How to reconnect people with politics is a preoccupation in the Westminster village, but it is the wrong starting point. The majority of the public are not apathetic, but many are seriously disillusioned with mainstream political parties. As one of my constituents put it recently: “as far as I’m concerned, you’re all paddling in the same canoe.” Young people in particular are intensely political, but sceptical about the major political parties and unlikely to vote for them, let alone join. Yet protest movements have emerged and volunteering is high. Civil society is alive and well, but party politics has taken a wrong turn. Instead of reconnecting people with politics, politics needs to reconnect with people.
How to do this is a problem for all of the major political parties but perhaps more so for the Labour party than any other. After more than a decade in government the party lost its ability to communicate policies that made sense, on issues that mattered, in a language people understood.
Political slogans like ‘hard working families’, ‘the progressive consensus’ and ‘joined-up thinking’ became too prevalent, alienating people rather than inspiring them. Too often slogans like these seek to cover up disagreement or controversy, when what is badly needed is politicians on the left who are prepared to tell the truth, even when it goes against prevailing public attitudes, and make the case for change.
No wonder then that the priorities that dominate in Westminster are often a million miles away from the priorities people have in my Wigan constituency. House of Lords reform, the alternative vote, and rifts in the coalition have dominated discussion at Westminster and the media, but in two years have not featured in my mailbag while the social care crisis for the elderly and disabled is pushing families up and down the country to breaking point.
While all the parties chase the centre ground, millions of people are denied a voice. This trend, adopted as a deliberate election strategy by Labour, has become a source of weakness, and poses a greater risk for Labour than for the other parties. Harold Wilson once said that Labour is nothing if not a moral crusade. To gain public trust and support we must seek clear definition, not just seek the centre ground. It is our morality which gives us our integrity and our strength.
This also means taking on the difficult issues that too often the left is reluctant to confront. Emulating the Tories is one problem, but abdicating difficult political territory to them is another. There are too few mainstream politicians of any party who are prepared to take on issues like welfare reform and immigration with a sense of generosity and humanity. Because of this, those debates are overwhelmingly negative, helping to fuel the very anti-politics all parties should seek to dispel.
The way to make major political parties relevant again is to loosen up the political debate and bring in a range of voices that reflect the range of views held by the people we are elected to represent. This is, and was always, Labour’s greatest strength; we are a grassroots party with reach into communities across the country. If used wisely it helps the leadership to stay in touch, not just to get messages out but to take messages in; to listen as well as to lead. Over the last few decades that ability has been diminished, with increasing control from the centre that at times reduced party activists with much to contribute to little more than leafleters and minute takers. The advent of social media makes it impossible to exert that level of central control anymore and it presents an opportunity for Labour to become again the broad church of political opinion, with a range of voices that reflect the diversity of the country and the people who live in it.
Coherence matters to people – that the Labour party can reach agreement and stand for election on a platform of priorities and policies that makes sense is essential – but so too is the debate that precedes good policies. It is no use pretending that the pressing national issues are black and white. How to fund higher education? How to meet the growing needs of a population living longer? So often the answers to these questions are in shades of grey, and our political debate ought to not only reflect but embrace and celebrate that, within as well as between parties.
A Labour party that tries to control and dictate from the centre fails to make the best use of its greatest strength: its members. Labour has a leader who instinctively understands that. But as the next election approaches, this doesn’t mean merely following rather than leading: we must openly embrace debate and make the moral case for change. It’s what so many people have been waiting for, for so long.
This article first appeared in the Autumn 2012 Fabian Review.