Why Politics Needs to Change
In Parliament, in 2001, I asked a new MP if he was enjoying doing advice surgeries: ’Oh, there’s no tradition of surgeries here,’ he said. Letters and emails, then: were his staff coping with the deluge? ‘I wouldn’t call it a deluge…’
The north-east seat had been Labour for ever, and ever. I didn’t dare ask what the voter contact level in that constituency was, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been in single digit percentage levels. ‘They weigh votes here, instead of counting them!’ he might have added.
From 1990 to 2010 I nursed a marginal seat, one which we approached as though we were fighting a continuous by-election. Towards the end of that time I heard a London MP (maj. c20,000) give a speech in which she mentioned how she had discovered the importance of street surgeries, coffee mornings and personal contact between the MP and voters actually was: she was teaching me (and many other MPs initially elected in 1997) to suck eggs.
Prompted by my conversation with the north-easterner I plotted on a map the postcodes of every letter and email that I received for a month. My seat was a fair representation of England, with wards in every decile of social deprivation. Interestingly, I found that if I had plotted educational achievement instead of propensity to contact the MP, the map would have looked exactly the same. In other words, those from the most deprived areas were least likely to contact their MP.
That makes sense. When people in the lowest decile do contact MPs the issues they raise tend to be local, those which directly impact upon their family or neighbourhood, rather than foreign policy or human rights concerns. Where views were discernible they were often ‘small c’ conservative, and whilst also generally Labour supporting they were often less likely to vote in elections.
To address this we increased the number of sessions we spent knocking on doors in the more deprived areas and instead of asking ‘Will you be voting Labour?’ we asked ‘What can we help you with?’ - good old ‘pavement politics’. But it still wasn’t enough.
Within disadvantaged communities there’s a persistent belief that however unfair things are, that’s the way they’ll stay. This is also combined with a reluctance to accept that voting makes a tangible difference to their lives. There’s no expectation of being consulted on the things that matter, even on their own street.
One outcome of this alienation from politics is the frustration that councillors feel at election time, when they feel that they are being judged on the performance of national government, rather than on whether they’ve personally done a good job. Another outcome of alienation are the feelings of resentment and powerlessness which undoubtedly motivated many of the 52% who voted for Brexit.
To re-engage with the Brexit voter we need the restoration of citizenship education in the school curriculum.We also need an electoral system that better represents votes cast.
We also need to reform local authorities and devolve as many decisions to local communities as possible.
In the future we will be looking to communities becoming more sustainable than they are today. Initiatives around reducing food miles, clean energy, the provision of local residential and domestic care and social and community enterprises, can help make our communities more sustainable when combined with the principle of subsidiarity - taking decisions at the most appropriate level.
Politics is not a dirty word; and it doesn't just happen at election time, because politics is about people’s lives. It’s about a balance between the individual and the common weal. The political system needs to change, recognising that, yes, politicians are representatives and not delegates, but they should not be deaf or blind to the realities of the world - particularly the world as experienced through the eyes of disadvantaged and marginalised communities.
Tom Levitt was Labour Member of Parliament for High Peak (Derbyshire) from 1997-2010.
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