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 decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era