Ed Miliband is better at describing why so many people hate conventional politics than he is at providing an answer
At lunchtime yesterday in London, the sun was shining, which made a pleasant change. The shops were open. So were the pubs. There were lawns to be mowed, cars to be washed, books to be read, museums, art galleries and parks to be visited. If you preferred to slump on the sofa in front of the telly, ITV was offering Carry On Cruising and the BBC the qualifying laps for the Spanish Grand Prix. You were therefore the member of a highly peculiar minority, a most eccentric sect, if you instead chose to spend your Saturday lunchtime listening to a speech by a politician about why no one listens anymore to politicians. The man in question was Ed Miliband and he himself teased his audience of Labour members that there was something odd about them because “you chose to come here”.
One prompt for this speech was the recent local elections, which were better evidence for public disenchantment with the coalition than they were proof of surging enthusiasm for a Labour government. Labour polled better than the rest, but the real winner of those contests, and by a landslide, was the Stay At Home Party. The non-voters represented 68% of the electorate. As Mr Miliband acknowledged: “It tells us we have a very long way to go to generate trust, enthusiasm and deep allegiance.” That sentiment is widely felt in the party’s senior ranks. One Labour figure observes: “People say ‘I don’t vote’ like they would say ‘I don’t smoke’. It’s a lifestyle decision now”.
Among those still voting, we see an increasing rejection of conventional party politics in a flight to extremes, “independents” and single-issue parties, a phenomenon far from confined to Britain. In Germany, there’s the rapid rise of the Pirate Party. The French and Greek elections both saw leaps in support for fascist and radical leftist parties. In the US, it found expression in the Tea Party. The British strain of this contagion has been comparatively mild: one byelection victory for Respect and an increasingly smug look on the face of Nigel Farage as he basks in the rising ratings for Ukip.
In some places, the conventional parties of power are just about staying on top of these convulsions. Despite the claims in some quarters that the French presidency is now in the hands of a raving leftie, François Hollande is a pretty orthodox social democratic member of the French political establishment. The Republicans in America flirted with an assortment of wacky nominees, but have ultimately if grudgingly settled on a fairly conventional candidate for the White House in Mitt Romney. In other polities, the old order is being destroyed by vengeful electorates. The traditional parties of left and right were both eviscerated in Greece.
The first targets of this mix of voter rage and despair have usually been the party in government. In a short space of time, Nicolas Sarkozy has become only the second French president of the postwar era to fail to win a second term, the Dutch government has fallen and the Greek electorate have thrown out the two parties that dominated power for four decades. Some optimists in the Labour party and their social democrat cousins in Europe detect the beginnings of a leftwards swing across the continent as voters reject the austerity politics that have been preached by the right.
These events, particularly the election of Monsieur Hollande, will certainly have some effect on the continental conversation about how to lift Europe from the slough of despond. In Britain, it will make it that much harder for the coalition to sustain its line that there is no alternative to their economic policy. But it is a bit premature to call this a definitive left turn. Where a party of the left found itself in government when the music stopped – one example is Labour in Britain two years ago, another is the socialists in Spain – it is they who have felt the toe of the voters’ boot up their backsides. The most consistent theme of recent elections is that incumbency, generally an electoral asset in times of prosperity, has become a liability in an era of austerity. Yet it would be a mistake to assume, as rather a lot of establishment politicians still do, that things will return to normal when economic recovery eventually comes and voters will fall back in love with conventional politics. Austerity did not so much cause this alienation as sharpen and deepen a pre-existing condition. I have pointed out before that the combined support for the Conservatives and Labour has been in steady decline since the early 1950s. Membership of mainstream political parties here, as elsewhere, has been withering for decades. There was plenty of evidence that many of the public were either turning against mainstream British parties or turning off politics altogether even when the country was enjoying prolonged periods of prosperity.
A renewal of growth will not by itself bridge the chasm of disenchantment that exists between so many voters and politicians.
The Labour leader seemed genuinely exercised about this crisis of political engagement in yesterday’s speech. Even if he wasn’t, he can surely see that there are potentially lucrative electoral benefits for the party that can persuade voters that it can do politics in a more attractive and engaging way. Some aspects of his analysis of what has gone wrong were persuasive. The political establishment is not seen to speak or act on behalf of the many, but to govern in the interests of a privileged few. As examples of which, Mr Miliband duly cited party funding scandals and the web spun by the Murdoch empire. At the last election, when David Cameron was trying to present himself as the answer to public disenchantment, broken promises and sleazy deals, he offered what he called “an invitation to join the government of Britain”. The revelations of the Leveson inquiry are further confirmation for voters that power is brokered at gatherings to which they are never invited. The Labour leader was honest enough to acknowledge the sins of his party in this respect. “We became one of ‘them’ rather than one of ‘us’.”
As an explanation for what has gone wrong, this analysis is not just confined to the left. The New Few, a compelling book by the conservative thinker Ferdinand Mount, a former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit when Margaret Thatcher was in residence, argues that wherever you find power, whether it be at Westminster, universities, in the City or corporate boardrooms, you will find self-serving oligarchies dedicated to the empowerment and enrichment of a minority at the expense of the majority.
It is one thing to describe a problem; it is another to solve it. That is where Mr Miliband struggles, as do all the conventional politicians. His pledge that a Labour government would confront “vested interests” and “unaccountable concentrations of power” needs a lot of fleshing out before it becomes convincing. We can just forget his claim that “I won’t make promises that I can’t keep”.
They all say that in opposition and they all make promises that aren’t kept. He wants his party activists to spend more time engaging with the electorate. A lovely idea, if only Labour still had an army of people to mobilise on to the doorsteps. He also commended reconnecting with voters through local campaigning. When I asked one of his aides what sort of campaigns the Labour leader had in mind, I received the reply: “Dog shit.” He went on to explain that in Carlisle, a Labour gain at the council elections, the party enjoyed a great success harnessing local discontent about canine excrement. This sounds very redolent of the “pavement politics” first pioneered by the Liberals in the 1970s. It is not necessarily a bad idea, but it is certainly not a new one, and far from an idea big enough to address the scale of the challenge.
Labour, in so many ways an instinctively conservative party, will have to think a lot more radically than this if it is to capture the anti-establishment mood. And the Labour leader will have to overcome some of the contradictions thrown up by his personal biography before he becomes a compelling tribune of the people championing the masses against the elites. True, he is not an Old Etonian married to the daughter of an aristocrat. His parents were refugees from the Nazis and they sent him to a comprehensive. But he is no less a favoured son of what he calls the “Westminster club”. He read PPE at Oxford, just like the prime minister. His first job was in television working on a programme – with me, as it happens – devoted to Westminster politics. His subsequent career has been almost entirely spent inside the club: first as an aide to Harriet Harman and Gordon Brown, then a quick route to a safe seat under their patronage, and swift elevation to the cabinet.
He is every bit as much an example of the professional politician as is David Cameron, George Osborne or Nick Clegg. If Ed Miliband is to become a convincing champion of the people, he will not only have to conquer the cynicism of the electorate, he will have to overcome his own biography too.