by Ben Garratt
Immigration has become an electoral and symbolic issue, not because Brits are less tolerant of foreigners, but because immigration highlights the growing gulf in experience between Westminster politicians and communities across the country. Trying to out-UKIP UKIP is therefore not the answer.
YouGov’s poll for the Sunday Times earlier this month found that, when people are asked which political leader they trust most on immigration, 26% said “none of them” and a further 13% said “don’t know”. Nigel Farage was considered twice as trust worthy as Labour, but even he could only equal “none of them.” But this challenge does not end at immigration. 40% of respondents said they don’t trust any of the party leaders, on anything at all. As Peter Kellner wrote in June, voters are simply unwilling to believe what the political classes tell us.
How can we understand and halt this decline? When a parent tells you what to do, it might be frustrating but often there will be a niggling feeling that they know what they are talking about. When a successful boss tells you to do something seemingly inexplicable, you instinctively know they have a point. Why? Because of shared experience. They have been there. But, it seems that when a government minister speaks, there is little trust. Why? Because of a lack of shared experience.
From the EU to skills, the environment, immigration and the economy, what national politicians are saying seems less and less grounded in anything socially or economically tangible to our everyday lives, and it is not in Ed Miliband’s or David Cameron’s gift to fix this. This isn’t a failure of speech writers, charisma or the traditional skills of the Westminster class, but a result of the collapse of social, cultural and economic structures which used to connect us to each other and connect our politicians to us. It is a lack of shared experience.
This gap is growing, which is a major problem for our democracy and for getting anything done. Only by reconnecting communities and political leadership can we tackle challenge and, to do this, we need our city regions and communities to take the lead. In a world where traditional class definitions mean less and less, our cities and regions – built on businesses, communities, politicians and more – are the closest spaces of decision-making to our everyday lives. By working together in our regions, we can therefore build on our shared experiences, shifting the debate on immigration, and numerous other intangible long-term issues, away from homogenous headline numbers, and towards credible solutions built on aspiration and investment.
New Labour worked well for a time, pushing the country forward after Thatcher and global realities fractured it, but pushing a cut-and-shut car forward was all it could hope to manage in the short term. Now, after the crash, the car parts are strewn across the road and yet we are still trying to keep moving. This simply won’t work. It is time to let the shocked passengers try and repair their communities and their regions, and deal with divisive issues that are currently pulling us apart. New Labour, with devolution, the North East referendum, decentralisation of the NHS and schools recognised this, but failed to create the authentic local and regional movements required to support this direction of travel.
So, what next? And what should the political activist do when their battle bus has broken down? Whilst society is increasingly atomised it is often hugely cooperative and positive, so we have something to build on. Now is the time for parties, politicians, candidates and activists to harness this cooperation, and broker deals to get our political regions working, creating combined authorities alongside employees, LEPs, chambers, colleges and universities; and creating our own funding mechanisms to borrow, invest in high skill and green industries.
We don’t need to wait for Westminster to direct this, we need it to focus on the big national stuff which regions can’t do alone: fairly distributing wealth and investment to rebalance the economy; building national infrastructure; guiding foreign, defence and international policies; and, in a less toxic space with direction from regional economies, set our immigration policies.
This isn’t the end for mainstream politics, but the end for cohesive national institutions and national parties. We know Scottish Labour has been hampered since 1998 by being hitched to national Labour, and the same is true for the Labour party right across the country. But we are now perfectly placed to use our differences as a strength: to work as a network around strong regional leaders to drive major policy decisions, not just in the Westminster bubble but outside of it too.
Ben Garratt is an account director at Westbourne Communications. He is the former deputy director of Labour Friends of Israel and is Labour member in Hampstead and Kilburn