The British people have never felt a great affinity with political parties, and politicians are unwise to think that we can return to a golden era of political engagement. However, the current ‘anti-politics’ mood is not only further eroding trust in politicians of all parties, but is likely to do most damage to Labour, as we suffer greater electoral damage from low turnout.
In 2010 we lost office with the second lowest share of the vote in the party’s history, so we have a great deal to do to re-connect with voters, particularly in the south, south-west and south-east of England, where culturally and socially the Labour party is less well embedded. The Labour party is taking this issue seriously, with party members, councillors and MPs working hard across the country to listen to people’s views, organise to elect new councillors, and campaigning hard against the damage being done by the many dreadful decisions of this out of touch Tory-Lib Dem coalition government.
However, in all this activity and hard work, we may have overlooked something important, but less tangible, that influences people’s perceptions of politicians, and therefore of the Labour party – that people want to feel that politicians know what it is like for them at work. They want politicians to know what it is like to do a demanding job, run a business in a recession, to have to go through endless re-organisations and to lose one’s job. People increasingly see politicians as a breed apart – and we shouldn’t fall into the mistake of believing that this alienation is only felt towards the public school boys of the Tory party and Nick Clegg. Labour politicians are as much part of the political class as members of other parties, and it is a group of people that the public feel little affinity with.
Leaders of local authorities make major decisions every day, and are responsible for millions of pounds of public money and many thousands of staff, and many of them would hold their own running a large business or charity. Yet fewer and fewer Labour activists, especially parliamentary candidates and MPs, have had experience of managing public services, setting up their own business or pursuing a successful career in a field outside politics.
Politics has become a job in itself. National politicians are overwhelmingly drawn from full-time officials working for the party or trade unions, full-time councillors, journalists, former special advisers, public affairs experts and campaigns officers from charities, with a small number of teachers, doctors and lawyers. One would be hard pressed to find many scientists, retailers or farmers holding national elected office, whether at Westminster, Cardiff, Edinburgh or London. The parliamentary Labour party has become more diverse in terms of having more women and ethnic minority MPs over the last 20 years, but is less representative in terms of social class and occupations.
We will never be able to put the genie back in the bottle entirely; politics is a highly competitive activity and an increasingly demanding one – few councillors or officers would want to return to the days when leaders of councils or cabinet members made decisions in their lunch hour – and the pressures of the job market will only increase. We need to make sure that the party’s expectations of councillors take account of the fact that people are at work during the day, and that people who do not want to give up their jobs can become cabinet members, otherwise local government will go the way of Westminster, and become further removed from the communities we are elected to serve.
There are some changes that the Labour party can easily make to be more inclusive. A good starting place is Labour’s annual conference. Unless one is a full-time professional politician or going to conference for work reasons, one has to take annual leave to attend – this is hardly the most welcoming of approaches, particularly for new members, who are unlikely to organise their entire lives around the Labour party. The party would attract more members to conference if the conference started on a Friday evening and finished on a Monday evening or Tuesday lunchtime, as members who didn’t want to use precious days of annual leave could come for the weekend and members who worked on Saturday or Sunday could still come on a Monday and Tuesday. It would be cheaper for people too – and going to conference is an expensive business.
The Labour party will more likely to re-connect with voters, if as a party we look like the electorate we seek to serve, and we organise ourselves on the basis that people work. We’ve probably never thought about what the British public think of seeing party conferences on the news after a hard day at work – they probably think we’re a slightly odd group of people who have been paid to sit in a conference hall all day – and don’t think better of us as a result.