If there’s one thing that is certain after the general election, it’s that politics is unlikely to be the same again. The rise of multi-party politics in the UK is shifting the electoral dynamics in our communities as party loyalties continue to loosen. Meanwhile, satisfaction rates with politics drop ever lower.
The ongoing crisis of legitimacy in our politics and the distance that people feel from the political process are real matters for concern. Although there are long waiting lists for tickets to see Prime Minister’s Questions every week and school and community visits to the House of Commons remain popular – both testament to parliament’s enduring draw – the feedback I get from such visits is that so much more goes on in the House of Commons than people are aware of. This suggests there is a deeper issue: that our democratic crisis is as much a failing of political education as of how people build a relationship with politics.
However, every challenge brings an opportunity. In a time of reduced party loyalties it is time to think anew about the interconnections between parties, representatives and voters. The most fundamental shift we would benefit from making is to start thinking about politics as a relationship, rather than about a set of transactions. Parties have understandably focused on winning votes; we seek to identify whether people are ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ Tory or Labour. Whilst this is necessary for election operations, it is not sufficient to sustain our democracy as a whole. We need to foster a stronger relationship between Westminster and people’s lives.
A deeper sense of nationhood has got to be part of this, reconnecting our democracy with what it is to be British, embarking on a new journey towards common goals and a shared purpose. In the run up to the election, a positive narrative about a shared future is going to be essential. The message must be that politics can work in partnership with people, rather than simply doing things to them. It’s about joining up political language, public services and people’s reality so people see how politics improves their lives, rather than makes it more difficult.
Building a politics that recognises the importance of relationships, both within communities and between communities and political decision making, does require reform of processes and policy. I was struck recently by the importance of relationships of all types while talking with the Family Group initiative in my constituency. Working with the most challenging children in a small number of schools, Family Group recognises that in tackling poverty or social exclusion, you can’t just focus on the child in isolation. If the family system is broken, perhaps because the parent had a dysfunctional relationship with their own family, you will need to work with the family as a whole in order to help the child.
The intervention focuses on systems – the family system, school system and work place system – as well as the relationships between them. Exclusion in one system can result in exclusion in another, so Family Group works to improve the relationship between the parent and child, the child and the school, and the parent and the workplace. It can reap quite incredible results.
In applying this principle to politics, and in recognising that turnout tends to stay high in higher social classes and networks, it becomes apparent that politics, too, is in many ways a broken system. People have lost the anchor that moored them to local and national politics and see little role for themselves within that framework. That New technology is disrupting established industries at a breakneck pace. Just think of the effect of internet banking on employment in the financial sector; the likely effect of driverless cars on the automotive sector; of social media on taxi services; of drones for logistics; and biotechnology for healthcare. At the same time, customers – whether of public services or private utilities – have become more demanding. Constantly innovating to anticipate demand, and improving productivity and performance, is the key to success for organisations across today’s economy. But under pressure from the quarterly results treadmill, too often leaders take the shortterm view. They slash costs, usually in the form of making people redundant (‘reducing headcount’ in Orwell-speak), rather than thinking more strategically about partnering with employees to improve efficiency, lack of connection can be compounded over very basic matters. The biggest issue at one residents’ meeting I went to was the fact that no one was allowed a key to the noticeboard in the park in their community. In an area with low social networks and with high levels of deprivation, this seemingly small problem left people feeling left alone and resentful of a public service that seemed to serve everyone but them.
So in starting to develop a deeper relational politics, we should start by focusing not just on reversing the lagging indicators of turnout, confidence and identity with political parties, but identifying new measures of a more thoughtful relationship between citizen and state. These goals will help us achieve a more connected politics focused on a stronger sense of national and common purpose.
Seema Malhotra is Labour and Co-operative candidate for Feltham and Heston and is chair of the Fabian Society
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of the Fabian Review