There is a danger that politics is becoming detached from people at the very time they need it most. With tough economic times leaving lives increasingly insecure, the democratic process should be a vehicle through which people’s concerns can be voiced and addressed. But politics is no longer seen as having any answers to the big questions people are asking.
Yet our new YouGov polling – featuring the first detailed study of non-voters since the last general election – suggests it would be a mistake to think that people have given up entirely on democracy; but the disconnection has deep roots, probably unreachable by the structural reforms our leaders tend to offer as solutions. What’s rotten is the culture – the way our parties do politics.
Because people so rarely interact with politicians, we asked them to imagine a situation where they did. If you were on a long train or plane journey and an MP sat down next to you, would you talk to them? 44 per cent said no and only 49 per cent said yes. This was a much more negative response than for other professions: 72 per cent would be pleased to sit next to a well-known actor or pop star, 68 per cent a doctor or teacher, and 63 per cent an electrician or plumber. One sliver of satisfaction for MPs is that they are losing the race to the bottom of the public’s affections: bankers were the least appealing travelling companions of all, with only 42 per cent wanting to continue the conversation.
What does this tell us – that members of the public would rather while away a journey with a pop star than a politician? So far, so unsurprising perhaps. But we asked a dedicated sample of non-voters – those who sat on their hands in 2010 – for the reasons behind their responses and in so doing, revealed something about how this large group sees the political class.
There is anger: “they are all idiots who have no clue about real life”; “they are all beneath contempt”; even “I do not talk with fuckwits on planes”. Apathy is everywhere: the most common responses cited boredom or lack of interest as the primary reasons to avoid engagement. But beyond this lies something more subtle, maybe more fundamental. There is a pervasive sense of separate lives, of the MP inhabiting a different world. Even if you wanted to get to know it, you wouldn’t be able to understand it.
“I don’t feel that I would be able to keep up my side of conversation”
“I don’t think a member of parliament would want to speak to me anyway, they’re probably far more intelligent than me. It’d be awkward conversation”
“I do not feel we are on the same level”
“Would find it awkward, wouldn’t know what to say”
We are sailing into uncharted emotional waters: a sense of sadness and confusion, a personal inferiority to the ruling class that makes people ill at ease. The usual sense that people think MPs are all lying scumbags can be found, for sure, but the theme that dominates is of a people trampled underfoot by their political culture.
These verbatim responses are augmented by our wider poll. We listed some positive attributes of politics and while there were some takers, by far the biggest winner was ‘none of the above’ (38 per cent). As you would expect, this was even higher (44 per cent) among non-voters. Only 7 per cent of non-voters agreed ‘most MPs are basically honest’ compared to 20 per cent of those who voted for one of the three main parties. 4 per cent of non-voters chose ‘most MPs have a good feel for what is happening to the people who live in their constituencies’, half as many as voters.
A list of criticisms of the way we do politics proved much more popular. There was a fairly even spread across statements covering our adversarial political culture (36 per cent agree ‘Politicians are more interested in scoring political points than doing the right thing’), the professionalisation of politics (34 per cent agree ‘Most MPs have too little experience of the real world before they go into politics’) and the rarefied nature of the political class (31 per cent agree ‘Politics is a game played by an out of touch elite who live on another planet – politics isn’t made up of people like me’). The biggest winner by some distance, however, was that ‘politicians seldom give straight answers to straight questions on radio and TV’, with 57 per cent agreeing.
This is revealing. People often say politicians lie all the time. They clearly don’t, but the fact that they often seem evasive under questioning fuels the sense that they do. Clarity is crucial to building trust with the electorate and seeming like you’re telling it straight. This is something the Labour party has struggled with in opposition. For example, the leadership didn’t feel able to oppose the benefit cap because of its broad popularity, but couldn’t fully embrace it due to its unpopularity with its core constituencies. The result was a muddled position which was hard to communicate to voters and ended up looking slippery.
