Voters do not know who to believe

Published by The i paper (11th November, 2019)

How can you tell if a politician is lying? Simple: see if their lips are moving. This is one of the oldest jokes around, underlining long-standing scepticism towards those seeking our vote. There is nothing new about seeing Westminster as a foetid swamp filled with slippery chancers, egotists and schemers.

But when James Johnson ran focus groups for Theresa May, both in 2016 after she became prime minister and again a year later during her disastrous election campaign, people would debate the best ways forward when asked about Brexit and engage with issues raised. Now people just laugh when he tries to drill down on political attitudes in his focus groups, whether in Leave-voting strongholds or Remain redoubts. ‘Ask about Brexit and you are met with laughter,’ he said. ‘Politicians are seen as a joke and politics such a mess. The difference even from 2017 is very marked.’

This contempt, this derision, this mockery of our political masters, should be the big issue of a campaign shaping up as the most dismal British electoral contest of my lifetime. Yes, this is a Brexit ballot as the corrosive impact of that foolish referendum reshapes politics. But the key concern overshadowing everything like a sinister dark cloud hanging over the country is not our relationship with Europe. Nor is it the North-South divide, the inequality between rich and poor, the future of our health service, the dire state of social care. It is not even the creaking state of the Union that threatens to shatter the UK.

These are all crucial issues. But solving them is made harder by the profound lack of trust in our politics. As May’s former strategist found in his focus groups, we are seeing the erosion of any lingering faith in our leaders, which forms the foundation for a functioning democracy. This attitude is glimpsed in its most hideous form in abuse hurled at those standing for office, especially women.

Similar distrust hurts other institutions and infects other nations. It has many root causes, including the expenses scandal and 2008 fiscal meltdown. Yet Brexit turned rumbles of electoral discontent into a tsunami of fury over political failure. Ironically, the studies show interest in politics has grown since 2016. This has been accompanied by the breakdown of party loyalties that makes it hard to predict results, and increased identification with one of the Brexit camps.

Westminster’s deadlock merely reflects our national division – yet the hard-right nationalist rump now running the Tory party, ignoring its own role in rejecting May’s deal, frame the election as an issue of parliamentary failure that they alone can solve. This typifies the duplicitous style of Boris Johnson. He lied about needing an election because Parliament blocked his deal. Now he stands before the British people pledging to ‘get Brexit done’ when there are years of argument ahead sorting out future trading relationships even if his deal ever passes Parliament.

It is one more deception from a man who sheds trust like a snake sheds skins. Yet his rivals cannot escape blame. Few seem to appreciate the depth of public despair. It is not just that both Johnson and the awful Jeremy Corbyn are, for different reasons, so unfit to be prime minister. Listen to the early skirmishes in this electoral tussle and you hear politicians stuck in the past with their parroted party lines, overblown spending promises, simplistic policies for complex problems and brutal attacks on anyone wearing a different colour rosette.

They talk endlessly, promise the world and never say anything of interest. Take the health service, a key battleground. Everyone professes adoration of the sanctified service. Everyone offers more money. Privatisation is a dirty word. But no one talks about Britain’s poor patient outcomes, the social care crisis is brushed aside with glib cliches and there is minimal debate on how to sustain endlessly rising bills in an ageing society. Even a concrete policy such as the Tory offer to hire 6,000 new general practitioners is worthless when the previous health secretary made a similar pledge in 2015, yet numbers actually decreased.

I was in South Yorkshire talking to voters after Labour promised to ditch prescription charges in September. Several people mentioned this idea approvingly – but none believed Corbyn would enact the idea in government. One political journalist tweeted last week that his Uber driver laughed after hearing a Tory pledge on nurses and then a Labour one on childcare: ‘Sucked his teeth and said: “Yeah, right”’. The Liberal Democrats play similar games, promising 35 hours of free childcare a week to win over female voters.

There are fine politicians on all sides frustrated by these short-termist games. But no wonder so many people are left cold, uncertain how to cast their vote. After both parties fought over spending plans last week, a YouGov poll asked 4,734 people who was most trusted to run the economy between the Tory Chancellor Sajid Javid and Labour’s John McDonnell. The winner was ‘Neither’ with more than the combined vote for Javid and McDonnell, closely followed by ‘Don’t Know’. In polls asking who would be best prime minister, ‘Don’t Know’ also performs consistently well. Huge chunks of the public seem unimpressed with the dire fare on offer.

A Hansard Society audit earlier this year exposed the scale of public disenchantment with almost three-quarters of respondents saying Britain’s system of governance needs substantial improvement. It exposed attitudes that ‘challenge core tenets of our democracy’, said the report’s authors. This campaign has only just started but already it underscores the urgency of our need to find new ways to do politics – before it is too late.

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