Kicking off at 6pm, the MP for Barking will be the keynote speaker at Progress’ Beyond Despair: How can reconnecting with communities revive our politics? event due to take place in Committee Room 17 of the House of Commons.
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Another gruesome week for mainstream political parties. Yet more politicians wringing their hands in despair, declaring that this is a serious wake-up call and we have all got to learn the lessons?
People will understandably feel they’ve heard it all before. So we need real change, and ensure that by the time today’s papers become tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers politicians have not simply moved on to the next item on the Westminster agenda.
The present strength of the Scottish National party, the United Kingdom Independence party and now, perhaps, the Greens is not a sudden or new development. Support for the main parties has eroded over years rather than months. Even when Labour was at its most unpopular in 1987, 96 per cent of voters voted for the mainstream parties. By 2010 that figure had dropped to 88% and on present figures it has dropped to 70 per cent.
None of us can confidently know whether this is a temporary phenomenon, or whether we are living through a fundamental transformation of our political system, with fragmentation of political parties and fluidity in how people choose to cast their votes becoming the norm.
It’s not so long ago that people voted against electoral reform, but it looks as if many are now determined to use their votes in the first past the post system to stop the big, mainstream parties from securing a clear, overall majority. If that’s what people vote for, simply governing as a minority party – without the support of the majority of voters in the country – will inevitably fuel further the disconnect and anger felt and will no doubt lead to further disintegration in trust and support for the main political parties.
Tonight is an opportunity to reflect on why politics is in such disarray, what we, as politicians are getting wrong and whether we can chart a way through which will start to reconnect us with our voters.
Most of us on the left came into politics because we feel passionately about how politics can transform people’s life chances and move us towards a more equal society.
Yet if those whose interests and well-being we seek to promote have lost confidence in us, our mission will fail.
My personal wake-up call came in 2006 with the election of 12 British National party councillors. I realised I had to completely change how I do my politics. Labour locally had become complacent and left a vacuum for the BNP to jump in.
I don’t think it’s that different today. Ukip’s triumphs come largely from the Tories’ – and more recently – Labour’s failures. The re-emergence of the Greens comes because people who voted Liberal Democrat can find no other home for their vote. And in Scotland the extraordinary rise in support for the SNP is in part due to Labour’s neglect.
There are many views on what’s gone wrong.
I do think that the professionalisation of politics has driven a wedge between us and those we seek to serve. It is worrying that we now have 90 members of parliament whose main or indeed only work experience has only been in politics.
This growing band of MPs who have little experience of life outside politics makes us different from our voters and makes it more difficult to really understand others’ lives.
It’s not just who we are – not enough women, not enough people from the BME community, not enough working-class MPs and so on.
It’s also about our lives, our jobs and our experience outside the Westminster bubble.
If you’ve not done much outside politics, you think that what happens in the Westminster bubble is all that matters. So the focus is on who is up and who is down, how everybody performed at PMQs and what the sketch writers are saying.
I don’t think my constituents in Barking and Dagenham give a toss about those things.
Trying to determine the political debate in constituencies up and down the country from Westminster is also not right. This week we may be told by the powers that be that we are going to campaign on the NHS, next week on the cost of living and the following on small businesses. It’s a top-down approach to politics that is simply not relevant to most voters, in their homes, in their streets or in their neighbourhoods. We need to let our voters set the agenda.
From 2006 everything I did in Barking had to pass the simple test: will it help us reconnect.
I stopped going to so many Labour party meetings, town hall events or ribbon cutting ceremonies. I started holding regular street meetings and coffee afternoons. We will invite by hand-delivered letters all the voters in a ward to join me for a cup of coffee. About 70 people will come and they sit at small tables, and I go from table to table just listening to the issues that people raise.
Most people’s politics starts from the very local. They care about what is happening in their home, on their street or in their community, anything from traffic and parking to local prostitution or the state of their environment.
And of course in a borough which has changed so rapidly from being a largely white working class community to a multiracial community they talk about immigration, the lack of housing and the lack of enough school places and enough doctors.
After I have talked to everybody individually we come together to discuss both the local and the national issues.
I have never promised to cut immigration numbers, because I know I would break that promise. I explain why I think the Borough has changed and that I want to make it work for everybody. I always say that I think migration is here to stay and is a feature of globalization.
And for many years I have been saying that we should have a system where people have to spend time putting into a community before they expect to get something out, be it a Council home or working age benefits. This approach, which has finally been adopted by the mainstream parties (although perhaps too late) responds to the sense of unfairness that that so powerfully fuels hostility to immigration.
But what I do promise my constituents is that I will tackle the local issues they have raised. And when I have sorted out the local issue I write and tell people that we have delivered. By listening and responding where we can, we restore trust and voters start to be prepared to listen to us again.
And it certainly ensured that we saw off the vile politics of the BNP and brought people back to Labour.
The conversations are not easy. Often you get some really angry people who feel that immigration has ruined our Borough. But when they engage with me or with second or third generation immigrants who have bought their first home in our Borough or Eastern Europeans who are anxious to be accepted into our community, we get really strong conversations which invariably lead to better relationships and better understanding at the end of the afternoon.
We also work on local campaigns on everything from improving local health services to outlawing spitting in the road. Our door-to-door canvassing focuses on how we can improve the local area, with Voter ID happening only at the very end of every conversation. You simply cannot reconnect in this way with a press release from the Labour party or a soundbite on television or in the paper. It’s not rocket science.
My message to those worrying about Labour’s prospects at the next election is that every MP and PPC has to take responsibility for their own constituency. Rumours, gossip and obsessing about personality will get us nowhere, and it is exactly the sort of behaviour voters hate. MPs need to get out of the tea room and onto the doorstep. We know it works – there are some great campaigners in our party who survived at the last election against the odds, like Gisela Stuart, Andrew Smith and Siobhain McDonagh to name just a few.
However, what we can achieve locally has to be delivered in a different national context too. The 2008 was a start reminder that Government is far less powerful in the global environment of today than was the case 50 years ago. Being open and honest about the limits of Government is as important as taking the important actions to improve life in Britain.
Honesty is also necessary in tackling some of the tricky issues which face all the mainstream political parties.
Stop promising to cut immigration numbers when you can’t deliver.
Stop promising tax cuts when the deficit is growing and public services are so fragile.
Start having a real conversation about what we want the Health Service of the future to deliver and how we intend to fund it.
The NHS for me is the big elephant in the room, hurtling towards a £30bn deficit. Last week we were told by Monitor that 80 per cent of foundation trusts were heading for a deficit this year. Emergency, short-term funding to plaster over the crisis for yet another winter is no answer. Integrating health and social care must at the heart of reforming the service to meet the growing and changing needs of our population. But it is not a magic bullet, and it will not solve the funding crisis around the corner. We need to trust the public and have a proper national debate about the services people want and how we are going to pay for it.
I am absolutely convinced that this sort of straight talking would go a long way to renewing trust in mainstream parties.
We are living through an anti-politics era and without real change our future is uncertain. By changing I think we can reconnect, we can rebuild trust and we can secure the support of people for whom we passionately want to make a difference.
Margaret Hodge MP is chair of the public accounts committee. She tweets @margarethodge