Why do we look down upon the politically alienated?

By-elections tend to bring along with them a media glare and the upcoming by-election in Gorton will be no exception. As a traditional working class community there will be an inevitable focus upon turnout and political alienation in much the same way there was in the Stoke Central by-election with alienation portrayed as a symptom of a failing community — but is alienation simply a rational position to take?

Much of the interest garnered in the recent Stoke Central by-election tended to be accompanied by pieces looking at why this area had become dubbed the ‘Brexit capital of Britain.’ Many pointed at the sense of alienation felt in the area and the lack of political appetite. The sad death of Gerald Kaufman leading to the Gorton by-election in Manchester will inevitably bring a similar analysis. Gorton has always been a traditional working class area which has seen its fair share of issues over the years and seems ripe for similar analysis. However, Gorton voted to remain in the European Union and this means that Brexit will not overshadow the coverage but instead apathy will be the main focus.

Apathy tends to raise questions of alienation. Whole communities are portrayed as politically alienated — however alienation is a loose and baggy concept that is rarely defined. Alienation is usually portrayed as dissatisfaction but this dissatisfaction is unclear. Are we unhappy with how democracy is practiced, or democracy as a concept? It is more likely that we are unhappy with how it is practiced. As a society that is less deferential than previous generations and enters higher education in greater numbers some believe that our alienation from the political process is a result of making a rational, informed challenge to politics. This results in us detaching ourselves from politics until we find a party that reflects our views more accurately.

Whilst this is an attractive concept, reality shows us that it those with the lowest levels of formal education that are becoming detached from politics. This suggests that it is less of a detailed policy based analysis that is causing issues but something else instead. Similar issues were raised in the US in the 1950s and 60s with political scientists believing that changes in US society were creating a crisis of confidence in democracy. Their findings seem as relevant today in the case of communities such as Gorton as they did in the US fifty years ago.

Alienation was seen to have three differing roots and forms. Firstly, politics is viewed by some of the alienated as too unwieldly and difficult to understand within the framework of their lived experience. In other words it seems overly complex and would appear to have little relevance to their day to day lives. Secondly, the consensual nature of mainstream politics may have meant that their ideas have become increasingly excluded. This is of particular relevance in traditional working class areas that consist of individuals who tend to socially conservative whilst economically left leaning. It is arguably the social liberalism of the Labour Party in these areas that causes it its biggest issues with the local electorate and makes UKIP more desirable. The third reason suggests that a fragmented society that views itself as a collection of individuals has little interest in taking part in processes that do not directly relate to that in which they are interested in. A lack of collectivism in society has meant that the idea of party politics has been supplanted by single issue politics and voting for an elected representative has little relevance.

So given these reasons, why are areas that have high levels of political alienation and are poorly served by politics vilified? In the first two instances alienation is as a direct result of the failure of politics to either connect or develop mechanisms by which to enable people to express and articulate their political opinions in a way that influences political thought adequately. The third instance is a result of political choices made by successive governments since the 1980s in the UK. An attempt to redefine the citizen as a consumer of services has resulted in an individual pick and mix approach to politics. Despite these failures, there is still a portrayal of areas such as Gorton or Stoke as having problem populations and that politics and how it is operated is blameless.

The impact of this portrayal is that those who have already considered themselves marginalised by the political system are now being further marginalised. With the growth of more populist political thought across the western world, any action that results in further alienation makes the political fringes much more appealing. Whilst political fringes need not be inherently bad, the divisive politics of some could lead to significant problems. This isn’t to absolve the people of these areas from responsibility towards their own destiny, but we should be careful that we don’t continually politically victim blame these communities.