Politicians in the Westminster bubble don’t understand how real people feel

by Peter Watt

There are a lot of clever people who have recently been analysing the relative merits of the political parties and their respective political fortunes.  Over the Christmas and new-year period pundits have written article after article about the ramifications of the latest polls, changes in demography and so on.  I even penned a piece myself although I certainly wouldn’t put myself in the “clever” bracket!

The consensus seems to be that the Tories are very unlikely to form a majority after 2015 and that the most likely outcome is the formation of a government of some sort lead by Ed Miliband.  There have though been one or two siren voices.  These are saying that Labours position is less certain and that it needs to watch its economic polling numbers which appear to be going in the wrong direction following the chancellor’s autumn statement.

Just before new year I tweeted that:

“@PeterWatt123 I always hate the last few days of the year. Makes me feel sad.”

It was meant as a slightly maudlin reflection on the emotional highs and lows of the festive period.  But in response, Ian Austin MP, who I respect and occasionally joust with on Twitter, quipped that:

“@IanAustinMP Surely you could write piece for Labour Uncut about how end of year is all Labour’s fault, proof of unfitness to govern etc.”

It was a good riposte and I guess indicates that Ian is not a fan of my blogs!  But Ian does make a fair point that on the whole I am not comfortable with some of the direction of travel of the Labour party at the moment.

I worry that most of our poll lead is solely down to current government unpopularity, that Ed is still not seen as prime ministerial and that our stock with the electorate is dangerously low when it comes to the economy, welfare reform and immigration.  And I honestly think that our economic message is disingenuously trying to look both ways on the central issue of deficit reduction and the scale of cuts required whoever wins next time, regardless of whether we have economic growth.

But most of all I worry that no political party is seen by voters as having the answers to their worries and concerns.  Because at its heart, current political discourse is still being conducted between the political parties inside the rarefied world of the political bubble.  It certainly isn’t being conducted with voters.

Actually, on reflection I think that the notion of the “bubble” is wrong as it suggests a fragility to the barrier between the political elite and the voters!

What politicians frequently forget is that deciding to support a political party is essentially a feelings based thing.  It’s rarely if ever a purely rational assessment of the relative merits of the respective parties’ policy approaches.

It’s about which party individual voters feel best meets their needs.  To a large extent it’s why Boris won in London; it wasn’t because he had the best policies (or not) it’s because people liked him.  Right now voters are continuing to develop impressions about the political parties and their leaders.  And the impressions that are formed will be carried all the way to the polling stations in 2015 (or not).

I don’t mean that voters choose who they vote for superficially, I mean that the reasons for their choices are complex but that they are not the reasons that many political pundits recognise.  UKIP for instance are generally not gaining support because of their anti-European Union stance but because they are seen as not the political mainstream.  Yet the response from the other parties to their rise in support seems to wrongly assume that their support is highly eurosceptic and quite probably racist.

As the decorations begin to come down over the coming days the thought of many people will turn to their immediate futures.  They will be reflecting on the size of their post-Christmas credit card bill and whether or not they can afford a family holiday this year.  Perhaps they would like to replace the car or carry out some home improvements?  After all they had done this in the past.  The answers to these questions will be important in determining how people feel about politics and the political parties.

I don’t think that when the Tories, Lib Dems or Labour talk about the pressure that working families are under that they get this.  They think that being a bit eurosceptic means voters don’t like Europe.  Or that being anti-scrounger is because they inherently opposed to welfare payments.  But this misses the point.  People who work hard week in and week out do so to be able to take that holiday; so that they can improve the house and drive a nice car.

They want to be able to help the kids out as they grow up and feel that they are preparing for retirement.  Currently they are worried about booking the holiday, or replacing the car.  The credit card bill is a concern and they can’t contemplate getting any work done on the house.  And yet they are still working just as hard if not harder.  Money isn’t going as far and they are worried about the future.

