Show voters you care: talk about their jobs, not yours

by Peter Watt

I have developed an annoying habit. You know the way that ex-smokers are annoying, always pontificating in a superior way about the dangers of smoking, the nasty smell and the cost? Well I am kind of like that about politics. I used to “do politics” full time. I was a real insider and all that. And then I gave it up, and now I love to tell those still addicted the dangers of the habit, the nasty smell and of course the cost.

Well this week, let me tell you, I have felt a pretty smug ex-politico and to be honest I think that I am justified, even if I am annoying.

The real anger at Westminster this week has been reserved for, wait for it, the outcomes of the boundary commission. Not the weak state of the domestic, European or even world economy. Not the worryingly high level of inflation and the real pain being felt by families struggling to make ends meet. Not the implications of the welfare reform bill for people with disabilities or the health and social care bill. No, not even the hacking of phones could come close to the levels of Westminster angst that the threat to a handful of MPs’ jobs could raise.

MPs and political parties have been getting agitated about whether MP A or MP B might or might not have a seat after the election. At the same time, mere mortals are working hard just to pay their electricity, gas and food bills. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the policy to reduce the number of Westminster seats, I am not sure that much of the public will share the dismay of many at Westminster. Well, except the dismay that the numbers are not being reduced further.

Incidentally, I am not for one minute saying that it actually isn’t an important issue. While I think that the cries of “gerrymandering” are over the top, it is probably true that reducing to 600 MPs, rather than 500 or 550 say, was probably made for partisan reasons. If the decision to direct the boundary commission to use population size as the primary factor in drawing borders has produced some odd local hybrid constituencies, then that probably isn’t ideal. And if you reduce the number of MPs, and don’t reduce the number of peers or the size of the Government, then the role of the democratically elected legislature is literally watered down. But none of this is cataclysmically disastrous.

I remember the last redrawing of constituency boundaries. Negotiating the outcomes and managing consequential reselections was a nightmare, and very occasionally it became nasty. But the work of the boundary commission is important, and as population patterns change then periodically so must constituency boundaries.

The process has always been a political one, with all sides inevitably trying to make sure that their interests are better served. Labour was, rightly, pleased that last time their evidence at the various local enquiries into proposed changes was so effective. After all, the decisions taken in a boundary review can be partially responsible for determining the outcome of the result in some seats. When elections are tight that will matter more. And it will always matter more to the combatants in any particular seat. Throw in the inevitable pain caused by the need for local parties to merge or split as constituency borders change and you can see why political parties get excited.

But just stop for one minute and think how it looks to voters. They already think that politicians are self-interested. And then they seem to go and confirm that they are. Just look at what one senior Tory politician has been quoted in the Guardian as saying :

“We are not happy about this. There are MPs who gave up a lot to come here and now it looks like they face real fights. Whips have been coming up to us and asking how we are taking this. Not well is the message”.

And Labour MPs have condemned the “political nature” of the exercise. To be honest, pots and kettles come to mind. There is even slightly hysterical talk of the fallout from the votes to pass the final recommendations triggering a breakdown of the coalition. I am just trying to imagine MPs explaining that to their constituents if it actually happened.

But the serious point here is that once again our political elites are appearing to live in, and worry about, a world that is very different to the one that voters occupy. It may not be fair. And obviously there is an awful lot more of great importance being discussed at Westminster than constituency boundaries.

Once again, this week the relevance of political parties to people’s lives has taken a further knock. And yet in 2015, or whenever the election ends up being, candidates will be pounding the streets claiming to understand the concerns of their constituents.  They shouldn’t be surprised if they are not believed.

Peter Watt is a former general secretary of the Labour party.

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3 Responses to “Show voters you care: talk about their jobs, not yours”

  1. TomD says:

    If a corporation was to sack 10% of its workforce and everyone had to reapply for the remaining posts, it would probably be a bit of a ‘nightmare’ and ‘occasionally nasty’. Westminster will always disappoint the public if held it is up to saintly standards.

  2. aragon says:

    “the decision to direct the boundary commission to use population size”

    The decision was by Parliament (Tories and Liberals) as was 5% variation, giving the boundary commission a straight jacket in which to operate.

    Electorate (Electoral Roll) has been used to determine the boundaries, not population despite universal suffrage.

    The Third reform act was based on a population census.

    It introduces a Tory bias by using electorate rather than population.

    So yes Gerrymandering is the correct term.

    “It’s certainly not a good idea for Labour, but it wasn’t intended to be. The average Labour seat is urban and has only 68,487 voters – 4,000 fewer than the average Tory constituency and 1,000 smaller than the average Lib Dem one (the party’s profile includes many seats in Scotland, where they tend to be wee).”

    Note: Voters, not Residents or Citizens (or Subjects). Greater numbers of non-voters are found in urban seats.

    I dismiss the vicious rumor that politicians might actually be human, and if you cut them they might bleed.

  3. AmberStar says:

    @ Peter Watt

    MPs and political parties have been getting agitated about whether MP A or MP B might or might not have a seat after the election. At the same time, mere mortals are working hard just to pay their electricity, gas and food bills.
    You are quite something, Peter. And I’m not sure I mean that in a nice way. Do you know what worries people most? Lack of job security. That having built up support & experience (in their workplace) over many years, it will all have been to no avail come the next merger or down-sizing or out-sourcing or whatever.

    This happens to some MPs every election, if they are in a marginal constituency. Some are more fortunate & can take a longer-term view because their seat is relatively safe. Now they are facing the same anxiety as any other workers faced with a ‘restructuring’ or ‘alternative business model’.

    If your article was exhorting them to ‘feel the pain’ to the maximum because many voters are in the same situation with their jobs, I would applaud it! But it isn’t; it’s smug & mocking & self-congratulatory. Why not write a decent article, urging MPs not to forget this experience? It could help them to properly understand & empathise with voters who face this sort of thing all too often during their working lives.

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