My election as the MP for Manchester Central has the unfortunate record of being the lowest turnout for a by-election, indeed any election, since the Second World War. In my constituency, turnout is particularly low in areas with high numbers of young people and students like Hulme and Ardwick.
Our politics is broken, with turnout falling and people disengaged and switched off from politicians and the political process, but do developments over the last few weeks offer a turning point?
I’m part of the People's Politics Inquiry, the Labour Party's policy review on political engagement, I have been keen to speak to younger voters, or non-voters in most cases. What I've found, while not unsurprising, is telling and is making me re-think how I do things, and how we as a Pprty could start to address some of the issues.
I arranged to visit a Street League group of young people in my constituency to engage them in a discussion. Street League is a charity which uses football to get 16-25-year-olds into work and training. Only one of the eight lads I met had ever voted but he couldn’t remember who for or why. At first they were sceptical about meeting and hearing from an MP. but what quickly unfolded was a highly political and informed discussion. They were intensely interested and knowledgeable in what was happening in their own communities, as well as national issues.
Their views of politicians were familiar: we are all the same; we avoid answering questions; we don't look and sound like them; we don't understand their lives. Even though these are familiar refrains, it's still depressing. On politics more generally, they don't vote or participate quite simply because they don't see politics as a vehicle for change.
They found me different to their perceptions of a politician but they still didn’t see me as being able to deliver change for them. They didn’t see that the choice of which party was in power mattered for their communities. They wanted to see politicians and parties rooted in their communities. Physically present amongst them, not just on the airwaves or on social media.
The group felt that politicians were part of a cosy club, which ensures that all their interests are looked after while everyone else pays the price.
I take from my conversations that, yes, we must continue efforts to diversify our stock of politicians, but, perhaps importantly, we need to encourage and help create a political culture that allows for difference, for greater freedom to be outspoken and to live normal lives with their inherent mistakes. This isn't just a challenge for political parties but also for those who follow and report on politics. That’s why Ed Miliband’s stance on the Mail is such an important marker. Politicians and their families must be allowed to have lives.
On policy, we need to be bigger and bolder in our politics. The lads from Street League articulated what many others feel: that the power of politics and governments is increasingly limited in the face of vested interests – global financial markets, big business, train and energy companies and so on. Ed Miliband's ambitious challenge to these cosy clubs, as he showed with the energy companies last week, is very important here. We must continue to flesh out a bold policy programme across a range of areas as we build on what has the potential to be a powerful and popular cause.
Ed Miliband is on to something. I will continue my dialogue with non-voters to see how they respond to this new direction as we build towards the general election and beyond, taking action for the many against the vested interests of the powerful.