Matthew Taylor on the perception gap

January 4, 2008

Now being described as “one of Britain’s top thinkers”, here’s Matthew Taylor writing on the perception gap in the New Statesman.

Not a bad piece, I thought. The peroration didn’t quite make sense to me, though.

Matthew writes on hope: “It is the attitude of the spectator that induces pessimism, the experience of the participant that induces hope … The problem is not that change brings fear and disorientation (there’s nothing new in this), it is that we lack the spaces and places where people can renew hope”.

Given the death of the old collectivism (as embodied in political parties, TUs etc), Matthew thinks we need to find a new collectivism, one that is fit for the demands of the modern age. This might seem like wishful thinking, he says, but look at the existing forms of social action out there – against predictions, cinema and live football are flourishing. “For all the talk of the decline of social capital, people are doing more stuff together.”

Or are they? I haven’t seen much communal activity at the cinema recently. And, despite the attendances, football is an increasingly spectatorial affair. People arrive late and leave early at all but the biggest games, putting their private convenience before the demands of the collective. At White Hart Lane, the loudest noice you’ll hear is the sound of guy behind you telling you to sit down. Same at Old Trafford, it seems.

In their focus on private desire, these activities are profoundly apolitical. Matthew wants political action that will “keep up with modern tastes and expectations”. But I have a feeling that this means politics that takes on board the techniques of mass commercialism – inviting people to come together as consumer-spectators, not as active citizens.

So, really, we’re back to where we started from. Ten out of ten for effort though.


American pessimism and the perception gap

January 2, 2008

The Christmas edition of The Economist features an article on American pessimism. Americans are gloomy at the moment, they say, but this isn’t warranted by the facts.


Fair enough – insofar as facts relate to our cultural consciousness at all. But they forget to mention the perception gap – without which, any discussion of this issue is half empty.

Or should that be half full?

Happy New Year everyone.

Mind the gap: modern society meets the stone age brain

December 17, 2007

The most critical division in our politics this year won’t be between left and right, or between Labour and the Tories. It won’t even be between rich and poor. In 2008, we will find the most important split in public life within individual citizens. Inside ourselves, we see a gap – profound and entrenched – between private optimism and public gloom.

For a long time now, politicians and policy-makers have been aware of a startling schizophrenia in British life. Known in Westminster as the “perception gap”, and in Washington as the “happiness gap”, the split between private optimism and public pessimism is one of the most serious problems of current political life. Resolving this cognitive rupture must be the task of 2008, or we will end the year once more paralysed politically, unable to deal with the challenges that face us.

Time and time again, opinion polls reveal a dramatic gap between what people say about their personal experiences, and what they say about the state of things in general. On the whole, people are confident, even buoyant, about their individual prospects – witness journalist and 20-year absentee Jon Henley marvelling at “the energy, the entrepreneurism, the ambition, the can-do”, on his return to the country. Yet they insist on believing that the nation as a whole is going to hell in a handcart.

Take attitudes towards public services. In a recent poll, 81% of respondents said that they were happy with their last visit to hospital. Yet when the same group was asked whether they thought the NHS was providing a good service nationally, only 47% felt able to declare that it this was so. Total violent crime has fallen since 1997, and most people report themselves confident with the way crime is dealt with in their locality. Yet the bulk of people think that violent crime has risen, and a strong majority think that crime is handled badly in Britain as a whole.

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