Ukip supporters are rampant in Essex, in Kent, in Greater Manchester, and in many other places too. They turn up in vox-pops and in blog comments. And what comes through is a vitriolic hatred of the “Westminster elite”, by which they seem to mean any MP belonging to the Conservatives, Labour or the Lib Dems, plus anybody associated with them. “They aren’t listening”, or if the they are listening, “they aren’t hearing”. Any politician that does not agree that immigration is the root of the country’s troubles, and should be curbed drastically, is regarded as corrupt and useless. I have gone on about the Westminster elite myself, but these sentiments are nonsense.
Some members of the elite, for example Labour’s Simon Danczuk (whose seat neighbours the one Ukip nearly took in a by-election last week) and many Tories, are jumping onto the bandwagon – to try and show that they are “listening”. Yesterday David Cameron, the Prime Minister, promised that putting curbs on intra-EU migration would be part of his renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership. He seems to be talking about something much more drastic than curbing benefit claimants, which is about all that Labour (and Lib Dems) are offering.
To the angry, white, older blue-collar voters who seem to be the Ukip bedrock, “listening” means “agreeing and acting on”. Their anger is based on a series of half-truths or untruths, but they will not engage in any attempt at dialogue.
Westminster politicians are finding it very hard to engage with people who think this way. But let’s be clear about what the Westminster elite are and aren’t. They are not corrupt. Many campaigners think they are too open to big business lobbyists, and I suspect they are right. But the issues here are nuclear energy, weapons, environmental protection, GM crops, and so on, to which most of the angry voters are indifferent. And even so, politicians have proved far from a pushover. Also the Westminster elite do listen to “ordinary” people. They intensively study focus groups and opinion polls. Quite a few knock on doors; most do constituency surgeries. And as a result politicians have been talking non-stop about immigration and the EU since before the 2010 election. I have a deep suspicion that the voters complaining that politicians don’t listen are the ones that refuse to talk to them when they call.
The problem is that politicians are also wrestling with other problems, such as how to keep public services going, state pensions affordable, wages up, and people in employment. And they know only one way that works, which is through a healthy economy. This requires a degree of economic liberalism, though there is much argument about how much. That includes free movement of labour. Without EU migrants from Poland and elsewhere in the early 2000s, the British economy would have run into the buffers long before 2007. It is dishonest or ignorant of current Labour politicians to suggest that letting them in was a mistake; without them they may not have won the 2005 election.The economy is still in a hole now, but limiting EU migration would be a shot aimed straight at the foot, as limiting non-EU immigration is proving. The economy is held back by bottlenecks, skill shortages and a reluctance by some to do certain jobs, like fruit-picking; we need workers of all skills levels to tackle these gaps to get and keep the economy moving. Trying to second guess where these shortages are through ingenious bureaucracy is at best an inefficient remedy. Most of the Westminster elite recognise this, so they do not respond aggressively to public pressure for immigration curbs.
Still, the Westminster elite could help themselves by doing a number of things better. First they should be more sincere. That means not sticking to pre-prepared sound-bites and evasive answers to questions; it means exposing themselves to more risks. As an example, both Labour and Conservative managers want to neuter the television leaders debates at the next general election, because they have too many unknowns that might make their leaders look bad – still less do they want embrace new, more anarchic social media formats. And yet these debates are a priceless way of engaging the public. More sincerity means more gaffes and more rough edges – that is the price of honesty. You only have to look at the remarkable political success of gaffe-prone Boris Johnson to understand this. And if that means standing your ground on unpopular issues, so be it.
Next they need to think harder about the causes of pain rather than just its symptoms. The angst about immigration looks like a displacement of other ills. We can speculate what they might be: over-centralised political power, fewer opportunities to get a decent job, and so on. These aren’t easy to fix, and some problems aren’t even capable of being fixed – but there can be more creativity as to how to soften the pain.
Finally, they should get out more. Politicians that make regular, face-to-face contacts with their electors do much better than others. It reduces the sense of disenfranchisement. Douglas Carswell, the Tory defector to Ukip who won the Clacton by-election, seems to have realised this – and there are other examples in all parties. The MP’s job is to be interface between the public and political power. Too many focus just on the workings of power itself.
Electoral reform would help, though it is not a panacea. Many countries with different electoral systems have similar problems to Britain. But the whole attitude of mind that revolves around the idea of safe seats is surely toxic.
But really, for all its faults, the Westminster elite isn’t that bad.