A gulf has opened up between politicians and the people

2nd May, 2012 10:19 am

A new poll for Policy Exchange shows that a gulf has opened up between politicians and the people. More than 80% of voters think that politicians don’t understand the real world at all. At a time of the biggest  squeeze in living standards for decades, ordinary voters don’t believe that politicians understand their concerns.  What is clear is that both parties are affected by the strong anti politics mood.

The stalemate at the last election showed that neither party managed to sufficiently empathise with or appeal to hard pressed voters.  And our poll shows that the situation has got even worse for the political parties since the election. This presents a real challenge for both Labour and the Tories.

There’s good and bad news in the poll for Labour.  The poll suggests that being seen as the party of the rich remains a major Achilles’ heel for the Tories, with 64% of voters thinking that the Conservatives stand for the rich rather than ordinary people.   However, 28% of voters say the same about Labour – something that will probably concern Labour strategists.

Labour also has a larger pool of potential voters than the Tories. 35% of voters say they would never vote Tory, but only 24% of voters say they would never vote Labour. And that proportion is bigger in the North, where many of the battleground seats at the next election will be, with 39% of voters in the North saying that they would never consider voting Tory.

But the poll also has gloomy results for Labour.  There’s evidence that Labour may be losing touch with their former voters. 53% of people say that labour used to care about them, compared with 33% who say that the Tories used to care about people like them. That proportion of people who say that Labour care about people like them now is only 30% – exactly the same as it is for the Tories.

Worries about Labour’s economic competence continue to be a handicap for the party. 54% of voters agreed with the statement that “the Labour party waste your money and they can’t be trusted to run the economy”. Only 45% agreed with the same statement for the Tories.   When asked how Labour could restore their reputation for economic competence, by far the most popular response amongst all voters and ‘Labour swing’ voters was that Labour should pledge to control spending on welfare (45% of ‘Labour swing voters’ agreed with this, well ahead of other responses).

Voters’ personal political priorities are pretty clear and they reflect falling real incomes and the fact that ordinary people are having trouble making ends meet. When asked what politicians could do to help them, by far the most popular responses were cutting energy bills and reducing fuel duty.  Exactly half of the voters surveyed think that the priority of politicians should be reducing energy bills. This rises to 54% of voters in the North and 56% of voters who describe themselves as working class.

The poll also suggests that both political parties can do more to change the way they look and feel. Voters are clear that there should be more MPs with experience outside of politics and more MPs from working class backgrounds. They also strongly expressed the view that Labour needs more MPs with experience of business.

Our poll makes clear the major challenges facing both political parties and emphasises that ordinary voters see politicians as out of touch.  The poll results are stark, but not particularly surprising. The “Westminster village” is seen as a bubble that doesn’t really understand the concerns of ordinary voters who are struggling to make ends meet.  Politicians need to do more to show that they empathise with the struggles of ordinary voters and are able and willing to do something to help ordinary working people.

David Skelton is Deputy Director of Policy Exchange

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  • Daniel Speight

    Forget  the Tories, they  can sort out their problems with the public.

    For Labour we need to see why there is this gulf. In the last couple of cabinets Labour had in government it would be hard to name an MP that had any following from the public. Since then we continue to clone more, just  the same as those that went before. If those they replace could get the public to support them why should we think more of the same will do any good.

    • Nick C

      Until recently the vast majority of MPs, particularly Labour MPs, were not full time politicians before they entered parliament.  They had careers in “ordinary” jobs and their life stories were often very similar to those of the people they represented. This is not true of today’s politicians – they tend to enter parliament at a relatively early age, having graduated from a Russell group university and spent a few years as a SPAD, party organiser or full-time councillor. It’s hardly surprising that (with a few exceptions) they come over as callow, inexperienced and unable to connect and even party activists (well, this one anyway) find them uninspiring, lacking in originality and unable to distinguish real policy making from sloganising.

      • I recently met our full-time organiser on a canvassing day. He scampered off before we started door-knocking and I was glad he did – he certainly didn’t have the right door-step manner – too aloof and dressed like a survivor of a dreadful outdoor pop festival.

        But of course, he was Oxbridge, had been an understudy at a London ‘consultantcy’ so knew all the right people and will, most probably, be slotted into a safe seat.

        It seems that those at the top have fixed things to allow them to perpetuate their own influence – this is why internal democracy has been diminished.

        Given that as members we have very little power, my hope is that somehow the unions, through their internal democratic procedures, will be able to prevent the party from becoming an irrelevant plaything of the metropolitan elite.

        • treborc1

           In all honesty do you think Miliband is much different then his brother, or his brother any different from Blair.

