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.