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

Source: Getty Images

Neil O'Brien is the director of Policy Exchange.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.