           Telling the public New labour is dead  because you have removed new from the internet address  is not really doing it.

          Labour has to come out and tell us what makes this any different from the last lot, and I do not think  Miliband yet knows, and I suspect as we get nearer to the next election Miliband will slowly move back to his centre ground, back towards New labour, because that was the winning way for the labour party, and the only way New labour will die is once it’s been shown to not be a winner in maybe three or four terms time

          • There are differences. Ed has recognised the Iraq war as a mistake – whereas David, exhibiting crass ideological tunnel-vision, opposed this admission. And Ed has been able to hold the party together following the 2010 defeat – and has even got people like myself back on board.

            Though I fear the anti-Ed brigade within the Party may become more combative and launch an ‘abstain from voting labour’ campaign during the run-up to the  to the 2015 general election and, as with LP members currently campaigning against Livingstone, they can expect to receive strong backing from the press.

            But questions still remain re policy. So we’ll just have to wait and see. But I have no doubt: Ed was the best of the bunch and I’m heartened by the fact that Ed has signalled his recognition of the flaws in the neo-liberal ideology that led to the current crisis, so at least he is aware of the extent of the challenge.

          • Nick C

            In policy terms I think Ed is definitely in the right place – he knows that we can’t go back to the unbridled greed and kowtowing to the undeserving rich that all politicians have indulged in over the past 30 years or so. His problem is not policy IMO, it’s the fact that he comes over as an identikit politician with little experience of real life – people do not believe that he can deliver. He sometimes seems to lack the courage of his convictions (and it’s clear that most of the shadow cabinet lack it as well) but I hope that as time goes on and it becomes ever more clear that he is right he will become bolder.

          • treborc1

            How long does it take, he’s not New to the tasks in politics he was trained under Blair and finished under Brown, if he is not yet ready then sadly he never will be, and lets be honest if he not ready now to fight the fight, then he better step down for somebody else.

  • Class and privilege have only become such big concerns because what our politicians are saying and doing shows no sign of empathy. Tony Blair was fairly damned priviledged, but elitism wasn’t nearly such a buzz word because the Labour Party then were appealing to what voters wanted.  This therefore gives an impression that they ‘understand’. Political infighting and academic discussions about the party ‘brand’ do nothing to make the party message relevant to the electorate.

    • treborc1

      Thank god I’ve given up voting

  • AlanGiles

    ” There’s evidence that Labour may be losing touch with their former voters. ”
    You don’t say?. Many of us have been saying this for years, but more so since we found out about the expenses frauds – I owe Kauffmann an apology, by the way. recently I said he bought himself a £2000 TV set with our money, which he blamed on his “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” – at 80 he should be in retirement dealing with his health, but in fact, checking the Telegraph datya again, I see it was an £8,000 TV (yes eight thousand):

    Just read this list. That is why people have nothing but contempt for  politicians on all sides – obese old men stuffing themselves with food bought with the allowance we give them, tap dancing twits rocking the boat.

    While these sort of people remain in Parliament, I am afraid the public will carry on being repulsed.

    There is also evidence that some of the troughers like Tom McNulty are planning a comeback.

    • AlanGiles

      Sorry TONY McNulty, not Tom.

      • treborc1

         I was thinking crafty git had changed his name.

  • Jocelyn

    Actually the situation is even odder than that: not only has a huge gulf opened up between politicians generally and the electorate, a huge gulf has opened up between the leadership of political parties and the actual card carrying members of those parties. We now have a bizarre situation where the political leaderships, normally fairly right-of-centre these days, want to do things or implement policies completely at odds with the ethos and wishes of their individual party’s members. A very odd state of affairs to be sure and one that can only end in tears for all concerned. 

  • hp

    Utter denial and failure of the politicians to deal with the major issues of the day forms a big part of the gulf between me and the political establishment.
    I got modded-out earlier for suggesting our huge national debt (don’t forget spiraling future pension and healthcare costs) might be a big part of it.
    But that is a message that the political establishment (Labour included) does not want to hear.  And they wonder why we are not ‘on board’ and ‘engaged’.
    Drop the petty bickering and deal with the real problems, then the rest of us might take more interest.

  • Brumanuensis

    First of all, I’m surprised the figure for the Conservatives on the ‘money wasting’ question, is  as high as 45%.

    It’s interesting to note what the electorate say about Labour needing more MPs with business backgrounds. Not a position I disagree with, but I doubt people think of the Tories as requiring more MPs from trade union backgrounds, which illustrates something of a double-standard in public perceptions. 