It is this worry and uncertainty more than anything else that is driving the political views of the much sought after strivers.  It just doesn’t seem clear to me that any of the main parties get this.  That is why I suspect that Jon Cruddas is right when he says that UKIP are likely to have “a great 2013 and an even better 2014”.  And that is where Ian is wrong.  I don’t think that Labour is unfit to govern at all, even if I do have concerns.  But I do worry that significant numbers of voters don’t think that Labour or the Tories are.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party

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15 Responses to “Politicians in the Westminster bubble don’t understand how real people feel”

  1. DonGately says:

    I agree with the analysis on what people want but this demand is in itself a problem. A sustainable economy just won’t be the size of the pre-recession peak and demands to return there just won’t be met by anyone.

    Fundamentally the “as is” is unsustainable. The way of life we maintained, the economic and social progress we made before 2007 was fuelled by a financial bubble. It was a false position and nothing any party can do, save by reinflating the bubble can take us back there. We won’t lose all progress but much of it will not be salvageable

    frankly if the squeezed middle want to return to a world of cheap food and fuel with a nice holiday supplemented by a city break somewhere interesting then this just won’t ever return. Trying to build a political platform to meet this demand will just end in failure and a further loss of trust.

    I think miliband makes hesitant steps to deal with this with his talk of changing the rules of the game but is not confident and secure enough to lead a debate which will challenge both the squeezed middle with their lifestyle demands and the traditional left with their public service demands. Cameron and clegg have similar issues with their own security as leaders and we’re not going to going to have a real debate started by any major leader

    UKIP are doing well because they are backwards looking and in denial of change and whilst completely hatstand they have a certainty of view that the other parties lack – you’re right that they aren’t just supported by eurosceptics but those looking for a return to an imaginary golden age and of a restoration of lifestyles that have now changed.

    under scrutiny at the next GE I’d see them wilting as their platform is shown to be delusional – we risk the same fate unless we actually start to face some reality and challenge the mainstream demand you’ve identified

  2. Tom P says:

    Agree with a lot of this, except –

    “I worry that most of our poll lead is solely down to current government unpopularity”

    It depends what you mean by this. The lead – the gap between us and the Tories – has undoubtedly risen because of govt actions (50p tax cut etc). But our own polling position has been around 40% for two years now (look at UK Polling Report).

    A large part of that is, surely, due to the defection of ex-LD voters who feel they were conned last time and won’t risk voting LD again in future. What’s more they came across early – by the end of 2010/start of 2011 so it’s probably more to do with realignment than what the Coalition has done (and the LD bit of it is complicit in).

    I wouldn’t argue that this is a position of strength though – I certainly don’t think it reflects a big wave of enthusiasm for Labour.

  3. McCurry says:

    I think it’s difficult to judge what will happen at the next election. The Tories seem to have put their incompetence behind them. Cameron is weakened but not mortally. It’s our good fortune that he refuses to sack Osborne. Osborne is our secret weapon.

  4. paul barker says:

    I would agree with a lot of the article but looking at it from the other side the mass of voters have made a decision too, they dont want to talk to the politicians now, they dont want to think about party politics now & they dont see any need to engage with westminster till the run up to may 2015.
    The result for us is that voting intention polls are even more useless than they used to be, along with non-westminster elections. All the voters really want to do( if they vote at all ) is tell the parties how pissed off they are, nothing more.
    Economic & leadership polls may tell us something about 2015, the rest is noise.

  5. wg says:

    Well said @Paul Barker,

    The British people are sick and tired of all three main parties and are adopting a scorched Earth policy of voting for the “sod ’em all” party.

    I will vote for UKIP purely for that reason.

    I don’t know what agenda the main parties are following but none of them are working for me or the people I work with.

  6. john p Reid says:

    When I said this a year ago, a labour M.P said to me ‘its not the M.P.s who don’t understand the public, it’s the public who don’t understand the westmister village’

  7. e says:

    That old chestnut

    You worry about a generalised view among voters that today’s politicians have “no answers to their worries and concerns.” And you feel this is because of a “barrier between the political elite and the voters” because as you say, political discourse isn’t conducted with voters. So it’s not because your average striving voter is right: that what’s being offered in these changed circumstances is more of the same. Everything is just a communication problem.

