People won't vote for northern robots any more than they will for southern robots. Photo: Flickr/Paul Stevenson
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It's patronising to say the shadow cabinet needs different accents – we need different ideas

The Labour MP Simon Danczuk, who himself has a northern accent, finds leadership candidate Andy Burnham's call for more regional accents in the shadow cabinet patronising.

There can’t be many Members of Parliament who talk about the "Westminster bubble" more than I do, but it seems that Andy Burnham is on a mission to catch up. Andy now drops the phrase in at every opportunity as part of his campaign to persuade people he’s the leadership candidate who can reconnect with an electorate that’s increasingly disillusioned with politics.

I certainly agree with Andy that Labour has a huge image problem. Too often we appear to be representatives of a distant elite who are more at home in think tank seminars than in working men’s clubs. It’s damaging Labour as voters turn to anti-establishment parties to vent their frustration at the political class.

However, while we share an appreciation of the problem, I remain unconvinced by Andy’s proposed solution. His main idea so far seems to be that we need more people with regional accents within the shadow cabinet. This comes across as patronising, and it’s not enough to win back people’s trust. Promoting people based on accent rather than ability is a recipe for disaster.

As I see it, there are two major problems we need to address. The first concerns the way the Labour party communicates with voters. We still seem wedded to a command and control style of political communication based on hammering home the message of the day in a robotic fashion. This approach stifles authenticity, which is increasingly becoming one of the most important qualities in politics.

Even worse, the public can see straight through people who are reading from a script and immediately switch off. This may have worked in the Nineties, but in an age of increasing media exposure and direct access to politicians through social media it’s clear this way of communicating has passed its sell by date.

Different accents are not the answer here, people will not vote for northern robots any more than they would vote for southern robots, we need to let our politicians speak more freely and develop their own authentic styles of communication.

This points to a bigger truth that’s driving mistrust in politics. When I talk to people who are frustrated with the system, one of the things that gets raised time and again is the belief that political leaders don’t understand how policies will actually impact on their lives. The remote worlds of Westminster and Whitehall seem completely inappropriate places to be making decisions about what’s best for places like Rochdale. Again, the solution is not more people with different accents around the top table but a radical devolution of power down to local communities.

Labour needs to learn to let go of its centralising instincts and trust that local areas will be able to better deliver services that are tailored to the unique challenges they face. We could start by following Liz Kendall’s plan for a more localised work programme and allowing local authorities to keep more of their business rates revenue.

Importantly this radical devolution of power has to go past local government and give more power directly to patients, pupils and parents. This means we should explore personal budgets in healthcare and, yes, be more comfortable with the idea of parents getting involved in the education system.

This is where Andy begins to come unstuck. He has made some noises about devolution recently, but his track record is not brilliant. His opposition to devolution of health spending to Greater Manchester was indicative of the kind of "we know best" attitude that Labour has to move away from.

If we’re serious about reconnecting with the electorate then we’ll need much more than a few different voices at the top. I’m all for people with regional accents having more power, but I want it to be people on the ground in our towns and cities, not stuck in meeting rooms in Westminster. Gesture politics won’t cut it any longer, we need new ideas more than new voices.

Simon Danczuk is Labour MP for Rochdale.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.