    On welfare, once again we see that the public are, frankly, ignorant about the welfare state. The popularity of the benefit cap – a policy that the Orange Book-affiliated Liberal Democrat economist Tim Leunig described as ‘based on a questionable grasp of how the benefits system actually works (http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/2011/06/16/government-benefit-cap/ ) – illustrates this. 

    Similarly, a recent report by the MS Society notes that public perceptions of disability are utterly appalling in many ways. A few quotes (http://www.mssociety.org.uk/sites/default/files/Fighting%20Back%20-%20MS%20Week%202012%20report%20-%20spreads.pdf )

    – “Alarming stigmas and attitudes still exist about people with disabilities. One in five (21%) British adults surveyed think disabled people need to accept they can’t have the same opportunities in life, with men (28%) more likely than women (15%) to hold this view. Morethan one in four (26%) Britons think bars and nightclubs are not places for people with wheelchairs, a belief more commonly found in men (31%) and 18-24 year olds (32%), compared to women (21%) and 45- 54 year olds (22%)”.

    -“One in four (24%) Britons believe disabled people often exaggerate the extent of their physical limitations, with men (28%) again more likely to hold this view than women (20%). More than three quarters of people with MS (76%) can think of at least one occasion when someone has questioned the fact they have MS because they ‘looked well’, with over half (53%) able to recall at least one occasion when their symptoms have been mistaken for drunkenness”. 

    -“A large majority (71%) of British adults admit that they don’t feel they know enoughabout MS. Most people don’t realise MS attacks in early adulthood, with almost 4 in 5 people (79%) either estimating that MS is most commonly diagnosed among people aged over 35 or answering ‘don’t know’. Just 15% answered correctly that MS is most commonly diagnosed aged 25-34, with younger people aged 18- 24 particularly unaware of this fact (9%). Almost one in three (31%) people couldn’t name any of the common symptoms of MS, rising to almost half (47%) of people aged 18-24 and a similar proportion (45%) of those aged 25-34, the most common age to be diagnosed”. 

    It’s fairly apparent that these attitudes stem from the tabloid bear-baiting of anyone claiming benefits, as observed by the University
    of Glasgow’s report on this matter (http://www.gla.ac.uk/news/headline_214763_en.html ).

    I agree with points others have made about the ‘professionalisation’ of politics leading to disenchantment. To give Ed Miliband some credit, this does at least show that his push on household energy bills is politically sound. Although even here the media does talk nonsense (http://www.ippr.org/publications/55/9040/the-true-cost-of-energy-how-competition-and-efficiency-in-the-energy-supply-market-impact-on-consumers-bills ).  

    • JoeDM

      The results concerning MS have nothing to do with tabloids.   That is just a very lazy leftwing kneejerk PC excuse.   Most people do not come into regular contact with people with a serious disability and wouldn’t know the symptoms if they did, and why should they be expected to? 

      • Dave Postles

        I’ll await your network research into the nodes and links, distance and nearness, between people with and without disabilities.  I suspect that even ‘small worlds’ networks and even Mark Granovetter’s ‘weak links’ would tend to contradict your assumption.

      • Brumanuensis

        I refer you to the Strathclyde study, and besides, my point was wider than just MS. If public are literally ignorant – i.e. lacking knowledge – why do so many appear to believe that sufferers are exaggerating their symptoms – which is a knowledge claim. People are making assumpions based on a vague knowledge of the condition and it is the nature of that impression that gives clues as to where it comes from.

        To put it another way: if you genuinely didn’t know anything about someone’s medical condition, why would you assume they were exaggerating their symptoms?

        However, thank you for the line ‘very leftwing kneejerk PC excuse’. That’s given me lots of points in my game of ‘right-wing buzzword Bingo’ – played at all Mecca Bingo’s north of Watford.

        • Brumanuensis

          The ‘t’ on my keyboard is currently malfunctioning, btw.

          • James

            Me too. GuyM is a righ cun isn’ he?

          • Brumanuensis

            Naughy James. Naughy.

    • Bill Lockhart

       That disabled people do not have all the opportunities potentially available to non-disabled is an absurdly trivial statement of obvious fact. So, yes, a blind person needs to accept that s/he does not have the potential opportunity to become an airline pilot. A tetraplegic does not have the potential opportunity to play Premier League football. To pretend that the acknowledgment of these facts is somehow “prejudice” is utterly ridiculous- and thus to be expected from the minorities industry.

      • Dave Postles

         This comment is a gross trivialization of the point.  The issue is quite evidently about quotidian opportunities:

        ‘More than one in four (26%) Britons think bars and nightclubs are not
        places for people with wheelchairs, a belief more commonly found in men
        (31%) and 18-24 year olds (32%), compared to women (21%) and 45- 54 year
        olds (22%)”.

