By Mark Wallace
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The need for politicians to reconnect with the electorate is beyond debate. Falling turnout, the collapse in party memberships, and widespread disillusionment with politics and its practitioners all demonstrate the scale of the problem.
The initial reaction of the political class to this problem was to come up with the worst possible response: blaming the people.
Even the choice of word to label the issue was patronising and inaccurate: apathy. All the polling, as well as the clear evidence of growing online activism and rising pressure group membership, shows that people don't care any less than before about political issues.
Rather, voters increasingly feel that the political process, and the parties who operate within it, does not offer any solution to their problems. Why donate, volunteer and vote if in return there is no appreciable change?
As Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell argued in The Plan, the correct response is to accept that the people are right. When voters say on the doorstep that "whoever you vote for, nothing changes", they are, depressingly, correct.
As well as Westminster's consensus-obsession on hugely important issues such as green taxation, power over fundamental topics like immigration and trade has shifted to unaccountable bodies such as quangos and the EU Commission. The bare fact is that politicians – and therefore the people they represent – can change far less than they could in the past.
Getting out of this hole is going to be more difficult than it was to get into it.
Today's newspapers offer two instructive examples which Conservative politicians would do well to follow. These lessons come from two very different individuals: Boris Johnson and Douglas Carswell.
The blonde bombshell welcomed Will Smith and his son Jayden to City Hall yesterday. As well as asking the Fresh Prince for rap lessons, Boris delivered a classic reply to the question "Who is your biggest inspiration?": Pericles and Aristotle.
Most politicians would shy away from seeming too highbrow, and instead commit the trendy vicar sin of pretending to be cool. Recall Gordon Brown's cringeworthy praise for the Arctic Monkeys. It comes across as patronising, dishonest and implausible.
Boris evidently has no such fears. And it paid off, as it normally does for him – it turned out Will Smith has read a fair bit of Aristotle. It doesn't cost anything to be genuine.
Not everyone has the unique Borisness of the London Mayor, of course. And for that matter, not everyone has read Aristotle. But the basic lesson of his popularity is this: being open about who you are is a good thing in politics. Everyone knows you must be unique and human – why pretend to be a uniform robot?
Go to where the people are
For anyone who worries that you only stand a chance if, like Boris, you were born with the knack for connection, Douglas Carswell provides welcome reassurance in his FT article today. As ever, Douglas has done the thinking on this issue – and put it into practice in his own campaigns.
He recounts the results:
At a recent meet-up evening in Holland-on-Sea village hall, 120 local residents got together for an evening of fish and chips – and fun. Almost every person came because they heard about the event either through email, Twitter, Facebook or TalkCarswell.com – my personal site. Most were not party members. But guess what? More than 30 joined up. Indeed, over the past two years, such events have helped increase my local association membership by 59 per cent.
His approach of "mobilising the little platoons", particularly through a combination of digital campaigning and face-to-face contact with constituents, is helping him to buck the political trend.
Despite the crucial role of digital communication and social media in Carswell's success, it's notable that the overall approach isn't new. It updates and adapts the way politics used to work – back when there were millions of party members in the UK.
I'm reminded of Norman Tebbit's second ever blogpost, in which he said of blogging:
At first I thought it was quite unlike anything else I'd done in my political life, but after a while I realised that it is really rather like an old-fashioned political public meeting of the kind that has melted away since television took politics away from the grass roots in the constituencies and concentrated it into the TV studios. It is a pity we can't have real-time heckling (yet?) but blogging has got life and guts.
Tebbit's experience of how politics once was has given him a huge online readership. Old dog, old tricks, but a new circus – and it works.
We all know most politicians would love to be as popular as Boris. Douglas Carswell has explained how they can learn to do it – without putting on an act or pretending to be anyone but themselves.
Given the impact it has had on his local party in Clacton (and on his majority, with an 8.6% swing in his favour at the last election) it can only be a matter of time before more MPs and candidates follow his lead. Conservatives should move swiftly to ensure it is they that do so, and not their opponents.