The day after winning the men’s singles title at Wimbledon, Andy Murray was the guest of honour at a hastily arranged reception on the Downing Street lawn. Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg were there alongside David Cameron and, at one point, the tennis star found himself in polite chatter with the three leaders. “It’s so nice to see you all getting along so well,” Murray observed drily. “Shame you can’t be like this all the time.” There was an awkward pause. The emotionless delivery made it impossible to tell if he was being deadpan or deadly earnest.
Something is wrong with our politics when party leaders behaving like civilised human beings is noteworthy and the suggestion they do it more often is potentially laughable. People who spend a lot of time in Westminster come to judge politicians on their own rarefied terms and forget what the rest of the country sees: robotic interviews, synthetic smiles and smug put-downs bellowed across the House of Commons. It is weird and unattractive. The theatrical combat is presumed to be phoney – politicians hamming up their differences when really they are all the same. The rebuke is partly fair, given the generous representation of white, fortysomething, Oxbridge-educated men on parliament’s front benches. The ranks of political journalism are no more diverse.
The party leaders are aware of how distant they are from the electorate. They have all tried doses of unfiltered public exposure as a remedy. The Conservative leader took his “Cameron Direct” show on the road long before the last election and occasionally revives the format. Labour’s local election campaign this spring involved Miliband addressing crowds from a box in market squares. Since January, Clegg has performed in a weekly radio phone-in show.
These devices are designed to allow candidates to get their message across unmediated by the press. They also allow aides to brief the media that the candidates are taking their message directly to the public. The leaders always think they have gone down well, because British audiences are mostly deferential to people they have seen on television. Vanity translates politeness as approval.
Parading social confidence and calling it the common touch does nothing to resolve the crisis in political representation. The historical party allegiances are fraying; membership is in long-term decline. To join a party is an eccentric act these days and, as some MPs privately concede, a rip-off. You buy the opportunity to surrender your time in the service of a remote machine. During elections, you get begging emails asking for more. The firmer you are in your ideals, the likelier it is that you will be rejected as naive and obtuse when your party forms a government.
Of the big three, Labour has the most developed strategy for dealing with this problem. Miliband has embraced the US model of “community organising” – training activists to mobilise neighbours and friends towards modest local goals such as getting derelict parks cleaned up and potholes filled. The idea is that when people see tangible results, they feel empowered and start thinking of politics as something they do, rather than something done to them. Miliband’s team doesn’t claim that this is a substitute for conventional campaigning but it is keen to advertise it as a symbol of the leader’s ambition to change the way politics works.
The Tories are starting to notice Labour’s higher levels of local organisation. In marginal seats, they say their opponents are ahead in surveying the battleground and mapping potential supporters with a view to getting them out on polling day. In a close election, having boots on the ground is vital. As one Labour strategist puts it: “They can outspend us but we will out-organise them.”
Meanwhile, Tories hoping to unseat Lib Dems have taken as a warning the Eastleigh by-election in February. Conditions could hardly have been worse for Clegg’s party. Its national opinion poll ratings barely touched double figures; the outgoing MP was heading for jail; Lord Rennard, the mastermind of past by-election victories, had been accused of sexual harassment. The Lib Dems were marching into a force-ten tabloid gale and still the seat was held.
That result was down to local intelligence and tenacious activism. Miliband knows the value of those resources because it was their depletion in Bradford West that allowed George Galloway to nick what should have been a safe Labour seat for the Respect Party. Many Tories worry that their own local reserves are ineffective or running away to Ukip.
That deficiency doesn’t register in Westminster because the Conservatives are dominant in the “air war” – the campaign to set the tone of national news coverage and thereby control the terms of political debate. Tory MPs are cheery: they see the economy slowly recovering and they see Labour pinned down as the party of mass immigration, lavish benefits and sucking up to Brussels. At least, that is what the newspapers they read tell them and they notice enough glum expressions on the faces of Labour MPs for it to ring true.
But the Conservative momentum has limits. It is ethnically and geographically confined. Labour and Lib Dem private polling tells them that outside the south-east, there is still no shortage of people who just don’t like Tories and won’t vote for them. That cultural inoculation isn’t new, so it doesn’t get reported much. It also goes against the grain of most political commentary, which assumes direct transmission from the tone of stories in London-based newspapers to national voting intentions. That is a risky assumption. A common theme in by-elections and council polls during this parliament has been that voters are angry with politicians and express their rage in unpredictable ways. The Westminster view is that the Tories are on a roll but Westminster is short-sighted. It may also no longer be where politics is won.