        What the quotation suggests is a resentfulness about making provision for people with disabilities to enjoy the same everyday opportunities.

        • Guy M’s Avatar

          Wow, many people resent having to make provision that either costs them money or limits their own activities. Statement of the bleedin obvious of the day or what.

          God some people are awful. Our policies are right, The people arre wrong. Get rid of them immediately

          • Dave Postles

             I love the trill on the arre; I doubt Jacob (R-M) could have pronounced it better – very rhotic.

        • Brumanuensis

          Exactly Dave. That was precisely MSS’ point.

        • GuyM

          If you honestly think Saturday night at Ministry of Sound type events are the best place for lots of wheelchair users then I’m afraid it’s PC land gone mad.

          Bars absolutely should have no difference in access rights but a nightclub is a different thing and would also significantly impact on fire regulations as well.

          Quite how a wheelchair user feels about the queue for the toilets and the state of them by 2am at most clubs would be interesting to read.

          • Brumanuensis

            Perhaps this is a cue for nightclubs to become more accessible then.  

          • GuyM

            I totally disagree, clubs like MoS etc. are there for dancing primarily and are crowded with largely dark interiors.

            Clubs also have a multitude of raised or sunken areas, partly to create break out spaces and also break up lines and help with lighting effects (I was a DJ in my late teens and early 20s)

            It simply is not right to change club set ups to cater for wheelchair users.

            You’d need loads of ramps or flat spaces (most clubs I’ve been in would need lifts as well), well lit all over the club with ample room for wheelchairs to pass by walking clubbers.

            The other obvious factor is the noise level. Wheelchair users in the middle of say a thumping trance set, with flashing lights, dark ambient light and many different flooring levels it just not realistic.

            Wheelchairs on a dance floor with lots of partially drunk (or drugged) clubbers? Health and safety nightmare waiting to happen

            In other words you would have ot make so many changes that it would no longer be a night club, there simply would not be any point in having the thing open.

            So I’m sorry but reality needs to kick in now and then as people need to accept that if you are in a wheelchair there are some things you simply can not do and other things that by insisting on doing you would destroy for all intents.

          • treborc1

            god your an ass hole.

          • GuyM

            Answer the points then.

            A dark, multi layered and heavily crowded area set aside for dancing, how do wheelchairs fit into that?

            Turn lights on, significantly reduce the numbers of people allowed in the building, put ramps in everywhere and is that still a nhightclub?

          • treborc1

             How do you feel about then, if you do not like them then neither will I, but I dam well have the right to be in that position.

      • Brumanuensis

        I only just spotted your ‘minorities industry’ remark. Charming stuff, Bill. Any other uppity types you’d like put the boot into? 

  • The most obvious side effect of that gulf is the uselessness of voting intention polls. The voters mostly dont want to think about politics till they have to & thanks to fixed term parliaments they dont have to till early 2015.
    The 1 in 10 who will vote tomorrow will have to give some thought to politics but their numbers are too small to affect “the polls” much. My guess is that the estimated vote shares will bear very little resemblance to any of the VI polls.

    • JoeDM

       And quite a few will look at the list of LibDem, Labour & Conservative candidates and think “Where is the real alternative?” and not vote.

      • treborc1

        Totally correct

      • MonkeyBot5000

        Indeed, it could be a good day for independents on Thursday.

        In our last by-election, our independent candidate got more votes than all three main parties combined. This time around, I haven’t seen a leaflet from any of them and I’m not sure if they’re even running.

        The party candidates just tell us scare stories about what the other parties will do or make promises that are way outside the control of the local council. Meanwhile, I can walk around my area and point out actual improvements that my councillor has made – often having to fight against the Tory dominated council who care more about sucking up to Tesco than they do about the residents.

        • Brumanuensis

          Possibly in Wales, where there’s a strong tradition of independent councillors – I await Robert’s confirmation of this impression though.

  • GuyM

    A relevant bit of news today that shows just how big the “gulf” actually is.

    For the first time official acceptance that A levels and GSCEs have been getting easier or “less demanding” as the phrase was put.

    Ofqual after analysis across a range of academic subjects (including Biology, Chemistry, Maths and Geography) have concluded that from the early part of the millenium up to 2010, exams have become less damanding.

    Of course there is no comparison to the old O and A levels of 2o plus years ago which a lot suspect would show that even greater falls in difficulty or “dumbing down” had taken place, but this acceptance of a problem is huge in itself.

