Education & Family

Voters' well-being 'key to election success'

Contemplative figure Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Mental health is a big contributor to well-being

Politicians need to pay more attention to voters' sense of well-being if they want to win elections, says the former head of the British civil service.

Lord O'Donnell pointed out that areas which voted for Brexit were those with the biggest inequalities in well-being.

He added if ministers did not take account of constituents' satisfaction levels, people would just "vote against what they feel is the status quo".

He was speaking at a conference in London on improving well-being.

The former cabinet secretary told academics gathered at the London School of Economics that most philosophers and politicians shared a view that they should be striving to improve the quality of people's lives.

This meant trying to enhance their "long-running, sustainable well-being", he told Monday's conference, organised jointly with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

'Rise of populism'

Well-being was a very subjective concept, Lord O'Donnell said, describing it as "a democratic measure based on people's feelings, not something handed down on stone from the statistical office".

He praised David Cameron for initiating a process for measuring well-being, but suggested the former prime minister might have conducted a better Brexit campaign if he had used some of the resulting statistics.

"Take the recent referendum on leaving the EU, the Remain case was mainly that leaving would damage economic prospects," he added.

"The leavers said it would give us back control of our country.

"Hillary Clinton argued that her greater experience would lead to better government, growth and reduced inequality: [Donald] Trump said he would make America great again.

"In both cases, and more recently in Italy, people are arguing that the results reflect the rise of populism," he said.

"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 well-being, the more likely an area was to vote leave."

Exam results

He said the trick for politicians was to "get ahead" of their voters' sense of a lack of well-being, "otherwise they will vote against whatever they feel is the status quo".

He urged politicians in France, the Netherlands and Italy, who were facing elections, to study this carefully.

"The relationship between well-being and the future of political incumbents is as you would expect," he added.

Lord O'Donnell also urged ministers to take on board the importance of children's well-being in schools.

He said: "If you want to enhance long-run, sustainable well-being then help children to become more resilient, more fulfilled adults.

"That means focusing teachers and parents on the well-being of their children, yet today we spend all our time measuring exam results."

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