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29 May 2015

The Left must speak to us all, not just our own aspiration

I was an "ordinary voter" during the election campaign. It gave me a terrifying window into the state of British politics.

By julia Brosnan

In Labour’s post-defeat analysis, the most striking thing I’ve heard is Jon Cruddas on the simple, but fundamental point that the series of micro-policies the party strung together did not form a coherent whole. What was missing, he said, was an ‘overall, coherent, animated sense of who we are.’ In old fashioned times this was called an ideology, but one assumes that nowadays such terminology would frighten the horses. Bizarrely in fact, virtually anything overtly political seems to be perceived extremely scary, as I discovered during my pre-election stint as an ‘ordinary voter’ on various broadcast panels and programmes.

In their quest for ‘ordinary voters’ the broadcast media needs to demonstrate both ordinariness and balance, and the way they go about this also serves as a handy (if depressingly sheep-like) barometer of the national mood, or more precisely, of their perception of the national mood. And so, pre-show priming invariably involved an assessment of the percentage probability of which way we panelists were likely to vote and what issues were important to us.  So far so good. However it soon emerged that we had been selected for our personal circumstances and predicted responses, rather than for our political thinking. As someone running a social enterprise I was there to talk about VAT and business rates rather than the need to get rid of Trident, and whilst I wasn’t exactly gagged for sounding off about that, along with the shame of food banks and the dismantling of the welfare state, I did get several nervous ‘heads up’ that this type of talk was too ‘left wing’ and was therefore disrupting the carefully constructed balance. In order to keep to the ordinary agenda it would be better if I focused on issues that affected me.

This is extremely telling. In their role as barometers of the national mood, the message from the broadcasters is that the ordinary concerns of ordinary voters are largely personal, that people vote about things that directly affect them.

This is why food banks are deemed to be such a marginal issue – the percentage of people who actually use them is tiny, so what is everyone else bothered about?  Once you start talking about the social, economic, and political effects on the rest of society, not to mention a concern for the people who have use them, you’ve gone into ‘politics’ and spoilt the pre-constructed balance as well as over stepping the mark for an ordinary person.

When the broadcast media follows this path it ends up with ordinary people doing exactly what Jon Cruddas said of the Labour Party – they focus on a series of disconnected micro policies, largely domestically based, rather than an overarching direction and vision built on an analysis of how we got where we are. As it is ordinary people who vote, and who are the subject of the much vaunted focus groups and polls, which are apparently the main feeding ground for policy makers, you can see how reductive the whole process is.  Add to this is the frenzy over key marginals and the debate becomes ever narrower, especially when the broadcasters complete this unhealthy cycle by reading it off as ‘the national mood’ and reflecting it all back again.

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This affects the left far more than the right, largely because the right has positioned itself as the status quo, and apart from a few platitudes about Queen, country and hard working families, it doesn’t need a thorough going narrative about who and what they are  – because they already are, they are the ‘establishment’ and it’s up to the challengers to come up with a compelling reason to get them out. Which clearly didn’t happen. Part of the problem is that politics itself has become depoliticized, reduced to a shopping list of promises, with the main parties parading as the personal shopper best-suited to meet your needs. This is the gated-community version of reality, where the ultimate goal is for individuals to cut themselves off from the rest of society, rather than having us see ourselves as inter-connected citizens with a stake in what goes on around us.

The post-election talk of aspiration is a manifestation of this atomisation, because it’s about personal aspiration, not aspiration for the common good. Unfortunately the lie, initiated by one M Thatcher, that there is no such thing as society, appears to have slipped in round the back when no one was looking and etched itself into some universal law. In the words of Bill Hicks – I wasn’t at that meeting. This means that progressive and left -leaning parties and organisations need to start from scratch and make the case that there is such a thing, as this is surely the basis of an ‘overall, coherent, animated sense of who we are’ that Cruddas is talking about. It would also help if politicians – and broadcasters – didn’t underestimate we ordinary voters so much. The idea that we can’t understand/stomach/care about/respond to a bigger vision is rubbish. It’s what we’re crying out for.

Julia Brosnan is Co-Director of Dovetail: the change-making agency, and a member of The Equality Trust.