Why don’t people vote? The results are perhaps more encouraging than expected: ‘don’t know’, ‘I was away at the time’ and ‘can’t remember’ make up over half of the responses, indicating it is not a potentially combustible ‘anti-politics’ fervour that is keeping many away from polling stations but something more prosaic and passive. This is overwhelmingly the case for 18-24 year olds (69 per cent), who also scored ‘I didn’t feel like my vote would make a difference to anything in my life’ relatively higher than any other age group; a shrugged shoulder rather than a raised middle finger from a group who are increasingly politically active in campaigns like Occupy, UK Uncut and 38 Degrees, but who see diminishing returns from political parties.
Could anything bring non-voters back into the democratic fold? For some in political circles this is a pointless question: non-voters don’t vote and that’s that. But our poll shows that a quarter of non-voters intend to vote at the next election, even before any improvements that might or might not be put in place. Of course there is still time between now and the next election for the political class to persuade them not to bother. But this is surely evidence that not every non-voter is an unreachable lost cause?
The thing that would make non-voters most likely to vote at the next election would be ‘if people in political parties spent less time trying to win my vote and more time doing good work in my neighbourhood’. This scored 25 per cent, compared to just 2 per cent who said they’d be more likely to vote if ‘a party official knocked on my door to discuss political issues, or I received a telephone call or a letter’. This insight needs to from the core of our new political culture. If the only interaction people have with party members is about their voting intention, it feeds a cynical and transactional view of politics. If political parties were more involved in local issues and doing things that people could see were making a difference, some semblance of faith in the power of politics might be restored. It would show rather than tell voters what a party can do.
People want parties to work together, with the coalition spirit seeming in relatively rude health: 51 per cent of both Conservative and Lib Dem voters want political parties to stop ‘arguing for a minute and tried to work together to solve the big issues of the day’, compared to on 39 per cent of Labour voters and 38 per cent of non-voters. The bad news is that the advent of coalition hasn’t changed the terms of political trade: people still think politicians prioritise pointless bickering over solving problems.
A more representative politics where people ‘look more like the society they were supposed to represent’ appears to be a pre-occupation of Labour and Lib Dem voters only, with 31 per cent and 25 per cent respectively listing it as a priority. Tories are, perhaps expectedly, less concerned (only 12 per cent) but so too are non-voters (13 per cent). But with politics a different world, perhaps non-voters can’t imagine or don’t care about making it more accessible.
What can we learn from these findings? Ultimately voters and non-voters alike mostly agree that politics is ‘not perfect but it’s the best way we have of collectively tackling the big issues of the day and making the big choices that face society’. But they want a political culture that is less adversarial, less distant and more in tune with real life. One positive step would be slowing the special adviser’s fast track to power. Our leaders spend whole careers in Westminster, grow up in government: they learn the language of professional politics and the public get lost in translation. The steps taken by parties to address problems of underrepresentation have yielded positive results in recent years, such as Labour’s all-women shortlists and the Conservatives’ A-list. We need to try similar measures to stop the stranglehold of special advisers on safe seats: all-local or non-spad shortlists. Unless we turn the tide against the increasing professionalisation of politics, politicians will remain from Mars and voters from Venus, beaming out messages people feel they wouldn’t be able to understand even if they bothered to try.
What can we learn from these findings? Ultimately voters and non-voters alike mostly agree that politics is ‘not perfect but it’s the best way we have of collectively tackling the big issues of the day and making the big choices that face society’. But they want a political culture that is less adversarial, less distant and more in tune with real life. One positive step would be slowing the special adviser’s fast track to power. Our leaders spend whole careers inWestminster, grow up in government: they learn the language of professional politics and the public get lost in translation. The steps taken by parties to address problems of underrepresentation have yielded positive results in recent years, such as Labour’s all-women shortlists and the Conservatives’ A-list. We need to try similar measures to stop the stranglehold of special advisers on safe seats: all-local or non-spad shortlists. Unless we turn the tide against the increasing professionalisation of politics, politicians will remain from Mars and voters from Venus, beaming out messages people feel they wouldn’t be able to understand even if they bothered to try.