Why is Britain so disenchanted with its politicians?


Following complete debacles in the last election and the Brexit referendum, political prognostications in general and opinion polls in particular do not have a great record in Britain of late. It seems unlikely that anyone can restore their reputations single-handed.

And a lone journalist, stopping people in the street for their opinions, is never going to be strong on scientific sampling and methodology. There is a certain bias towards people at bus stops and smokers, who are not moving targets.

But one does have some advantages over sophisticated internet-based market research organisations. One can ask off-message questions, probe a little, interpret nuance. For instance, long experience teaches that “My vote is secret”, “I’d rather not say” and (as happened with one voter) a grumpy “Have you got your ID on you?” can reliably be interpreted as a vote for the Conservative party.

This is partly because there are still some people of a certain age and background who have a lingering faith in the sacred nature of the secret ballot. And also because in the angry 1980s overt Tories lived in fear of broken windows.

And sometimes one can just sniff a mood. It seems clear to me, having spoken to dozens of voters in Wolverhampton and Bridgend, areas containing four vulnerable Labour-held seats, that the essential thesis behind Theresa May’s decision to call the election has not yet disappeared. There are enough Labour voters who are sufficiently put off by the party’s leftwing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to give May the increased majority she craves. The canvass returns of both parties back this up.

However, there are cross-currents that the prime minister might find more worrying. Some voters bought into the “strong and stable” message that she tried to convey. Others were repelled by it: “She’s missed her vocation. She should be a dictator somewhere,” said a man in Bridgend, leaning towards Plaid Cymru. And almost as many, on the contrary, saw her as indecisive. “She can’t make up her mind, can she?”

But there was one set of responses that far outweighed the support for any political party. I was staggered by the complete disengagement from the political process, especially in polyglot Wolverhampton and above all among the young. The same phrase kept recurring: “I don’t do politics”, although everyone who has ever bought flowers after forgetting their mum’s birthday in effect does politics: a skill usually acquired round about voting age. It feels there is a crisis broader than Brexit, than the arguments over immigration, than the danger of a Scottish breakaway. There is a crisis of disengagement from democracy.

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The Conservative Paul Uppal canvassing in Wolverhampton © Harry Mitchell

The first and perhaps defining character of this election campaign was Brenda from Bristol, a woman vox-popped by the BBC on the day of the prime minister’s announcement. She hadn’t heard the news. “You’re joking,” she said with an expressiveness that spoke for England. “Not another one! Oh, for God’s sake! Honestly, I can’t stand this! There’s too much politics going on at the moment. Why does she need to do it?”

Campaigning has become an annual summertime rite. This is the third year running (the fourth in Scotland) that the sweet o’the year, such a precious time in these latitudes, has been interrupted by a general election or a major referendum. A certain Brenda-ishness was evident in Scotland earlier this year when the Scottish National party stepped up its demand for another independence referendum; I myself discovered a surprising number of voters who had been in favour in 2014 but now just yearned for stability.

And May’s election, just like the Brexit poll, was not a necessary vote. The referendum was a political boomerang aimed by David Cameron at a few rightwing beasts inside the Conservative party and Ukip so he could eat them for breakfast; it ended up knocking him flat. May’s strategy was not dissimilar: she wanted to take advantage of Corbyn’s political weakness to reset the electoral clock. This might well still work. But on some deep, visceral level the British seem to understand when they are being used.

Legally, UK elections have to take place every five years, though the postwar pattern has been to go a year early if the prime minister expects to win again. This has been theoretically harder since Cameron, again for his own purposes, forced through the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 2011 — but clearly not much harder, since May evaded it in no time.

Three of those elections (1951, 1966 and October 1974) had to take place much more rapidly because the parliamentary mathematics did not allow for stable government. In each of these cases turnout fell. Only one other election came significantly before the four-year mark: in February 1974, when Ted Heath asked voters what was supposed to be a rhetorical question. “Who governs Britain?” (ie Heath or the striking miners). Turnout went up that time but only to give him the answer: “Not you, mate.” Brenda-ism, in varying forms, is not a new phenomenon.

But this is a country which used to pride itself on the level of its political maturity, particularly when compared with the US. The turnout peaked at 83.9 per cent at the 1950 election, falling below 60 per cent in 2001 before creeping up again: 66 per cent in 2015. It is still generally assumed to be significantly higher than in the US. This is misleading.

American figures are shown as a percentage of voting-age citizens, which came out as 60 per cent in the Trump election last year. In 2014 a Commons report estimated that only 85 per cent of Britons were even on the voting register. If so, the British figure might actually be lower than the American one. At the very least, says the Oxford university political sociologist Stephen Fisher, “there is not the gap between Britain and the US that there used to be”. Germany still gets 70 per cent; the first round of presidential voting in France last month achieved 77; it is higher still in Australia, where voting is compulsory, and North Korea, where it is very compulsory.

British elections have been steadily retreating from the public gaze for a long time now. In my own memory party leaders spoke at nightly meetings in big cities and marginals, dealt with hecklers, walked the streets and, if they didn’t actually kiss any babies, they certainly patted a few little heads. As late as 1992 John Major got on his soapbox, out-shouted his detractors — and won.

It was Tony Blair who first began to slam the door on the rude and untrustworthy media, ditching the morning press conferences, which were the staple of all campaigns. And his heirs have done their utmost to cut out the even more untrustworthy public. Some of this is the result of necessary security; most of it is the politicians’ fear of their own incompetence, and the presence — on the Tory side, especially — of coarse advisers ensuring they never take risks in pursuit of democratic norms.

