Disaffection, disinterestedness? Labour must mobilise
The ungainly scramble of Labour MPs past and present to the new outposts of political power offered by city mayors and police commissioners, has impressed very few onlookers of late. This rush for influence is crucial to the party’s future prospects, but Labour must go much further. Bradford West was a one-off result in many ways, but the significance of defeat there has not escaped Ed Miliband. Not just Labour, but all the major political parties have lost a great deal of support in recent years.
Governments will always struggle to engage ‘the people’, who must – to avoid gridlock – necessarily be distanced in some way from decision making. However, the latter part of the 20th Century and the beginning of this have been marked by serious disengagement of the people from the formal political sphere.
Party membership has fallen, voter turnouts are low and an atmosphere of grand disillusionment is abundant and clear.
Speculating on the ongoing decline in voters’ political interest has sustained many an academic career, and some cite a change in the way people express their political zeal rather than simple disinterestedness. Some political historians would argue that the rise of pressure groups have led to the fall in Political party membership, as peoples’ class-based differences have diminished and they see more focused sectional groups as better representing their specific interests. Others might point to the actions of protestors and the increased threat and occurrence of strikes as showing that a strong political spirit still burns hot within the British populous. However these arguments about how political enthusiasm is being expressed, still imply a general dissatisfaction with the formal political process and suggest that the relationship between the people and their elected representatives has fundamentally changed.
Politicians have managed to create – or fallen foul of – an image of themselves as an elite ruling class that is separate from and does not care about the vast majority of people in this country. In the eyes of an ordinary Briton: they have lied to us, stolen from us, and presided over institutions that protect the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.
Great controversy and arrogance over Iraq was perhaps the major event of recent times that fractured the relationship between politicians and the people. The government was initially unresponsive to widespread protests and was later accused of manipulating “sporadic” evidence to pursue ideological ends. Another important factor was, of course, the expenses scandal. The idea that politicians were using our money to fund their moats and mortgages was revolting to all.
The banking crisis, subsequent bailouts and consequent recession, has truly made people despair. Our politicians presided over an economic system that above all made sure that the wealthy would remain so. Over the past two decades, wages for the top 1 per cent of people have risen at a rate that is four times higher than the rest of the population. Social mobility is at an incredible low, with an increasingly thick glass ceiling providing a barrier to the upward mobility of minorities, women and the working classes; and insuring against any loss of wealth for those above it.
Politics has not been serving ordinary people well and politicians have rightly taken a hit in recent years. Locally elected police commissioners and city mayors can play a role in mollifying the image of the elected representative, but beyond this there are even greater opportunities that the Labour party must seize. Labour is the party of ordinary people and should not let David Cameron’s inchoate Big Society tarnish the spirit of community engagement, active citizenship and collective action that is at Labour’s core. A prime example is offered by the coalition’s extension of the Academies programme, a co-opted Labour idea that Michael Gove has now claimed as his own. Gove deserves credit for seeing the excellent opportunity that Free Schools provide for local communities to make an impact on education in their areas, but in truth, he has been unable to offer proper direction to the project, wedded as he is to the Conservative faith in the market. Local Labour Party organisers are well placed to take advantage of this hands-off approach and should engage key stakeholders and those with relevant expertise themselves. They should be driving these projects in areas of chronic educational disadvantage and driving up standards for children. The excellent Stella Creasy MP offers a proficient template for any community activist and recently spoke of the huge benefits of credit unions, another area where CLPs should be taking the initiative and leading improvement in their local areas. New planning rules relax planning regulations, and again this is an area where the Labour Party should be wielding power for the benefit of ordinary people in their local communities.
There is a fine balance to strike in opposition between, opposing the government and taking action. The duty to oppose harmful policy extends right down from the Party leader to the local activist, but after the May elections there will be a massive onus on Party members to act on behalf of their communities. There is significant opportunity for Labour to make positive waves at a local level, and the party as a whole must realise how important a bottom-up approach is to the party’s future.