Increase NHS spending by £8bn; build 200,000 homes; increase public spending by 0.5% a year. All these campaign promises are strikingly similar and typical of this election. They are just numbers. Worse, they illustrate a sad reality: politics is all about numbers. Hence, campaigns need to be built up around them.
After all, it makes sense. During the first half of the twentieth century, people were fighting for their rights –vote for women; strikes. During the second half they fought for social change – education. Today, they fight about economics. The twenty-first century will be the kingdom of numbers.
Politics has become a message that needs to be decrypted by economists. Yes, of course it’s important to base strategies around numbers, but these are dangerous because they can say many things. Or, to phrase it more accurately, anyone can make them tell anything. Numbers have changed their status. They use to attest of governmental success (or failure). They now serve demagogy.
The reality is that numbers have drained the life out of politics. Look at the political debates we’ve had to cope with over the past month; David Cameron justifies cuts in the public service (refusing to tell exactly where) by his long term economic plan; Miliband just wants to balance the books (that doesn’t tell us where the country will be in 5 years time); Farage proposes to cut the foreign aid budget (Migrants dying in the Mediterranean and people of Greece living in poverty are not his problem). Candidates for 10 Downing Street talk about these as though they did not mean anything. These are just dehumanised numbers that are just brought up to legitimate hard decisions that need to be made.
However, there is a danger in doing so. Similarly to the gap between the richest and the poorest in the UK, the gap between politicians and the people is broadening (and the fact that Miliband and Cameron acknowledge that they wouldn’t be able to live on a zero hour contract is symptomatic of that ordeal). If there had been a winner in the past debates, it probably would have been the audience, whom did not hesitate to challenge candidates upfront.
A decade after the first suffragettes, young women do not seem interested in politics anymore (39 percent of 18 – 24’s have voted during the past election). Numbers for young men aren’t much better (50 percent). Perhaps this reflects the fracture and the lack of trust that has occurred between politicians and voters. As a foreigner, I can’t help but wonder if all the relevant questions have been raised over this campaign. Europe isn’t talked about for the correct reasons. The debate on education is roughed up to tuition fees. Housing and health are just numbers.
However, we now live in a world were economy justifies everything (austerity and public services cuts). Maybe it is time for UK politicians to ask themselves if they are asking the right questions. Shouldn’t we talk about what the UK could bring to the EU? Isn’t education about making good citizens? Does the economy legitimise everything?
Maybe one day they will realise their speeches don’t affect the youth and they will decide to change things and make them more human. But, how do you make numbers human?