The thought of Lady Nugee and Matthew Parris sharing the same metaphorical bed is an interesting one. The former, more commonly known as Emily Thornberry MP, and the latter, ostensibly an independent political journalist and former Conservative MP, have both highlighted the gulf between a metropolitan elite and those who they govern.
Thornberry was forced to resign over tweeting a picture from Rochester of a white van parked outside a house draped in the flag of St George. Parris, after a fleeting visit to Clacton during a recent by-election, wrote a column that was highly derogatory of the town and its residents, concluding that the Conservatives should turn their back on it and focus on winning Cambridge instead.
The commentariat scratches its head as to how UKIP has managed to position itself as the party of the working class. I highlighted the patent neglect of the white working class in two articles on this site over 5 years ago. But the Westminster establishment refused to awake from its slumber. The despondency is not only limited to working class voters. A growing number of people who formerly supported Labour and the Conservatives are disillusioned. It is not that they have left their parties, it is their parties that have left them.
There are two principal reasons for this. The first is a matter of policy, the second is one of authenticity. On policy, many are fed up with the Westminster consensus on overseas aid, immigration and Europe. In addition, whilst there is much back-slapping in the Treasury about the British economic revival, it is not being felt by all. The Prime Minister talks tough on reform of the European Union, but people question how he is going to build an alliance for meaningful change when he failed to secure sufficient support to block Jean-Claude Juncker from becoming EU President. Then there is the pre-2010 election promise to reduce immigration to “the tens of thousands”, which has not been delivered.
With Mr Farage, whether you like him or not, at least you know where he stands. Arguing that immigration can be managed effectively – whilst Britain is a member of the EU and ipso facto cannot control its borders – is a fallacy. If Mr Cameron truly believes that we should leave the EU, he should argue for it. If he does not, he should have the courage to face down the europhobes within his party. The simple truth is that we are not clear about what he actually believes. Real leadership is about shaping opinion not just pandering to it.
But it is also the hypocrisy that grates. Whilst the established political parties compete to tinker at the fringes of a system wedded largely to the delivery of comprehensive state school education, a number of the political class (both Labour and Conservative) send their own children to the private sector or to selective state schools. Whilst Alan Milburn laments the lack of social mobility and tries to reverse engineer it at the back-end by heaping pressure on the professions to widen access, another generation of Britain’s underprivileged yet capable youth is sacrificed at the altar of political correctness. Meanwhile, UKIP has unashamedly called for the restoration of selective education, another issue I wrote about over five years ago.
The predictable reaction from some quarters is to highlight the dearth of MPs from working class backgrounds in the Commons and to fret about under-representation. This is to miss the point. It is a little like telling someone from an ethnic minority to “go and fight a seat with lots of ethnic voters in it”. What guff. The electorate are looking for authenticity. Douglas Carswell is not from a working class background – his parents were both doctors. But the reason why he secured a 12,000 vote rout is because he is a principled, straight-talking man of ideas. Nigel Farage himself is no pauper, having attended the prestigious Dulwich College before working in the City. Yet he is comfortable in his pin-striped suits with a beer in his hand because that is who he is.
Anne McElvoy has written about how certain well-heeled parents (including leading politicians) are trying to make their children “socially fluid” to ensure they can effortlessly mix with different types of people. How about dispensing with this phoney contrived tosh and just focusing on being a decent human being? I was surprised that when I stood for Parliament in 2005 a journalist found it newsworthy to report that, having scrutinised my election expenses, I had eaten at the Harvester (presumably rather than the Ivy) with my team on multiple occasions during the campaign. It is not one’s background that determines how effective a politician is at communicating across the class spectrum. It is one’s manner, experience and intention that counts.
Just look at those looking to become Labour MPs. Stephen Kinnock, Joe Dromey, Euan Blair, Will Straw and David Prescott. Politics is a family trade. Some will argue that ‘twas ever thus. But the majority of these dynastic politicos have worked directly in politics or in related areas such as think tanks or PR. Those seeking election should be forced to become local councillors or fight an unwinnable seat before being allowed to contest a marginal or safe seat. There is something to be said for learning one’s craft. You would not appoint a first year medical student to perform open heart surgery, so why should politics be different?
It is time for the political establishment to take heed if they wish to arrest the current race to the bottom in British politics. That will mean honesty and delivery, not focus group-driven platitudes. I fear the public is not holding its breath.