    Why is this relevant to the discussion thread? Because for years politiicans of all the parties, NUT and other teaching union leaders and exam board managers have all colluded in a farce that was clearly evident to those outside the exam “industry”. Endless statements that standards hadn’t dropped and it was an insult to hard working students to suggest otherwise.

    Despite independent academic research, university and business statements over falling standards, politicians of all colours kept up the lies and dissembling over standards as it suited them to do so.

    Even when UK education was falling alarmingly down international tables and even when UK industry and business groups warned of skills shortages and the short comings of school leavers, still all politicians carried on telling all that the Emporer had all his clothes on.

    Even on LL there have been endless siren voices of the left telling everyone that criticism of the exam system was just an unjustified attack on young people.

    Well now we know, from the exam regulator themselves, exams have been getting easier and all the politicians, hacks and vested interest groups were shown to be dishonest for years.

    Anyone who sees the example GCSE question in The Times today must weep for the fall in standards politicians have covered over for years.

    Politicians, hacks, SPADs, hangars on…. all a disreputable and untrustworthy bunch.

  • Judoker

    And like the’re no gulf between think tanks and the public?

  • Dave Postles
  • Daniel Speight

     It was the expenses scandal that did most damage, but there were other things that make it worse and very little that makes it better. The behaviour of so many ex-Labour cabinet ministers selling themselves like old tarts as the last parliament came to an end; the revolving door for likes of Mandelson and Blunkett after being caught in a scandal; the money-making activities of Tony Blair; the PLP not putting up a choice against Gordon Brown as the new leader; the spin doctors and such as Campbell; and so many more examples we could point to.

    You want to change this then you had better get back to being a Labour Party again and not a poor copy of one-nation Tories. Maybe Ed Miliband can be another Attlee, but you better find your Ernie Bevin and Nye Bevan to go with him.

    • treborc1

      A prominent disabled activist has launched a highly critical attack
      on Labour leader Ed Miliband during a televised question and answer
      session over his failure to speak out on the government’s hated “fitness
      for work” tests.

      The session took place at the Labour conference, but the audience included members of the public who were not party members.

      One was Kaliya Franklin, the disabled blogger and activist who co-founded The Broken of Britain,
      who accused Miliband – to loud applause from the audience – of failing
      to speak out for disabled people because of hostile media attacks that
      have labelled benefits claimants as “scroungers”.

      She told him that the issue of disabled people being the “hardest
      hit” by the cuts had been “airbrushed almost entirely from the

      Miliband claimed he was not afraid to use the word “disability” and
      was “determined to say that disabled people need support and help and
      compassion”, but that “you have got to separate out ill-health and
      disability from worklessness and the decision not to work”.

      The real issue is what has changed.


      Labour legacy…………….. nope Ed is part of the problem not the cure

      • Dave Postles

        People just don’t know about the issues because no one is speaking about them.  I was outside Boots for 2 hours on 30 April making the point about the loss of ESA and Boots/KKR tax avoidance.  People did not realise what ESA is or that people were losing it.  When I explained it to them, they were astounded.  Where was Labour on the 30 April?  There should have been mass demonstrations.

        • treborc1

          Labour not into mass anything these days, they tend to hide a lot

  • MonkeyBot5000

    Our poll makes clear the major challenges facing both political parties
    and emphasises that ordinary voters see politicians as out of touch.

    This sentence here demonstrates the entire problem – everyone is worrying over fixing the impression that politicians are out of touch. When large swathes of the country say that politicians are out of touch with the voters then, by definition, they are out of touch.

    It’s the same as when we kept hearing that the public had lost trust in politicians as if it was somehow the our problem when in reality it was the politicians who had destroyed our trust.

    • Jimr

      Well said.  An example of the extent of this gulf is the consistency with which politician’s blame their disappointments and defeats on failing to get their message across clearly or the public’s failure to understand it. They rarely seem to think it possible that their message was well understood and rejected. Do they not realise how patronising it is to assume that if we really knew what they meant we’d agree?

  • dizzyingcrest

    I fear undemocratic changes may make it very difficult to remove the Conservatives from office. Boundary changes, the increased concentration of poor people to safe labour seats (Through benefit capping) may turn some London marginals blue and the possibility of Scottish independence may Further reduce the number of labour MPs. Maybe Labour should make a full and binding commitment to Proportional representation I am sure this would be popular with people who have lived in safe seats where in effect their vote may never have counted. It may also encourage the Scottish to remain in the union

    • GuyM


      Like having constituencies the same size?

      Or do you think it “democratic” that the national share of the vote for Tony Blair in 2005 which delivered a large majority was small that Cameron got in 2010 resulting in not getting a majority at all?

      Nothing like a lefty whining about keeping an electoral advantage is there?

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