To the Centre for Policy Studies for a seminar on “political disengagement”. Peter Bradley, the ex-Labour MP and author of a new report – Anti-Social Britain: Tackling Political Disengagement – was speaking on the subject of voter apathy, what has caused it and who was to blame.
Not unusually for an ex-politician, Mr Bradley made an attempt to refocus the blame for low turnout at elections and general cynicism about politics onto the people (and also unsurprisingly the media). He claimed first of all that politicians are aware that they have a problem with public trust. The TPA is not so sure. Would a political class which knew they had an image problem conspire to exempt themselves from Freedom of Information legislation? Would they continue to have the “sod-the-lot-of-you” attitude to MPs expenses with the total bill going up every year? Would David Cameron have rushed to see Tony Blair at the first suggestion of a deal over taxpayer-funding for political parties if they realised how unpopular such a policy is? Of course not. They behave like this precisely because they are not yet truly aware of the low-regard in which the public holds them. Nor are they able as a result to be self-critical and pin blame where it is due.
Part of Bradley’s argument was that we citizens have a role to play and too often it is our refusal to accept responsibility and step up to the plate that caused this “gap” between the public and the political class. But engagement takes time and it takes money. High taxes force ordinary people to work harder and longer hours and high taxes give people less disposable income and less time in which to spend it. It isn't surprising that they come to value it more (and consequently have less time and money to devote to charities and non-material causes). When an MP bemoans the fact that after mailing a thousand constituents he can’t get more than half a dozen people to turn up to his specially-convened Friday night surgery, this isn’t a sign of a failing on the part of the public. Who on earth would want to sit down with their MP at the end of a hard week when the children need bathing and the laundry needs drying? Life is too short. Bradley argued that politicians should stop self-flagellating and start confronting the public more about their lack of engagement. Unfortunately for them, the very good reason why no politician would choose to “challenge the citizens” is because – quite deservedly – they would be ripped apart. Most of them are not too stupid to ignore the bleedin’ obvious. Very few politicians have really appreciated how unique a skill it is to be a credible anti-politician politician. To join the people in opposing the elite. Britain has such a centralised State and such a dearth of political talent that a true Reaganite-outsider is difficult to envisage. Someone who – along with independence of mind and charisma – could make the decision early on to rail against the insiders in Washington (Westminster), rather than always behaving like them and closing ranks when criticised. In recent years the person who actually came closest to personifying this anti-politician appeal was Robert Kilroy Silk (before his own party decided to destroy him and his distinctive brand).
The only time in recent years when any official campaign has had the liberty to decide its own non-party message was the North East Assembly referendum in 2004. The narrative of the NESNO campaign then was explicitly and relentlessly anti-politician and the result was 78-22 against the politicians. That sort of landslide has never been achieved since and proves the devastating appeal of (competently delivered) anti-establishment messages.
The few politicians any of the public have time for these days seem to be the ones who act least like politicians. The excitement of the metropolitan media over Boris Johnson for London Mayor reflects this. Otherwise, most of them repel us, a few amuse us, but the majority make no impact on our daily lives at all. Voters have accepted this truth. People are not apathetic or constantly disengaged because they are too busy shopping (as Bradley implied). This isn’t apathy, it is contempt. A minority of bored and lazy voters have always existed, but most people who make up the non-voting “No Party” bloc (roughly 40 per cent of the electorate and rising) are better thought of as “aggressive abstainers”. And they include thousands of TaxPayers’ Alliance supporters who are anything but apolitical. Choosing not to vote when it makes so little difference to the outcome and in an environment where the politicians have given powers away and the candidates don’t offer alternative policies is a perfectly rational decision. This is perceptive resignation.
Voters after all are not stupid. They know that government is both powerful (too powerful in terms of how politicians and civil servants manage – badly – those things that truly matter to people: schools, hospitals, transport), and at the same time, weak and impotent because real decisions are made by those who aren’t elected (judges, heads of quangos, EU Commissioners) and/or who are remote (culturally) and far away (geographically). Plus, voters are entirely rational not to be engaged when they have such a sorry catalogue of recent experience to draw on. In light of the North East referendum result, the public would be even less willing to respond to such an appeal now. At least in 2004 everyone thought that a ‘no’ vote would mean the end of regional government. As it turned out, Prescott was humiliated but the regional assembly remained in place and council taxpayers had to continue footing the bill anyway. Such a strong show of people power on this level did not make things better – it just stopped things getting significantly worse. The political class carried on regardless. You couldn’t get a more explicit example of why people hate politicians and won't engage, and why politicians deserve every bit of it.
Likewise, no voter under the age of fifty in Britain has ever been given the opportunity to vote on Britain’s relationship with the European Union and is never likely to. Politicians have raised new taxes, introduced others, lowered a rate or two here and there and played around with exemptions and allowances – but no politician (not even Mrs Thatcher) actually reduced the tax burden. It is now higher than it has been for 25 years. Some MPs favour greater centralisation, others favour (or say they favour) more localism, but none have ever actually given powers back, so why should we take them at their word?
Despite having many of the wrong explanations and few of the right solutions, Mr Bradley diagnosed the problem well enough and actually struck quite a sombre tone. He admitted to feeling pretty downbeat about the state of British politics, even if he retained faith in the vitality of democracy as a system to overcome these challenges. The truth however could be less rosy. All indicators that matter for social cohesion in the decade ahead do not bode well. Despite the numerous opportunities available to brave politicians in the last decade to arrest decline, the major trends in education, welfare, crime and migration are all heading in the wrong direction. If we are concerned at all about creating a prosperous, peaceful and cohesive society, things are going to have to change - and fast.
It is against this backdrop that rising resentment over the incompetence of the political class who tax us so much but deliver so little is slowly building. Only the miraculous stability of our economy is holding back the deluge of social and political unrest. Terrorism, recession, a new crime wave and the threat of off-shoring are all on the horizon if they haven’t arrived already, and politicians who underestimate the dangers of this new world are in for a nasty shock. Few in Holland saw the Pim Fortuyn moment coming. Must our self-absorbed political class remain oblivious until we all suffer a similar wake-up call? We sincerely hope not.
P.S. You can best appreciate the successful anti-politician tone of the NESNO campaign in the North East by watching their official political broadcast from 2004 here.