Time to take politics out of the conference centre to the pub. Photo: Getty
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Tackling apathy: forget conference halls, politics should be more like the pub

At present, politics is too small, too piecemeal and too insular to create real change for Britain.

With a whimper, not a bang, party conference season came to a close. Most of the British public would be forgiven entirely if they hadn’t noticed. In fact, a poll from Lord Ashcroft suggests that only 20 per cent of the public realised the annual political jamborees had taken place.

Whilst the Westminster Village may obsess about poll movements and ascribe great meaning and reason to them, the rest of the country continues its business largely untroubled. In Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow, politicians activists and lobbyists (too many lobbyists) met in largely sterile convention centres that to the naked eye looked like alien spaceships dropped at the heart of proud, (formerly) industrial cities. Conference attendees in all three cities will have been visible because of their conference passes, but also because they will have been amongst the small number of people in those places talking about politics. Because politics has lost its capacity to inspire and engage the British people.

Politicians will sometimes joke that a particularly esoteric issue isn’t being talked about down at their local pub. The truth of the matter is that politics – local, national, international – isn’t being talked about at any pub I’ve been to lately.

And how are the mainstream party conferences meant to change this? The fringe meetings are often vibrant, passionate, energetic and fizzing with ideas. But the hall – the bit those outside the ring of steel see if they are unlikely to flick over to the BBC Parliament channel – is sterile, stage-managed and largely uneventful. The announcements made by respective leaders – a spending readjustment here, a tax cut there, a pledge here, a cut there – barely resonates because it fails to punch through the fog of apathy that surrounds our politics, and fails to address the scale of the problems Britain faces.

And in comparison to the kinds of debate taking place in Scotland just a few weeks ago, the conferences all seemed a little small. I opposed separatism and nationalism, but you can’t deny that the level of interest and debate was sky high. Ask the woman I spoke to in Leith (who schooled me on the Bank of England as a lender of last resort) or the man in Dundee who tried to convince me of the impact of OPEC and oil prices on Scotland’s future if they were engaged in the debate. Or the countless people I overheard in shopping centres and high streets discussing their voting intention with friends, family and co-workers.

People are capable of a dramatic level of interest in politics if they feel what’s at stake is significant and their role in events matters. People need to feel that in the grand scheme of things, their decisions matter – and that they themselves matter.

And then, at the end of conference season, came a political event that the public did notice – one that might have shaken the conference bars out of their jolly, complacent torpor. Ukip won its first seat in the Commons and came perilously close to claiming another from Labour. Heywood and Middleton was – until last week – considered a "safe" Labour seat. A "safe seat". The very phrase explains why many people living in such seats, and elsewhere, might feel taken for granted.

There are seats across the country – and millions of people – who feel they don't have a say, they aren't listen to, and their concerns on a wide range of subjects are dismissed. For too long they have been told that their hopes and dreams were farfetched and unrealistic. Politicians of all stripes have trotted out mantras that sounded all too much like “we can’t change anything, vote for me to manage the decline”, and so the idea that “you’re all the same” began to take hold. Not because it was true (the differences between the Labour party and the Conservative party are stark – never believe anyone who tells you otherwise) but because no party was capable of articulating an entirely coherent and hopeful vision of the future.

Making that kind of case hasn’t been how politics has worked in this country for some time. All too often negativity clouds the senses and dominates what we might optimistically call “political debate”. Parties claim high-handedly that only they and they alone have the answers to our problems. Politicians talk openly in terms of the number of people they need to vote for them – blind to the implicit acceptance that they’re also identifying the number of people that it’s ok for them to ignore or marginalise.

Tell a politician they should aim for 50 per cent of the vote and you might as well be telling them to build a spaceship from lollipop sticks and send themselves to the moon.

Not so long ago, David Cameron said that Britain was broken. Perhaps he was wrong then, but after spending the past four years breaking it, he might be right now. Any party seeking to not only win next year – but also seek a popular mandate to govern – will need to convince the British people that the ideas exist to fix our cracking-at-the-edges nation.

So let’s talk about the problems that face Britain.

 - Millions are paid poverty wages, and that’s largely accepted – so who will promise to eliminate poverty pay?

 - Millions live in cramped homes or have no permanent home at all. Housing waiting lists grow year on year as the housing crisis gets worse not better – so who will promise to build the homes Britain needs, and soon?

 - Social care costs cripple family budgets, and the quality of care our ever-increasing number of elderly citizens receives is still patchy and based on cost rather than need. So who will deliver a quality social care system that works for all, not just all who can afford it?

 - Childcare costs force many parents to stay at home because the cost of childcare is too great. So who will deliver a childcare system that’s affordable and universal – unleashing growth in our economy by getting the skilled back into work and earning their own way?

A hope of a better tomorrow. A shining beacon on the hill. An idea that makes the heart sing.

That’s what Britain needs.

We can’t expect all of our problems to be solved at once – especially during such tough times – but properly tackling just one of these crises would indicate a level of ambition for our country, our people and – yes – our politics, that is sorely missing at the moment. We need a shared mission for Britain, with shared sacrifice alongside participation and shared ownership of something bigger than ourselves.

In Scotland I saw a sense of hope – on both sides – that another kind of country was possible. At present, politics is too small, too piecemeal and too insular to create that kind of change. To get that, the conferences might need to be a bit more like the fringes and a bit less like the staid and micro-managed conference halls. Politics will need to be more like the pub and less like the debating chamber, and society will need to be more like a family and less like a contest.

The party that grasps that now, or in the future, will reap the benefits. And so will the people who need such changes most.

Mark Ferguson is editor of LabourList. He is speaking at Class conference 2014 on 1 November. You can purchase tickets here: http://classonline.org.uk/conference2014   

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump