“It’s the customer, stupid!” Why political strait-jackets are so last century

by Stephen Tall on March 10, 2005

“It’s the economy, stupid!” That was the sign placed on Governor Bill Clinton’s Little Rock headquarters desk in 1992 by his political strategist, James Carville. The aim was to keep the 40th President-to-be focused on the campaign’s key message. It’s tempting to ask if the reincarnated Alastair Campbell might have amended the sign for the Prime Minister, Tony Blair: “It’s the trust, stupid!”

The issue of trust is now political retail. David Blunkett (remember him? The most illiberal Home Secretary since his predecessor) used his Joseph Chamberlain Lecture in Birmingham on Wednesday to urge Labour to rebuild trust in the Government:

“[this] means being honest in answering questions and presenting facts, listening to the issues that concern people, responding to them in making policy and drawing up the manifesto.”

Since he is still a key member of New Labour’s high command, and almost certain to make a return to the Cabinet in a couple of months, we can assume his speech was authorised from the top (so why the media, including the BBC, reported it as a “warning” to Labour utterly defeats me).

It is a true-ism of our times that levels of trust in our politicians are falling. The proof: falling election turn-outs. Cause and effect? Like any yes or no question, the answer is rarely that simple.

It’s certainly true that turn-out in general elections fell dramatically at the last two elections. Between 1945 and 1992, the number of people who voted ranged from a low of 72% (1970) to a high of 84% (1950). In 1997, this fell to 71%, and then collapsed to 59% in 2001.

One explanation put forward for this dramatic decline is voter ‘apathy’. Or ‘contentment’ with the status quo, as New Labour spinners will have us believe. There is some evidence for this. The polling organisation, Mori, asked an identical question in 1973 and 2003: “How interested are you in politics?” In 1973, 60% were very or fairly interested; by 2003, this had fallen to 50%. However, such a decline, though worrying, does not fully explain the recent drop in general election turn-out.

So what about the other explanation, trust? Does it matter quite as much as commentators appear to think?

Well, it seems that – a bit like rising crime and increasing teenage delinquency – cynicism towards politicians has long been with us. For instance, in August 1944, after five years of World War Two, and just a year from VJ Day, 35% of people told Gallup they thought politicians were only out for themselves. More recently, Mori found that, in 1984, 18% of people said they trusted politicians to tell the truth, compared to 22% in 2004.
Which isn’t to say Tony Blair would not be greeted with scornful derision were he to assert, as he did in 1997 after the Bernie Ecclestone ‘cash-for-favours’ row, “I think I’m a pretty straight kind of guy.” WMD and Dr David Kelly have rather put paid to that line of defence.

But nor is it right to believe that the political process has reached a nadir, a crisis of accountability, that it is being bankrupted by a lack of engagement. What I think is happening is something much more subtle: a de-alignment of British politics. Voters no longer identify tribally with one political party based on their self-perception of class or religious interest, or indeed according to how their parents might have cast their ballots.

In 1964, 48% of voters identified strongly with the Conservative Party, compared with 51% for Labour. By 2001, the figures were 14% and 16% respectively, according to a British Election Study. In the 2004 European elections, the combined might of Labour and the Conservatives polled under half the popular vote across the UK for the first time in post-war politics. My guess is they will, collectively, score around 70% in the general election in May – another record low.

There is a paradox at play in contemporary politics. On one level, politics is simpler than it used to be. There is no real right-left economic divide any more (if indeed there ever were – Butskellism dominated British political discourse for 25 years, just as Thatcherism has since): both Tories and Labour have signed up, to one degree or another, to a broadly liberal capitalist model.

But, of course, on another, more profound, level that makes politics far more confusing. There remain important and principled differences between the parties, but they are more nuanced, shades-of-grey than the seeming black-and-white of yore. Is it any wonder the public feels their voting decisions matter less than once they did? Especially if you live in a safe Labour heartland or a Tory shire where majorities are weighed, not counted.

The Liberal Democrats, Greens, UKIP and BNP, and a host of fringe parties, have been the major beneficiaries of this de-alignment. Until now, this has rarely been converted into Parliamentary strength, and so the cosy Labour-Tory duopoly has been perpetuated. But things are changing, and quickly. Within the next five years, my hunch is there will be a hung Parliament, and the price of Liberal Democrat support for either party will be the same – proportional representation, or ‘fair votes’ to give PR its PR-friendly name. If and when that happens, the two-party stranglehold will be shattered. Expect schisms within old parties, and the genesis of new parties, reflecting better the more complex ideological distinctions that now exist.

And why not? After all, it’s clear that few voters are happy to be pigeon-holed. I probably believe in about 80% of Liberal Democrat policies, and that’s good enough for me to feel happy voting and campaigning for my party. It would be foolish of me to expect the rest of the public to accept my high tolerance threshold. Strait-jacketed party politics is just so last century.

Voters do not want a big tin of Quality Street, mixing together assorted chocolates they love (orange creme) with those they hate (toffee finger). No, our consumer age demands pick-and-mix politics. Britain is slowly, but inevitably, adapting to this new dawn, recognising the inevitability of the new political maxim, “It’s the customer, stupid!”