“If you want people to be interested in politics why do you make it so boring?” A question one Scout asked me when I took the wonderful 31st Islington Scout Troup on a tour of the Town Hall.
The Scouts, aged from 10 to 14, had lots of fun running around the Council Chamber, Members Room and Leaders Office (sorry Richard), taking it in turns to be Mayor and even paying a brief visit to an unsuspecting Communities Scrutiny Committee Meeting, which, as it happens, was discussing knife crime, gangs and youth violence.
The tour including a Q&A, where I explained what the Chief Whip does (hint, they don’t get to hit naughty Councillors with sticks), I was particularly interested in some of the Scouts’ questions. Questions like “why is it that most people don’t want to vote?”, “how come all politicians seem the same?”, and “how did you get involved in politics? It sounds well boring.”
The Scouts’ innocent questions reflected attitudes you come across pretty frequently on the doorstep. While the polling is pretty good for Labour right now, and our local election campaign seems generally very well received, the anti-politics mood that peaked during the 2009 MPs expenses scandal is still prevalent throughout the UK.
“Of course I’ll vote Labour, who else I am going to vote for? But I won’t enjoy it” said one man to me last weekend. It had been a good session and our support was solid, but again and again we meet people who say tell us there don’t bother voting anymore or they only vote Labour because we “aren’t as bad as the other lot”.
Issues that come up over and over again on the doorstep include: concerns over the future of the NHS, anger about immigration, the bedroom tax, welfare reforms, EMA cuts and tuition fees, the high cost of household bills, rent, transport and childcare, anger at the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government, anger at the previous Labour government, anger at bankers, anger at the 1%, anger at tax evaders, anger at benefits cheats.
I have campaigned throughout London. Labour are pretty popular here. But frequently we hear people complain that politics seems remote, detached, out of touch with the lives and concerns of ordinary people. People express frustration at “career politicians” and tell us they want national representatives who actually represent them. Representatives they can relate to. Representatives who have lived and worked in the “real world”.
This is not just anecdotal. Membership of political parties has fallen. Trust in politicians has hit an all-time low. Throughout Europe voters are becoming disillusioned with mainstream political parties.
There is a serious issue of under-representation of people from a diverse range of backgrounds and experience in parliament. As one Labourlist blogger pointed out “of the 2010 intake of MPs over a third went to fee paying schools, 91% are university graduates and a third went to Oxbridge. To put this in context only 25% of the UK adult population has a degree”.
There have been some really fantastic people who have been selected as PPCs for 2015. There are some amazing PPCs from really interesting and diverse backgrounds. The Labour Party, however, is still not doing enough to interest and engage normal people in politics.
Labours opponents often attempt to paint the party as being run by a remote, metropolitan elite trapped in the Westminster bubble. Instead, Labour must demonstrate how we are prepared to really listen to communities (even if we don’t always all like what they have to say). We need to give a voice to local communities and let them speak for themselves.
How do we show this? Among other things, campaigners have argued the merits of community organising, electoral reform, localism and standing candidates from a more diverse range of backgrounds. However we get there, Labour must genuinely, actively listen to the real concerns of people in the UK, rather than focusing on distance distant, ideological political debates.
As one Scout said, “If people don’t like voting and politics, why don’t you make it better?”