    You know as a parent I tended towards the view that children who didn’t agree with me hadn’t understood what I said….It’s not easy to recognise when an individual’s history has brought about emotional growth, and therefore a step change in a relationship.

  8. Ex-Labour says:

    @ McCurry

    Blind faith analysis again. If Osborne is Labours secret weapon, what do you think the Conservatives think of the Red Ed’s ? Part of Browns economic team they are rightly viewed by the public as economically incompetant. Until the left recognise this a Labour victory is in danger. As the election approaches the conservative machine will start churing out the previous history of both men. When people have little in their pocket this will resonate and when LD’s return to the fold along with dissident Tories currently on UKIP’s tail, then the poll lead wont look so good.

  9. Peter Watt says:

    e says – I agree with you completely. I’m not arguing its just a communication problem, that politicians are right and the public just need to understand this. On the contrary!

  10. e says:

    @ Peter Watt

    I don’t believe “the central issue [is] deficit reduction and the scale of cuts required whoever wins next time, regardless of whether we have economic growth”. On the contrary, I think that politicians who package debatable choices and mark them incontestable are being disingenuous. Moreover, I feel that skivers and strivers alike recognise this as “more of the same”

  11. treborc says:

    Me myself on my own, shall not be voting in 2015 as I did not in 2010, then again I’m disabled so expected to have gas camps by now.

    But around me talking about politics and politicians is very much likely to get you beaten up.

    Hearing Balls to day speak about getting the longest unemployed back to work is a worry, we all know why he’s doing it, sadly nobody believes it anymore.

    How do you make 130,000 jobs even if they are 25 hours a week, when we all know these are going to be the non jobs labour made while in office with the public sector.

    I just think labour will have a hell of a job getting people to vote for them as will the Tories, hung government may well be with us for a while, and one term government may as well.

  12. LesAbbey says:

    So Peter Watt thinks the polls show a Labour lead because of the government’s unpopularity and he may well be right.

    Then Peter Watt’s suggestion is that Labour should push austerity linked policies to be more like the government.

    Now admittedly I’m ignorant of the spin, triangulation and focus groups of which Peter is probably an expert, but does this really sound sensible?

  13. Robert says:

    No Les, it doesn’t! Peter does not like Labour’s return to moderate social democracy and cannot accept that many people disagree with him.

  14. uglyfatbloke says:

    UKIP has been doing (relatively) well simply because they are not the Tories or Labour or the Glib-Dumbs. They have nothing to offer, but then neither do the main parties.
    Labour is polling steadily at 39/40%-ish so winning an outright majority in England and Wales is certainly not a pipe dream, though it is far from being in the bag. Even if the gnats lose their referendum (and I think they will) they have replaced Labour in Scotland as the main party and stand to profit from FPTP the way Labour did up to and including the last GE, so the prospect of getting 80% of Scottish seats for 40% of the vote are gone now and forever. Additionally, the Scottish Lib-Dems are just plain finished. At the next GE Labour will probably gain one of their seats (and that of the last Tory as well) , but the rest will go to the gnats, so there is every chance that the gnats will eclipse the glib-dumbs as the 3rd party at Westminster. If Ed cannot get an outright majority across the whole of the UK he may have to make a deal with Salmond and Robertson, which would at least be preferable to going into government with the glib-dumbs.

  15. swatantra says:

    Cruddas is a disgrace, encouraging UKIP to take votes off the Tories.
    Doesn’t he know that it’s the job of Labour to take votes off the Tories the Lib Dems and Undecideds? We shouldn’t rely on UKIP to do it for us. That means coming up with pragmatic and progressive policies.
    The Village is actually a bit like a closed shop, its a profession, they are not a bunch of amateurs, everyone knows each other and scracthes each others backs. This is the thing which the public just can’t get its head around. But the best way to engage with the public is the old fashioned soapboxes, Hustings, Speakers Corner, out in the Town Square on Market Days. But MPs are afraid to expose themselves to the public in this way.

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