19 SEPTEMBER 2023 | OPINION
If the last few years have taught politicians anything, it’s that grassroots activism matters. So why do they continue to ignore alienated voters?
British politics has certainly been turbulent the last few years. The Coronavirus pandemic, Brexit and the refugee crisis, to name just a few of issues that have destabilised our politics, have seen worsened relations between political parties. More so, this turbulence has increasingly strained relations between politicians and the public.
Now, it seems distrust in Westminster is deeper than ever. The rise and fall of Boris Johnson, in particular, has seen the return of populism, heightened polarisation and a strong scepticism in all politicians, irrespective of party. Parliamentarians on all sides are struggling to re-engage voters, to win back their trust. This instability within the establishment itself has estranged voters. ‘Bad news’ is normal and ‘good news’ seems rare.
Voters have been driven away from politics by the very people who should be engaging them. That’s why the disenfranchised public, feeling increasingly pushed to the margins, have begun to look ‘elsewhere’. The support of minority parties seems to grow, as does voters’ resentment of a two-party political system, which is seen as a barrier to real change.
But all MPs, whether Labour or Conservative, are guilty of this. Their refusal to listen to the voices away from Westminster has produced a resentment of the political class and parties’ loyal voters are questioning their allegiance. Talk to any Conservative voter north of London about how they feel about the direction of the Tory party and they will likely tell you, as they did me, that “we voted for Boris Johnson, not Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak. We never asked for a new leader, never mind a Remain campaigner or the man we hold responsible for removing the Prime Minister we elected from power”.
Ask any life-long, working-class Labour voter in the north of England whether the party’s shift in focus to middle-class issues represents them, or their views or interests, and they’ll likely tell you “no”. Because Labour’s obsession with the “culture wars” is not a priority for struggling workers amid a cost-of-living crisis. Though it will be said that the Tories are also just as guilty of this.
To predict that disenfranchised voters will not continue to support the major parties in Westminster would not be a great revelation. But to be told that they will not even bother to vote at all should be ringing alarm bells. However, it’s almost as if politicians pretend not to notice this belligerence from their loyal subjects. To act in wilful ignorance and sweep the issue under the carpet is easier than to confront the fact that they’re proving unpopular amongst the very people they need to get them into power.
Within the grassroots of the Conservative Party, many even take an extreme view that they will simply not continue to support it until Boris Johnson is reinstated as leader and Prime Minister. The politics of all that aside, the passion with which this position is held is an indication of just how alienated grassroots supporters feel. The feeling of a disregard for democracy, and of the notion that Conservative MPs have placed the needs of the parliamentary party above those of its supporters is so strong. It is quite remarkable, too, that Tory MPs know this all too well, which is why I suspect that so many have announced they won’t be standing in the next election.
In Labour, the parliamentary party’s ideological struggle against its grassroots has created internal warfare amongst factions; Sir Keir Starmer is intensely opposed by the Left of his party, whilst the Right ignores their protestations. Take the split over “culture war” issues as an example.
Both Labour and the Tories are struggling through disunity – a disconnect between the goings-on in Westminster and their voter bases in the wider country. And yet, their leaders believe – publicly, anyway – that there is none. It’s remarkable. Quite how they expect to retain support as they gear up for an impending election is unsure. But what’s certain is that these tensions will only continue to grow, and their divisions entrench.