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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After a year of division, a new centre is emerging in Labour

Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds show how factionalism is being transcended. 

On 26 September, Clive Lewis sat onstage at Labour’s conference in Liverpool and puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. He had just been informed that a line in his speech as shadow defence secretary committing the party to Trident renewal had been removed by Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Such was his annoyance that he was said to have later punched a wall in anger ("I punched no walls," he told me when we recently met). 

For Lewis, however, the feud proved to be a blessing. Hitherto hostile MPs hailed his pragmatism and deference to party unity (he is a long-standing opponent of Trident renewal). The former soldier also affirmed Labour’s support for Nato and for collective self-defence. “The values that underpin Nato are social-democratic values: liberty, democracy, freedom of expression,” Lewis, an early Corbyn ally, told me. “Let’s not forget, it was Clement Attlee and the New Deal Democrats who initiated and set up Nato. It’s about being in it to win it. It’s about winning the arguments inside Nato and making sure that it’s a force for good. Some people would say that’s impossible. I say you’ve got to be in it to be able to make those changes.”

In October, Lewis was replaced as shadow defence secretary by Nia Griffith and became shadow business secretary. Many regarded the appointment as a punishment. “Do I think there was an ulterior motive? I’ll never know,” Lewis said. “I’m confident that the reason I was moved – what I was told – is that they wanted me to be able to take on a big portfolio.”

Whatever the truth, Griffith has since said that Labour’s next general election manifesto will include a commitment to Trident renewal and will support multilateral, rather than unilateral, disarmament.

Many MPs had long feared that the divide between them and their leader would prove unbridgeable. Some contemplated standing on bespoke manifestos. Yet with little drama, Corbyn has retreated from a conflict that he could not win. Labour’s conference, at which the largely pro-Trident trade unions hold 50 per cent of the vote on policy and which the leader has vowed to respect, would never have endorsed unilateralism.

“Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for that,” Lewis said. “Everyone understands that his position hasn’t changed. He still believes in unilateral disarmament . . . But he’s also a democrat, and he’s a pragmatist, despite what people say.”

In policy terms, at least, Labour will contest the next general election as a less divided party than many anticipated. As Corbyn’s team has long emphasised, there is unity around issues such as opposition to spending cuts and support for rail renationalisation. A new centre for Labour, embodied by Lewis, is emerging.

“When I became an MP,” the 45-year-old told me (he was elected in Norwich South in 2015), “to be anti-austerity, to say that cuts don’t work and they’re bad economics, meant you weren’t in touch with reality, and that you had no interest in winning elections. Within the space of 18 months, there’s now a growing consensus that cuts aren’t the way forward and that we need an industrial strategy.”

Theresa May’s support for new grammar schools and “hard Brexit” has given Labour MPs other issues to unite around. After Corbyn’s second landslide leadership victory, many of his opponents have reached the final stage of grief: acceptance. Others, as Lewis noted, are imbued with “an eager enthusiasm to make this work”. Contrary to some predictions, more than half of the 63 frontbenchers who resigned last summer have returned.

An emblematic figure is Jonathan Reynolds. The Liz Kendall supporter, who resigned as shadow transport minister in January 2016, has rejoined the front bench as shadow City minister. Earlier this year, Reynolds backed the introduction of a universal basic income, an idea that is now being explored by John McDonnell’s team (and that Barack Obama has called for “debate” on). In July, Reynolds and Lewis wrote a joint piece in support of proportional representation (PR), warning that without it “a more equal, democratic and sustainable society is less likely”.

Another advocate of PR is Lisa Nandy, the former shadow energy secretary and a friend of Lewis (on 26 October, along with Reynolds, they called for Labour to stand aside in the Richmond by-election to aid the Liberal Democrats). In the view of some, the defining divide in Labour is no longer between left and right but between open and closed. On one side are pluralists such as Lewis, Reynolds and Nandy, while on the other are tribalists such as Ian Lavery (pro-Corbyn) and John Spellar (anti-Corbyn).

The division stretches to the top, with McDonnell in favour and Corbyn opposed. “It’s a work in progress,” Lewis said of his efforts to convert the Labour leader. “There’s a growing movement of MPs who now either support PR or understand the growing necessity for it. They may not be quite there themselves, but they’re moving in that direction.”

At times since Corbyn became leader, the parliamentary party’s divisions have appeared to many to be insurmountable, even as the party in the country has grown and been inspired by Corbyn. Yet a new consensus is being forged in the PLP: anti-austerity, pro-Trident, pro-Nato and, increasingly, committed to political and constitutional reform. If there is any consolation for a becalmed Labour Party, it is that its European counterparts are faring little better. In Spain, France and Germany, an already divided left is further fragmenting.

But Labour is likely to both fight and survive the next general election as a united force. If Lewis can retain his seat in Norwich (he has a potentially vulnerable majority of 7,654), he could one day act as the bridge between the party’s “soft” and “hard” left. After a year of factional skirmishes, the common ground in which Labour’s future will be shaped is emerging.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage