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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Trade unions must change or face permanent decline

Union membership will fall below one in five employees by 2030 unless current trends are reversed. 

The future should be full of potential for trade unions. Four in five people in Great Britain think that trade unions are “essential” to protect workers’ interests. Public concerns about low pay have soared to record levels over recent years. And, after almost disappearing from view, there is now a resurgent debate about the quality and dignity of work in today’s Britain.

Yet, as things stand, none of these currents are likely to reverse long-term decline. Membership has fallen by almost half since the late 1970s and at the same time the number of people in work has risen by a quarter. Unions are heavily skewed towards the public sector, older workers and middle-to-high earners. Overall, membership is now just under 25 per cent of all employees, however in the private sector it falls to 14 per cent nationally and 10 per cent in London. Less than 1 in 10 of the lowest paid are members. Across large swathes of our economy unions are near invisible.

The reasons are complex and deep-rooted — sweeping industrial change, anti-union legislation, shifts in social attitudes and the rise of precarious work to name a few — but the upshot is plain to see. Looking at the past 15 years, membership has fallen from 30 per cent in 2000 to 25 per cent in 2015. As the TUC have said, we are now into a 2nd generation of “never members”, millions of young people are entering the jobs market without even a passing thought about joining a union. Above all, demographics are taking their toll: baby boomers are retiring; millennials aren’t signing up.

This is a structural problem for the union movement because if fewer young workers join then it’s a rock-solid bet that fewer of their peers will sign-up in later life — setting in train a further wave of decline in membership figures in the decades ahead. As older workers, who came of age in the 1970s when trade unions were at their most dominant, retire and are replaced with fewer newcomers, union membership will fall. The question is: by how much?

The chart below sets out our analysis of trends in membership over the 20 years for which detailed membership data is available (the thick lines) and a fifteen year projection period (the dotted lines). The filled-in dots show where membership is today and the white-filled dots show our projection for 2030. Those born in the 1950s were the last cohort to see similar membership rates to their predecessors.

 

Our projections (the white-filled dots) are based on the assumption that changes in membership in the coming years simply track the path that previous cohorts took at the same age. For example, the cohort born in the late 1980s saw a 50 per cent increase in union membership as they moved from their early to late twenties. We have assumed that the same percentage increase in membership will occur over the coming decade among those born in the late 1990s.

This may turn out to be a highly optimistic assumption. Further fragmentation in the nature of work or prolonged austerity, for example, could curtail the familiar big rise in membership rates as people pass through their twenties. Against this, it could be argued that a greater proportion of young people spending longer in education might simply be delaying the age at which union membership rises, resulting in sharper growth among those in their late twenties in the future. However, to date this simply hasn’t happened. Membership rates for those in their late twenties have fallen steadily: they stand at 19 per cent among today’s 26–30 year olds compared to 23 per cent a decade ago, and 29 per cent two decades ago.

All told our overall projection is that just under 20 per cent of employees will be in a union by 2030. Think of this as a rough indication of where the union movement will be in 15 years’ time if history repeats itself. To be clear, this doesn’t signify union membership suddenly going over a cliff; it just points to steady, continual decline. If accurate, it would mean that by 2030 the share of trade unionists would have fallen by a third since the turn of the century.

Let’s hope that this outlook brings home the urgency of acting to address this generational challenge. It should spark far-reaching debate about what the next chapter of pro-worker organisation should look like. Some of this thinking is starting to happen inside our own union movement. But it needs to come from outside of the union world too: there is likely to be a need for a more diverse set of institutions experimenting with new ways of supporting those in exposed parts of the workforce. There’s no shortage of examples from the US — a country whose union movement faces an even more acute challenge than ours — of how to innovate on behalf of workers.

It’s not written in the stars that these gloomy projections will come to pass. They are there to be acted on. But if the voices of union conservatism prevail — and the offer to millennials is more of the same — no-one should be at all surprised about where this ends up.

This post originally appeared on Gavin Kelly's blog