In 2010 Britain held its first and only set of leaders’ debates, when the incumbent Gordon Brown was in such trouble that he had to grasp the chance. The first and last debates drew audiences of around 10m. There was widespread agreement that this novelty was a huge success. “It’s part of the debate we should have in Britain,” said Brown. “I think it’s energised the campaign.”

There were some complaints that the leaders spent so much time prepping that it sucked the blood out of the traditional blood-and-thunder of election time. But in this election, as in 2015, there have been no proper TV debates, and no blood-and-thunder either. May, like Cameron before her when he had made it to Downing Street, simply refused to play. The pathetic substitute of the leaders appearing separately last Monday night was watched by just over 3m and the prime minister was able to just repeat the robotic mantras that have characterised her discourse for the past six weeks. May’s refusal to take part in the seven-way rough-and-tumble that followed on Wednesday was treated by her opponents as laughable. But the serious point is that Britain’s elections once again lack the focal point of modern democracies that are the absolute norm in the US, France, Germany, Australia, etc and such paragons of enlightenment as Iran and the Philippines. That is a national disgrace.

It is customary at election time for the political classes to have difficulty imagining how dull and remote it all seems to what might be described as normal people and how the Brenda-ists, given the chance, would sweep the country. This time even the wonks, buffs and obsessives have felt much the same. Even before the Manchester bombing, the election rarely led the BBC’s main TV news. There was usually something more compelling, often from Washington. Say what you like about Donald Trump, but he doesn’t do robotic. Perhaps that’s why he won.

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Pat McFadden, Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East for the past 12 years, has a constituency built to withstand not just a landslide but an earthquake, a tsunami or nuclear meltdown (maj: 10,767). He still takes nothing for granted: “I’m getting life-long Labour voters telling me they are voting Tory because they want to give Corbyn a kicking, and some of them say they like Theresa May. The frustrating thing is I don’t think the Tories are that good.”

“But the Labour vote isn’t collapsing, is it?”

“Canvassing is an inexact science. You work and you work and you work.”

Across the city in Wolverhampton South West, the Sikh Conservative Paul Uppal is hoping to regain the seat he won in 2010 by 691 and lost in 2015 by 801, which would not withstand a puff of breeze, especially as there is a new Labour candidate. “It feels different to last time,” says Uppal. “I believe the Tory vote will come out and that the Labour vote is soft.” And he stuck to that even as the polls narrowed.

In Bridgend, Madeleine Moon sits edgily on a majority of 1,927 in a seat that has been Labour for 30 years but is now filling up with newcomers attracted by the transport links. But she wanders the estates in a big straw hat, looking like a game old mum insisting on going to Glastonbury. And the old locals know her all right: “Madeleine Moon!” roars one man. “How are you, my darling?”

Moon was widowed before the 2015 election, and she still seems bereft. Now another huge part of her being is under threat. “Everything’s here for me in Bridgend. My family, my friends. It may be a woman’s thing but I want to hug the place tight. I just want to protect it.”

She is up against Karen Robson, a perky, parachuted-in Tory in pink leggings who is learning Bridgend as a foreign language. That will not save the incumbent if the blue tide is high enough. In the meantime, Moon’s leaflets talk about what she has done for the constituency and omit the name Corbyn. Robson’s leaflets talk about what Theresa May might do, barely mentioning herself or the word Conservative.

In nearby Newport West the octogenarian Labour member Paul Flynn (maj: 3,510), prefers to canvass by phone these days (”much more efficient”) but he is still full of beans and humour and heterodox views, as on the absurdity of the drug laws (“dogs bark, babies cry, politicians legislate”). He is deeply alarmed by the darker aspects of the campaign: “We have been taken over by artificial intelligence. You can now buy elections to an extent unknown since before the secret ballot.”

Down in the Devon seaside marginal of Torbay (Con maj: 3,286 over Lib Dem), Labour hardly figures. And the leader’s name is mainly mentioned because of the promontory of Corbyn Head — not far from Thatcher Rock — which houses the public toilets. May is a distant figure, too. The seat was held, before the cull of Lib Dems in 2015, by a classic pavement politician, Adrian Sanders.

And both his party replacement and his Conservative conqueror are campaigning in the same spirit. “When I ask questions I promote the bay, pick up issues covering the bay and deal with the issues people in the bay are talking about,” says the Tory, Kevin Foster. “He likes to speak in parliament,” says his opponent Deborah Brewer. “He doesn’t speak down here. My whole life is in Torbay.”

John Major on his soapbox in Thornhill, Bristol during the 1992 election © Steve Back/REX

Sanders is still in evidence, offering her advice. “Is politics really local, local, local?” I asked him. “It’s the bit that makes the difference,” he replied.

I love this patchwork: 650 different contests — some intense, some languid; some good-natured, some bitter; some transparently obvious, a few with hidden agendas that will go unnoticed by outsiders until the early hours of June 9.

At this level, British democracy still has a vibrancy that the world might envy. But if two-fifths of eligible voters see no reason why any of it matters, then it is vital that after Thursday the politicians must stop arguing — or, in the prime minister’s case, refusing to argue — and quietly consider how on earth they can revive the nation’s most precious asset: its successful democracy.

Matthew Engel is an FT contributing editor

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