Westminster’s short-sighted obsessions will not be what decides the next election

The Tories are starting to notice Labour’s higher levels of local organisation.

The day after winning the men’s singles title at Wimbledon, Andy Murray was the guest of honour at a hastily arranged reception on the Downing Street lawn. Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg were there alongside David Cameron and, at one point, the tennis star found himself in polite chatter with the three leaders. “It’s so nice to see you all getting along so well,” Murray observed drily. “Shame you can’t be like this all the time.” There was an awkward pause. The emotionless delivery made it impossible to tell if he was being deadpan or deadly earnest.
 
Something is wrong with our politics when party leaders behaving like civilised human beings is noteworthy and the suggestion they do it more often is potentially laughable. People who spend a lot of time in Westminster come to judge politicians on their own rarefied terms and forget what the rest of the country sees: robotic interviews, synthetic smiles and smug put-downs bellowed across the House of Commons. It is weird and unattractive. The theatrical combat is presumed to be phoney – politicians hamming up their differences when really they are all the same. The rebuke is partly fair, given the generous representation of white, fortysomething, Oxbridge-educated men on parliament’s front benches. The ranks of political journalism are no more diverse.
 
The party leaders are aware of how distant they are from the electorate. They have all tried doses of unfiltered public exposure as a remedy. The Conservative leader took his “Cameron Direct” show on the road long before the last election and occasionally revives the format. Labour’s local election campaign this spring involved Miliband addressing crowds from a box in market squares. Since January, Clegg has performed in a weekly radio phone-in show.
 
These devices are designed to allow candidates to get their message across unmediated by the press. They also allow aides to brief the media that the candidates are taking their message directly to the public. The leaders always think they have gone down well, because British audiences are mostly deferential to people they have seen on television. Vanity translates politeness as approval.
 
Parading social confidence and calling it the common touch does nothing to resolve the crisis in political representation. The historical party allegiances are fraying; membership is in long-term decline. To join a party is an eccentric act these days and, as some MPs privately concede, a rip-off. You buy the opportunity to surrender your time in the service of a remote machine. During elections, you get begging emails asking for more. The firmer you are in your ideals, the likelier it is that you will be rejected as naive and obtuse when your party forms a government.
 
Of the big three, Labour has the most developed strategy for dealing with this problem. Miliband has embraced the US model of “community organising” – training activists to mobilise neighbours and friends towards modest local goals such as getting derelict parks cleaned up and potholes filled. The idea is that when people see tangible results, they feel empowered and start thinking of politics as something they do, rather than something done to them. Miliband’s team doesn’t claim that this is a substitute for conventional campaigning but it is keen to advertise it as a symbol of the leader’s ambition to change the way politics works.
 
The Tories are starting to notice Labour’s higher levels of local organisation. In marginal seats, they say their opponents are ahead in surveying the battleground and mapping potential supporters with a view to getting them out on polling day. In a close election, having boots on the ground is vital. As one Labour strategist puts it: “They can outspend us but we will out-organise them.”
 
Meanwhile, Tories hoping to unseat Lib Dems have taken as a warning the Eastleigh by-election in February. Conditions could hardly have been worse for Clegg’s party. Its national opinion poll ratings barely touched double figures; the outgoing MP was heading for jail; Lord Rennard, the mastermind of past by-election victories, had been accused of sexual harassment. The Lib Dems were marching into a force-ten tabloid gale and still the seat was held.
 
That result was down to local intelligence and tenacious activism. Miliband knows the value of those resources because it was their depletion in Bradford West that allowed George Galloway to nick what should have been a safe Labour seat for the Respect Party. Many Tories worry that their own local reserves are ineffective or running away to Ukip.
 
That deficiency doesn’t register in Westminster because the Conservatives are dominant in the “air war” – the campaign to set the tone of national news coverage and thereby control the terms of political debate. Tory MPs are cheery: they see the economy slowly recovering and they see Labour pinned down as the party of mass immigration, lavish benefits and sucking up to Brussels. At least, that is what the newspapers they read tell them and they notice enough glum expressions on the faces of Labour MPs for it to ring true.
 
But the Conservative momentum has limits. It is ethnically and geographically confined. Labour and Lib Dem private polling tells them that outside the south-east, there is still no shortage of people who just don’t like Tories and won’t vote for them. That cultural inoculation isn’t new, so it doesn’t get reported much. It also goes against the grain of most political commentary, which assumes direct transmission from the tone of stories in London-based newspapers to national voting intentions. That is a risky assumption. A common theme in by-elections and council polls during this parliament has been that voters are angry with politicians and express their rage in unpredictable ways. The Westminster view is that the Tories are on a roll but Westminster is short-sighted. It may also no longer be where politics is won. 
David Cameron and Ed Miliband walk through the Members' Lobby to listen to the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament on May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.