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The public doesn’t exist

Updated Tuesday, 4th May 2010

What is the role of the 'publics' during an election campaign?

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During an election campaign our politicians are focused even more than usual on their public appeal. This is the time party politicians stake their claim to represent the public, public values and the public interest. We are used to the idea that the UK public is something like the population, the sum of people that live, think and act in the UK.

But the fact that there is more than one political party indicates that there may be more than one public. But what if publics are fictional entities? Entities that are made up and only come into being through different forms of mediation and narration, that is through polls, rallies, interactions with the media, blogs or tweets?

Take Back Parliament protestors Creative commons image Icon Scotticus_ under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license
Take Back Parliament protestors during the period of coalition negotiations

Publics may be the beating heart of the body politic, but they are peculiar entities and they may well be in the process of getting even more peculiar and difficult to pin down. We live at a time when we are continually told that publics are worryingly disengaged from or even totally unengaged in politics.

At the same time we are endlessly clued-up about public opinion, swamped in a dizzying array of public campaigns and have access to technologies that invite us to be public as never before.

Non-mainstream politics

In part, contemporary public life feels peculiar because the authority, legitimacy and trustworthiness of mainstream politics is being questioned with increasing intensity.

This has opened the way for non-mainstream public organisations and individuals to stake their claim to be public representatives. So despite being in the midst of an election campaign that is in many ways very traditional, we find ourselves bombarded not just by party politicians but by media commentators, business leaders, celebrities and of course the Institute for Fiscal Studies; all of whom are competing with each other for public credibility, political authority and popular appeal.

So when you are next summoned as a member of the public pause for a moment to reflect on how you respond. Do you ignore it, argue with it, correct it or decide to represent yourself via an email or tweet? If you do decide to try and represent yourself, it is always possible others may join you and that a new public may be born.

The promise of being public is that it offers at least the possibility to act in self-organised and autonomous way. In practice there are of course infinite obstacles to organising forms of public action. Nevertheless, the fiction of a public and the technologies of publicity now at our disposal will mean that publics are likely, against the odds, to continue to form and perform in new and unexpected ways. Many of which are likely to continue to take our politicians by surprise.

 

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