The human factor
AT WESTMINSTER last week, political journalists weren't happy. Labour had sent round a letter demanding no less than £13,000 if media groups wanted to travel with Gordon Brown on his election battle bus. This is the caravan that wanders the country, stopping here and there, conducting unreal events with unreal people, engrossed in its own self-importance. The wonder is that anyone would want to pay anything at all.
Most will pay however, for this is the election as we know it. From John Major's soapbox to Tony's ice-cream for Gordon, to Prescott's punch, the images of recent campaigns have all come from this moveable feast, now ready to roll once again in a matter of days. Of course it matters. One slip on TV, or one moment of televisual genius, can genuinely change an election's course. But it shouldn't distract us from where the real power lies. The real election generally only emerges on election night itself, as the results roll in. From South Holland and the Deepings, Brentwood and Ongar, Bethnal Green and Bow, Banff and Buchan; only then do we realise that it wasn't about TV stunts – it was about our local street, and the people who live there.
Over the coming few weeks there will be ample time to examine the parties as they head off to seek votes and attention. But, as the country awaits the general election – likely to be called by Brown a week on Tuesday – it is worth starting at the beginning: with us, the punters. After Brown has dissolved parliament, is it we who, for a few brief weeks, are truly in charge? And this time round, in the first election for 18 years where the result is genuinely up for grabs, our power is greater than ever. So how are we faring? What do our instincts tell us? Do we even care?
ON MY street last Friday, things were pretty moody. Anne Johnston, a pensioner walking her dog, sighed at the mention of the election. "All the sleaze and whatnot, I think I might not bother," she says. "Although then people will be telling me I have to vote because of all those who fought for it." Across the road, Richard Winston, owner of the popular Tapa coffee house, says he'll vote, but he's not sure how. Frankly, he's got more on his mind – like the sudden increase in his rates bill next month. "I don't trust any of them," he says. "It's a shame that Green issues appear to have fallen off the radar." The mood, it has to be said, is sceptical and disillusioned.
The temptation is to assume, given the expenses affair, that this sour mood is the Big New Thing that will affect this election campaign. The truth, however, is more complex. "We've always been cynical and sceptical," says John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University. "The level of cynicism went up in the 1990s and it hasn't really recovered since." All the expenses affair has done, it seems, is make cynical people feel even more justified about their cynicism.
MPs may take heart from that, but the reason for such a lack of movement is even more worrying: trust isn't collapsing in Westminster because we're just not that involved in what's going on. Political research body the Hansard Society has been examining attitudes to politics over the past decade. This year it found the most significant decline was in the perceived impact Westminster had on people's lives: in 2004, 30 per cent of us saw it as one of the top three most influential institutions. That has fallen to just 19 per cent.
It's not that people are uninterested; rather that the affairs of state at Westminster no longer seem to have much relevance to the average person's daily life. Reading the report from the Hansard Society offers a glimpse of a confused, uncertain electorate. When those interviewed talked about politics in the abstract, they still believed it to be important. But when they tried to relate it to their own world it became more difficult to feel moved. "Participants felt politics was important generally, even if it was not important to them as an individual," the report notes.
A disconnect in our views towards politics emerges: three quarters of those surveyed said it was their duty to vote, but then only half said they were certain to do so. Most people, said the report, feel "that politics was something that happened around them, but not necessarily to them; what they considered politics to be was not something that necessarily impinged on their daily life".
What the Hansard Society didn't do was study the wider social changes that may have led to this estrangement from politics. That is being looked at by others. Professor Richard Webber, of King's College London, is the man who came up with the "Mosaic" system; a giant database, used by all the major parties, which segments the population into more than 50 different groups. Every election throws up a fictitious character on whom the final result is said to depend (such as Worcester Woman or Mondeo Man). Experian, the data-mining company which Webber advises, has now produced its latest: Motorway Man.
Motorway Man is a very Noughties creation. He (or she) rents a flat in one of the thousands of newbuild blocks across the country thrown up in the property boom. He has no children. He has little contact with the local community. He lives where he does because it's close to the motorway – hence the name – which lets him get to work fast. Webber declares: "He feels dissatisfied because he pays a lot of taxes for public services and doesn't meet people who use them. His main contacts are at work or on the internet and they are unlikely to need social services. Convincing them they should pay more tax when they don't use it is very difficult. In Scotland, you might find him in commuter towns like Stirling. He's pretty difficult to reach all round."
Motorway Man is a caricature, of course. But he points to a wider trend, says Webber. Take many of Scotland's old housing estates. No longer can one party – typically Labour – assume people there are theirs for the taking. Now, residents may be incomers who have bought their house privately from the original tenant, who themselves bought it from the council. Nor can Labour simply Hoover up the Union vote. "The decline in manufacturing industry means there are many more people who were once from traditional Labour backgrounds who no longer get that message reflected at work," he adds.
We are, in other words, that much more atomised. These social changes are now feeding into the way the public views politics. Curtice explains that, since we are less rooted, we are no longer so bound to the ties of loyalty: "We now have a situation where a quarter of the public don't identify with any party. In 1992 it was only 13 per cent." And the looser ties that bind us have weakened our sense of duty. "Those who say they had an absolute obligation to vote has gone from 64 per cent in 2005 to 56 per cent in 2008," Curtice adds.
It is likely that these social trends, rather than whatever latest scandal is happening at Westminster, are behind the drift away from organised politics. It may help us understand why recent polls have proven to be so stubbornly unresponsive to events – why Labour perversely gained in the polls recently despite all its various Westminster bubble woes. "It has always been the case that the things which obsess politicos are barely perceived by voters," notes Stephan Shakespeare, founder of polling company YouGov. "It may seem an affront to those who spend every hour worrying about these things, but the political class has very little control over its world."
For the political parties, trying to understand the electorate, this poses new problems. "The parties have to give people a reason to vote, rather than relying on obligation or identification," says Curtice. They can't simply rely on the old ties. All the political parties will still put every effort into the usual razzmatazz over the coming weeks, but they are not stupid; they know all too well that bus tours won't break down our mood of detachment.
Not for the first time, they are looking to America, and Barack Obama. It wasn't the US president's soaring oratory that won him the elections last year – although that helped. It was a ground war of sophistication and energy. "Precinct captains" in every block in the country made sure they knew their patch. And the campaign had "a conversation" with punters. Top-Down messages ("vote for us, we'll give you x") were replaced by a listening approach ("tell us what you'd like to see"). The hope is to make people feel they are engaged: that politics is actually about them.
All UK parties are now deploying similar techniques. Flyers posted through letterboxes may ask people to fill in a "survey" in which they rate what issues matter to them. And rather than manning huge impersonal phone banks, where hired staff in Sunderland attempt to woo bored voters in Glasgow, the parties are using internet software to let local activists make calls in their own area. They sit at home, pull off a list of phone numbers handed to them from HQ, and get on the blower. A local approach, from a local person, is likely to be more trusted, and most likely to engage a disinterested voter.
IN SOME ways, the effort the parties are making is almost pitiful – because if voters aren't going to get excited in this campaign, then they never will. The overwhelming topic of the teetering UK economy would make it interesting enough. But the fact that the result is so unpredictable doubles the excitement. Labour may be creaking but the party is not giving up. The Tories may be ahead, but they appear afraid of the finishing line. A week on Tuesday, when Brown will almost certainly visit the Queen, their fates are ours to decide. The power is with the people – if, that is, we choose to use it.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Monday 20 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 21 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 10 mph
Wind direction: North west