In the next few weeks I’ll be spending time with people in a bingo hall in Nottinghamshire, a golf club in Bradford, a warehouse in Derby, a tenants and residents association in London and I’ll be meeting with mums in a part of Manchester where voter turnout is frighteningly low. Yesterday I spent the morning in Billericay, Essex at a Jazzercise class (aerobics to jazz music). Wherever I go and whoever I talk to I’ll be asking the simple question – why do people hate me? Not me personally, but me the politician.
Research conducted by commentator and pollster Peter Kellner, Democracy on Trial, revealed the scale of the problem. It showed some alarming results – just 12% of the 5000 British adults surveyed think ‘Parliament does a good job of understanding the daily lives of people like you’, 53% said ‘the quality of our politicians’ was the thing they liked least about Britain’s political system.
66% backed the statement, ‘however they start out, most MPs end up becoming remote from the everyday lives and concerns of the people they represent’ and a massive 62% agreed that ‘politicians tell lies all the time – you can’t believe a word they say’.
My research may not be scientific but I’m after something different – I want to hear peoples raw emotions, I want to hear the disillusionment in their own words. I want to see how and whether a variety of groups feel differently about politics.
Some may say that I’m wasting my time – that voters always have and always will display a healthy scepticism towards politics and politicians. But the British Social Attitudes survey suggests things are getting much worse when it comes to whose interests the public believe politicians put first. After each General Election since 1987, the Social Attitudes survey has asked people how much they ‘trust British governments of any party to place the needs of the nation above the interest of their political party’. In 1987 47% said governments did this ‘just about always’ or ‘most of the time’. By 2010 the figure was 20%.
Don’t get me wrong – politicians know there’s an issue – we chat about it in the tea rooms of Westminster. My ears pricked up when in his first Conference speech as Labour leader Ed Miliband said ‘Politics is basically broken’. We all know there’s a problem. To be fair there are some steps to tackle this like Jon Trickett’s work to find more working class MPs or Hazel Blears Parliamentary scheme to get people from different backgrounds working in Parliament. It’s a stark fact that for all the steps we have made in improving women’s and ethnic minority representation we have collectively gone backwards in terms of working class representation.
So these are the sorts of questions I’m asking :
- What do you think when I say the word politician?
- What kind of people become politicians?
- Can u paint a picture of one – appearance, accent, age?
- What do politicians do?
- Have you ever met a politician?
- What qualities do u need to be a politician?
- How do you become a politician?
- Would you become a politician?
- Do u think politicians care about people like you?
- Who do politicians work for?
- What would need to happen to make politics relevant to you?
- How much do u think they are paid?
- Do you vote?
All those I met yesterday at the Billericay Jazzercise always used their vote, so in that sense they weren’t especially disengaged, but none thought we really understood the reality of their lives. As I continue my research over the coming weeks ill find out how this disillusionment manifests itself amongst many different groups – groups that politicians don’t always engage with. I’m not saying I’ll have all the right answers but I’m pretty sure that these questions have got to be asked.
Gloria De Piero is the Labour MP for Ashfield