How to thaw the frosty relationship between the political class and the public

Iain Martin 11.07am

Like all other political anoraks, I spent my Easter Monday gluttonously indulging in chocolate and BBC Parliament’s re-run of the 1992 general election night.
As someone whose political memory began in 1997, it shocked me both how much and how little has changed in politics.
Recession, the break-up of the union, rising home repossessions and rising levels of unemployment are once again the key issues of the day. The challenges we face are not new challenges but challenges we have faced at many points in our history and the solutions we as a ‘politcial class’ propose are rather uninspiringly similar to those used in the past.
As a party which is so dominated by historians, it is hardly surprising that the best solutions we have are nods to the past, such as deregulation, the right to buy your council house and enterprise zones (which Nik covered last August); nor should this be taken as a bad thing.
It is a good thing that the polarised debates of the past around socialism and capitalism are no longer. Yes, we still have the political cycle and the natural oscillation between the ‘left’ and the ’right’ - change is fundamental and forever will be. It is both heartening and shameful that our politics has converged to a point where the cliff-edge for families to receive child benefit is one of the main talking points.
While avoiding the needless and misinformed romanticising of 1950s Britain as a close-knit society, intrinsically egalitarian and altruistic, it is striking how more than ever what matters most to people is the ability to consume, to have some luxuries, to afford a second holiday.
As a society we recognise the challenges we face, we all have friends, acquaintances or family members who have suffered from the recession; we can see how young people are struggling to find work, we want the government to act. This Government has acted by raising the personal tax allowance, by lowering corporation tax, through welfare reform.
The Government must do more to protect the most vulnerable and get the lowest paid back into work, yet it knows to go too much further would mean greater restraints on spending or increasing the burden on higher earners.
Society has been well briefed by politicians of all sides on the need for ‘austerity’, yet when austerity bites society is, in some quarters, rejecting it. This hypocrisy is regrettable, though understandable given the political climate we are living in.
Arguably the biggest challenge facing this Government is the disconnection between the people who run the country and the people who live in it. It is by no means a problem caused by this Government but one which it much address if it is to achieve its goals.
 
In 1992, Britain opted for John Major - a leader who they trusted, who understood them, who was a safe pair of hands at a time when Britain required someone to drag this country out of a recession.
Britain rejected the triumphalist, flashy, arrogant pseudo-socialist Neil Kinnock in favour of a firm hand on the tiller. The highest turnout ever seen in a general election demonstrated the nation’s trust in a man who represented Britain’s psyche at that time better than any of the alternatives.
We, as a party, won votes in all parts of the country and astonishingly acheived a better swing in Scotland than anywhere else in the country. The ‘one-nation’ tradition was preserved.
Eighteen years later we have a deeply divided nation with life expectancy, average earnings and unemployment so wildly heterogenous across our nation. This, sadly, is reflected in the political geography which now exists and the obvious north/south divide which has emerged in recent years. Much of this must be attributed to the cynical, unsustainable, politically motivated, short-sighted policies of the previous Labour government who ‘solved’ unemployment through public sector job creation in the north.
Political disengagement is often measured by the strength of the ‘other’ parties and in a recent poll UKIP acheived 11 per cent support, enough to put anyone off their dinner.
It would be easy to dismiss UKIP as a temporary sponge for the disaffected (and Prof Tim Bale did so persuasively for the Spectator yesterday).
But to dismiss UKIP entirely would be a grave folly. Since 1992, we have lived through internal bickering on matters European, cash for questions, cash for honors, cash for access, an expenses scandal, broken promises and unpopular ’liberal’ interventionism. Westminster has shrunk into a self-absorbed, self-obsessed and at times self-loathing bubble fuelled by the tribal and vindictive media. It is no surprise that the public as a whole are more sceptical of politicians than ever.
 
In the cities and towns of Britain there are millions whose lives are barely touched by the actions of politicians. They ask themselves: ultimately who can make a difference to my local area, to my local schools and communities? They just want clean, safe streets and opportunities for their children.
The Government’s solution to this is truly exciting. The Localism Act, wholesale reform to the schools system and, most notably, directly elected mayors in our towns and cities.
We now have an irreversible cult of celebrity which pervades urban Britain. Many friends in my hometown of Whitley Bay idolise the likes of Alan Shearer and Cheryl Cole but could not name their MP (Labour’s deputy chief whip Alan Campbell, for what it’s worth) or their local councillors.
Directly elected mayors are a way of bridging the gap between Westminster and the public. Naturally, Whitehall is disinclined to cede power. But this could be a genuinely transformative move towards a more one-nation form of government.
 
It must be allied to lasting political reform. The Government must seriously look at reform of the trade union movement and funding of political parties, of course, and it will no doubt do this.
What it must not ignore, however, is the selection and subsequent election of MPs. The death of political party membership can be taken as a surefire sign of dissatisfaction and disengagement with the political system. To dismiss the decline in party membership as an irrelevance would be to miss one of the fundamental problems in modern British politics: the lack of charisma, the lack of inspiration, the lack of energy from our political elite.
Time after time, we see our politicians on the television in suits looking as though they are funeral-bound, morosely defending or attacking the government of the day’s position like puppets.
Where are the characters? Those who can motivate through speech and action the voters to engage in debate? They have disapperared in part due to the media’s obsession with gaffes, thus influencing leaders into promoting bland but safe candidates, but in part due to the decline in local political activism and membership.
The typical local party selection meeting is attended by a very small number of members who rarely represent the demographic of their constituencies. It is staggering that in many cases someone who might represent 70,000 constituents can be selected by less than a hundred local party members. Or in the Labour party’s case, a den of union fixers.
Each party has a responsibility to broaden their outreach. The open primaries which were trialled by the Conservative party at the last election were an excellent start. They encouraged people as Dr Sarah Wollaston, who had not even considered a role in politics, to stand for election.
To introduce open primaries across the country would require both financial investment (opening the possibility of state funding) and political investment, it would certainly be a radical reform requiring an immense amount of political will. It is decisions like this that can define governments as genuinely radical, that can be quietly transformational. To simply trust that the ‘lost generation’ will naturally return to the fold would be to ignore a fundamental problem and to miss a rare opportunity to make a lasting difference.