When Is An Opinion Not An Opinion?

There’s a YouGov app on my phone. Most days I get an alert asking me to answer some questions. Today the topic was alleged corruption in world football’s ruling body, FIFA.

That this was a body mired in allegations of corruption, and that some of its decisions have been murderously bad (look at the virtual slave labour conditions in Qatar), is something of which, as a citizen of sound mind and normal levels of curiosity, I have long been aware. The further developments yesterday, with arrests in Switzerland, were things I’d seen reported on news programmes. So without a moment’s hesitation I tapped away my assent to the view that FIFA was probably corrupt and needed to be changed. I also cynically agreed that Sepp Blatter would probably be re-elected nonetheless. It seems (the app goes on to reveal how others voted) that my views were entirely in line with most other respondents.

And yet that is not the end of the story. For it would be wholly dishonest to say I have much of an opinion at all on this story. It doesn’t get me excited or outraged. It doesn’t much matter to me one way or the other. The only sense in which I have an opinion at all is where the issue relates to, or is entangled in other, broader political, economic or cultural questions. I don’t care, is my honest answer.

I suspect that my response to these questions on football governance was emotionally quite similar to the response of many voters questioned by pollsters during the last election campaign, or, indeed, at other times. When reminded that there’s this thing called politics, voters recorded ‘opinions’ more or less vaguely acquired from somewhere else. NHS=Good. Deficit=Bad. SNP=Brilliant/Terrifying depending on which edition of The Sun you read. Having recorded their opinions, the voters went off to watch Loose Women or Top Gear or a sub-titled drama on BBC4 (other stereotypes are available).

Is there a moral to this story? There is, I think, but it is not simple. People who care deeply about political issues, about how we are governed, for whose benefit, at whose cost, and to what purpose, probably feel instinctively that everyone “ought” to care. That they don’t feels like a moral deficit, even if we’d never dare put it like that.

But the other moral is for us. I do care a little bit about the FIFA story because I can see ways it fits into a broader narrative about international politics, global inequality, gender and race, consumerism, the monetising of leisure pursuits, well, capitalism.  In this way I do ‘own’ a bit of the story. So how do we persuade our fellow citizens that they, too, are invested in politics? To make the casting of a vote something that matters deeply to their lives?

In other words, how do we turn a retail opinion picked up cheaply from workplace chatter, or a partisan media, or family habit into a carefully hand-crafted judgement based upon careful consideration? Can it even be done?

Most professional electoral politics assumes that it can’t. It’s assumed that people aren’t much interested, don’t really want to be informed, and so elections are just things to be ‘gamed’, and the winners will be the party that plays the game (it used to be called spin) best. Glorified marketing, rather than active political engagement, with parties as brands – “Labour Nouveau – With Added Aspiration!”

That’s depressingly cynical.  Surely, as with football, there must be another way?

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