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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.