Too Many Voters Still Feel Divorced From Politics. That Needs To Change.
There’s something odd going on in politics across the Western world. The experts got almost every prediction wrong in the UK. In the US, Donald Trump is taking his diet of fear and bile to new extremes on almost a weekly basis. In France, the extremist Front National was thankfully kept out of power, but still garnered almost 7 million votes. A more positive development came in Spain, where Podemos succeeded in upending an established political order, with Spain growing tired of an establishment that has failed to meet the country’s needs.
What is clear is that mainstream politicians across the West have to do more to show how their policies and ideas can benefit everybody. A great swathe of voters feel isolated by the market liberalism of the post Thatcherite right and the lack of interest in concepts like patriotism and place from the post Blairite left. Too many voters feel forgotten by politics, feeling that the much vaunted benefits of the untrammelled market haven’t helped many but those at the top, as well as that many of the values they hold dear are mocked by many on the left.
A relentlessly market driven right and a metropolitan left has left many voters feeling forgotten and it is now incumbent on mainstream politicians to create an agenda of hope, so that the fear merchants like Trump aren’t able to take advantage of people’s insecurities. In the UK, many of these ‘forgotten’ voters have basically stopped voting altogether, with turnout as low as 50% in some constituencies. There’s now a massive ‘class gap’ in turnout and a feeling that mainstream politicians, of all sides, don’t understand the concerns and privations of everyday life. At the last election, only 57 per cent of unskilled working class voted turned out to vote, compared to 75 per cent of middle class voters. Huge numbers of working class voters feel left out by the political system. They feel forgotten. Too many voters feel divorced from the political system, feeling that politics is something done to them, rather than by them.
In the UK, many of these voters live in those towns and cities devastated by the deindustrialisation from the 1970s onwards, which have resulted in decades of economic decline and stagnation. The ten parts of the UK with the highest level of worklessness were areas that were dominated by heavy industry. The Coalfields Regeneration Trust has found that the once mighty coalfields now suffer from considerably poorer health outcomes and deprivation, with 43 per cent of the former coalfields now falling within the poorest 30 per cent of communities in England.
Outcomes for the poorest in England start badly and get worse. By the age of five, children from the poorest homes are already a year behind middle income children in terms of vocabulary development. 28% of white working class boys on free school meals achieve five or more good GCSEs, compared to 58% of white boys not on free school meals. Too much of the housing stock is crumbling and in the hands of bad private landlords, with people on low pay seeing home ownership as little more than a pipedream. And too many jobs are low security, low skilled and low paid. Too many of these forgotten voters are at the wrong end of the so-called “gig economy”.
As Elizabeth Warren has highlighted, such insecurities are felt beyond the areas that have been blighted by industrial decline. Median household incomes in the US have stagnated since the 1970s, meaning that, for many, the link between GDP growth and seeing prosperity for you and your family has, for many, all but disappeared.
To many voters, despite plenty of high promises, politics means nothing and has delivered nothing. The much vaunted benefits of market liberalism haven’t reached many voters and has meant that many voters have lived in a much more insecure world than was the case in the past. And the certainties that many hold on to in such an insecure environment, such as family, community and patriotism, are seen as alien to many on the left.
Politics needs to break out of the maelstrom where many voters feel detached to their central nostrums and begin to offer something positive to voters who feel forgotten by mainstream politicians. Policies like that National Living Wage and the Northern Powerhouse offer a start in this, but more needs to be done to reconnect to forgotten voters. Otherwise there is a risk that they’ll listen to hucksters like Trump or fear merchants like Farage, neither of which have the prescription to turn lives and communities around.
Instead, the mainstream, or what’s left of it, needs to look beyond old, comfortable certainties in order to deliver something to the voters who feel forgotten. Old deindustrialised areas and ‘left behind’ coastal towns need to be in a position to benefit from the massive potential offered by the digital economy. Investment in educational, housing and digital infrastructure should be concentrated in a way that encourages sustainable, economic dynamism. Hands off, laissez faire liberalism simply isn’t going to achieve this, nor is an old style managerialist, central state. This needs an active state working in tandem with the private sector. In doing so, they might actually make a positive difference to people’s lives and move beyond sloganeering. And voters should be able to look at parliament and see a Commons that resembles them and their friends, not an elite.
Mainstream politics is shuddering across the West because many voters don’t think it has much to offer them. Politicians need to urgently seek to change that. A politics that offers economic dynamism, social justice and compassion for the poorest, allies prosperity with economic security and accepts a need for a sense of place and patriotism would be one that begins to win back forgotten voters. But mainstream politics can’t afford to ignore a great swathe of voters any longer.