It is fashionable to say people want politicians to listen more, to understand their frustrations, to give voice to their anger with the system. Out on the doorsteps it is not always easy to listen, as many people still say “I haven’t made up my mind” as a prelude to making it clear they do not wish to talk about government and the election. Others say they will vote in a given way and also have no wish to discuss it. Some voters are busy when you call and what they are doing matters more to them than your visit. Some feel at a disadvantage, as they are not thinking all the time about the state of the government in the way their visitor is.
However, there are also a lot of people who are prepared to spend some time telling us what is on their mind. Sometimes it is very local: a series of complaints about local planning, rubbish collection, noisy neighbours, poor local roads, high Council taxes or anti social behaviour, matters requiring a local Councillor or policeman to sort out. Sometimes it is a single issue – someone feels passionately about a free vote issue like fox hunting or religious freedom of expression. More often than not it is something that relates directly to that person’s work or family circumstance.
I have come across various public sector workers who understandably want to know if their section of the public sector could be in line for cuts. I have come across more private sector workers who want to know just how much more tax they might have to pay to get us out of the deficit. Many want to know the details of the various tax plans of the main parties, as they seek to work out who is offering them the best deal. Some voters are concerned about the bit of the public sector they use – the local school or hospital – and about the amount of tax they are having to pay. There is no necessary contradiction as Labour always says in these two views: it is reasonable to want more money for the local school and less waste elsewhere. People want good local public services, but they do not wish to see a further squeeze on their take home pay, which sustains most of the things that matter in their lifestyles – their home, food and basic services.
If you put it atogether there is no one coherent programme or set of changes which would make everyone happy. The electorate is very divided about what to do, and has a myriad of preoccupations. That is why the main political parties are finding it so difficult. In the rest of their lives people are used to making lots of very specific choices. The market economy has moved on, and many more people have money or access to finance to give them more choice. Making a single choice once every five years and having to accept the whole package comes hard after the subtle distinctions the market allows.
One voter may like the Lib Dems on cancelling Trident but not on more European integration and the asylum amnesty. Another may like the Conservatives lower National Insurance and Euroscepticism but not their overseas aid pledge. One voter may want to pull out of the EU altogether but not see a way to be able to do so. One voter may wish to see more money taken in tax to pay for more public service and be unsure which party will do that without any cuts in things they like. How does a climate change sceptic vote? How should an animal rights voter express their view? It is now complicated and difficult for people to get what they want.
Under the current system most will decide in the end which party offers them most of what they want with fewest downsides. They will see that the main choice is Brown or Cameron as Prime Minsiter. Some will decide to vote for candidates who cannot win to show how storngly they feel about a specific issue – green policy, or Europe or English nationalism. Unfortunately for them if they get the usual poor result it reinforces the message to the main party leaderships that these are not mainstream causes or forces.
We need to strengthen our democracy, by giving Parliament more teeth to hold government to account, and by giving people more chance to express their views and join in the national debate. We need more things to be decided outside government and politics, so people can vote with their feet and make their own choices on services. The world of web is opening up ever broader horizons, allowing consumers more choice and better prices, and allowing people more say on the issues that matter to them. The political establishment has to find a way of adapting to these forces. At the moment the poltiical system as a whole serves up three styles of Table d’hote when people want to dine a la carte. If government did less that would help. If MPs were more independent that might help. If government was more afraid of Parliament and had to take it more seriously that would improve things a bit. Big government doing too much with a weak Parliament and Ministers not in control is a recipe for voter frustration.
Promoted by Christine Hill on behalf of John Redwood, both of 30 Rose Street Wokingham RG40 1XU