Focus on voters' 'wellbeing' to counter populism, says former head of UK civil cervice

Gus O'DonnellLSE / TwitterGus O’Donnell speaks at LSE, 11 December

Politicians need to consider voters’ feelings of wellbeing to counter the rise of populism and win elections, according to the former head of the British civil service.

Gus O’Donnell told an LSE event on Monday that the areas which voted for Brexit suffered from the biggest inequalities in wellbeing, according to the BBC.

He praised ex-prime minister David Cameron for collecting statistics on wellbeing, but suggested he may have fought a better Brexit campaign if he had paid more attention to the concept, and considered that globalisation had not evenly spread its benefits.

He said:

“Take the recent referendum on leaving the EU. The Remain case was mainly that leaving would damage economic prospects. The leavers said it would give us back control of our country […] people are arguing that the results reflect the rise of populism. Yet one common feature is a feeling that the gains from globalisation and technology are not evenly spread.

“The answer is not less globalisation or technical progress — indeed we need more to raise productivity — but better ways of spreading the gains. The gainers are not compensating the losers. In the UK, the greater the inequality in wellbeing, the more likely an area was to vote leave.”

Wellbeing data is created by asking respondents questions which focuses on life satisfaction, sense of purpose, and levels of anxiety. LSE research has found a strong correlation between low wellbeing rates and areas which voted to leave the EU.

O’Donnell said that the solution was to promote people’s “long-running, sustainable wellbeing.” He said that politicians should “get ahead” of voters’ sense of a lack of wellbeing, “otherwise they will vote against whatever they feel is the status quo.”

One way to do this, he said, was to focus on children’s wellbeing at school.

He said: “If you want to enhance long-run, sustainable wellbeing then help children to become more resilient, more fulfilled adults.”

“That means focusing teachers and parents on the wellbeing of their children, yet today we spend all our time measuring exam results,” he added.

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