The ‘town hall debate’ in the 1992 US presidential election was one of the most potent moments in modern western politics. An audience member asked, “how has the national debt personally affected each of your lives? And if it hasn’t, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what’s ailing them?” Billionaire Ross Perot was wrongfooted, George Bush Snr muttered something about the deficit, interest rates and his grandchildren. And then Bill Clinton stepped away from the podium and towards the lady in the audience who had asked the question, asking how the recession had affected her.
After establishing that the questioner knew people who had lost their homes and jobs during the recession, Clinton talked about the similar experiences of people he knew in Arkansas before relating it to his overall campaign themes. In a few seconds, Clinton had achieved the holy grail of modern politics – illustrating empathy and authenticity in difficult times. Bush and Perot failed to do that and paid the price. And modern British politicians are largely failing to do this as well, leading, at least in part, to the UKIP surge of last week.
“Politicians don’t understand the real world at all.” That was the firm view of over 80 per cent of voters in a poll last year. And last Thursday’s elections saw the bursting of that dam of frustration with a Westminster elite seen as narrow and out of touch. If mainstream politicians don’t act quickly to reconnect with hard-pressed, ordinary voters, they’ll find that last week’s results could mark the beginning of a trend, rather than a one-off howl of voter rage.
The same poll showed that, for the vast majority of voters, the Tories are seen as the “party of the rich, not ordinary people” – an impression that is one of the party’s biggest electoral handicaps. But the leadership of the other parties also seem out of touch with the struggles of much of the country. As people struggle to make their pay packet last and worry about job security, senior politicians are not seen to understand people’s everyday struggles.
And that, at least to an extent, has helped contribute to UKIP’s surge and the general lack of enthusiasm about all of our mainstream political parties. As Lord Ashcroft’s extensive research showed, concern about Europe is not the primary reason for UKIP’s rise. Rather, UKIP voters are likely to agree with the statement that the party is “on the side of people like me” – something that they don’t regard the mainstream parties as being. Indeed, a recent YouGov poll found that 53 per cent of voters thought that Labour used to care about “people like me”, compared to only 30 per cent today.
That helps explain why the shift to UKIP last Thursday wasn’t, as conventional wisdom once suggested, largely from once Tory voters. Indeed, as Mark Pack and John Rentoul have argued, Labour may have lost more votes to UKIP than the Tories. And UKIP seemed to pick up votes from the skilled working class voters once courted so successfully by Thatcher and Blair. Both Labour and the Conservatives failed to capture the imagination of the skilled working class last time, with Labour’s vote plunging from 51 per cent in Blair’s biggest landslides to 29 per cent.
This disengagement of the skilled working class with the major political parties has hardly come as a surprise. In 1992, 75 per cent of ‘C2’ voters turned out to vote. In 2010, that figure was 58 per cent. Parliament remains too middle class, with too few MPs who can genuinely relate to the struggles that accompany a squeeze in living standards. To many voters, frontline politicians all come from a narrow background and have little to no experience of ‘the real world’. It was always inevitable that a party would come along that capitalised from this sense of disengagement.
There’s no simple solution to this problem, of course, but one thing the mainstream parties mustn’t do is to ape UKIP – that would look desperate and forced. Instead, politicians have to try harder to show that they understand the pressures that hard working people are under and do something about it. The Budget was a step in the right direction, but it’s clear that so much more needs to be done about the cost of fuel, cost of housing, job security and the cost of travel. The political establishment also has to take active measures to broaden the social base of parliament.
Knee jerking and gesture politics are not going to re-engage voters with mainstream politics. Instead, through their words and actions, politicians have to display the kind of authenticity and empathy that Clinton illustrated to devastating effect a few decades ago.
David Skelton is former deputy director of Policy Exchange and is launching a new campaign group to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party to working class and ethnic minority voters