Escaping the Westminster bubble

A new report from Policy Exchange suggests ways in which political parties could try and reconnect w

Is there such a thing as the north-south divide when it comes to politics in this country? New Policy Exchange research out tomorrow examines social attitudes towards a number of policy issues. We also explore the perception of voters across the country to modern day politicians and their perceptions of the Conservatives and Labour.

The findings paint a gloomy picture. There’s a strong anti politics mood right across England at the moment, with a real feeling that politicians of all parties are out of touch and don’t understand the real concerns of ordinary people. Over 80 per cent of voters think that “politicians don’t understand the real world at all”. That should be a real warning to Labour and Tory politicians that they should be doing more to respond to voter’s aspirations and worries.

What are these concerns and what can political parties do to reconnect with ordinary voters?

Our poll shows that almost half of the people we asked are worried that their children will not be able to get on in life, with almost 40 per cent saying that they are very or fairly worried about paying their bills. People living in the north, older voters and women felt the squeeze the most.

It’s fairly clear from our poll that much of the anti politics mood derives from a belief that politicians do not understand or empathise with people who are having difficulty making ends meet.

That presents a real challenge for political parties.  The stalemate at the last election showed that neither party managed to sufficiently empathise with or appeal to hard pressed voters.  And our poll shows that the situation has got even worse for the political parties since the election.

What can be done to bridge this divide? We’ve already put forward proposals for Government to cut energy bills and meet their green targets by stopping wasting money on expensive technologies like offshore wind and shifting the focus to more cost effective ways to reduce emissions.  Our recent report on the need to attract people – especially young people - to cities where there are more jobs and higher wages focused on reforming the planning system to enable more good, quality homes to be built in places where people actually want to live.

And our polling suggests that there is even more that political parties can do to show to hard pressed voters that they understand their concerns.

It’s pretty clear that voters want to see politicians who empathise more with their concerns and look and feel more like the modern Britain they know.  When it comes to candidate selection, political parties have been trying hard to look like modern Britain in the past few years.  But, according to voters in our poll they’ve been choosing the wrong priorities.

When asked how political parties could change the way they look and feel, almost half of the ‘Conservative swing’ voters said that the Tories should recruit more MPs with experience outside politics and 42 per cent said the Tories should adopt more working class candidates. Getting more female and ethnic minority MPs was a preoccupation of the first wave of Tory modernisation.  The Tories still have a long way to go on both, and voters still want them to do more. But perhaps because a start has been made, these factors are now a bit further down the list of worries: the top priorities are getting more MPs from working class, and from outside the political class.

Interestingly, the results for Labour were similar – 45 per cent of Labour swing voters wanted the party to adopt more MPs with experience outside politics, 31 per cent wanted more Labour MPs with business experience and 29 per cent said that should be more Labour MPs from working class backgrounds. In focus groups people felt that while the two parties used to be quite different, Labour MPs were now quite similar socially to Tories: public school, Oxbridge, Westminster insiders.

The findings of our survey are pretty stark and equally unsurprising. There is a strong view that the Westminster village is a bubble that doesn’t understand the concerns of voters who are struggling to keep their heads above water. Politicians are believed to be protected from the squeeze by their wealth, expenses and perks. If politicians are going to reconnect with voters, they need to look and feel more representative of working people; they need to make the cost of living their number one priority, and get unemployment down.  The public are losing faith in mainstream politicians.  Having listened to them pouring out their anger and frustration in focus groups, I now worry that if mainstream politicians don’t get better at showing they understand “real Britain”, something really nasty will emerge to fill the vacuum.

Neil O'Brien is director of the thinktank Policy Exchange

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Neil O'Brien is the director of Policy Exchange.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide