corbyn”); Sadiq Khan rode Corbyn’s popular support to power (even though he had repeatedly dissociated himself from Corbyn beforehand); Council elections showed the popularity of the Corbynite programme (despite Labour facing a net loss of seats, and doing far worse than Blair or Miliband when they were opposition leaders); and it was contended that the reason Labour had lost seats in the recent Holyrood elections was because Labour was still seen as Blairite.

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Amidst this deluge, a few interesting ideas were mentioned. One was the potential for a Labour/Green alliance similar to that between the Liberals and Labour on the turn of the 20th century. Another was the significance of the first-past-the-post electoral system in encouraging the major parties to both contest over the centre, producing similarities that reduced perceptions of voter agency, and hence encouraging the growing trend of nonvoting.

Whilst I have no doubt that Professor Dorling’s book will make for educated and enlightening reading, it was a pity that his speech did not make good on his promise.