Wednesday 28 April 2010

Brown was wrong - but politicians need to disagree with voters too

The election campaign coverage today will be dominated by reaction to Gordon Brown calling a voter he had just met a bigoted woman. Gordon Brown has immediately apologised for a bad mistake. He will be hoping that, some time over the next 36 hours, the agenda returns to the broader campaign and the economy debate tomorrow.

The irony is that this has been an election in which politicians seem to have very rarely challenged the voters on anything. So perhaps the most disappointing part of the Brown encounter is that any disagreement ought to be expressed in the meeting with the voter, not privately afterwards.

The parties are this morning rightly under pressure from the Institute of Fiscal Studies for not being open with the public about cuts. It is because they all take the view that the voters would punish any party that was.

Could it ever be different? Well, we can imagine anyway.

Take, for example, the famous "voter moment" with Tony Blair at a Birmingham hospital in 2001, and Meg Russell's suggestion as to what the Prime Minister might have said in her Fabian pamphlet 'Must Politics Disappoint?'

Overpromising is in part linked to the consumer culture and politicians' reluctance to admit the extent to which social change depends on the actions of individuals as responsible citizens. The danger here is that parties are seen as products and politicians, afraid of offending the public, seek to behave as if the 'customer' is always right ... [Russell cites criticism of government for failing to curb traffic growth and obesity] ... The changes desired can only be accomplished by partnership between politicians, the public and other groups. A failure to be frank about this can only fuel disappointment.

Remember the difficulty Tony Blair found himself in at one widely broadcast moment of the 2001 General Election when collared by an angry voter outside a Birmingham hospital. The Prime Minister sought to placate his critic, who complained of slow progress in reforming the NHS, alleging that "you are not prepared to pay for it". Although the midst of an election campaign was hardly the moment for a sudden change of approach, the correct response from Blair might have been to say "We, madam, have only the money that taxpayers consent to give us. It is therefore you who are not prepared to pay for it!"

Might there even be some public credit, albeit risk too, for one of the party leaders to look down the lens on Thursday night, and explain why they respectfully disagree with the majority on a significant public issue.


There was no evidence at all in the public footage I have seen to justify Brown's remark about the individual voter he met: he has apologised publicly and reportedly to her personally.

Yet, to make a much broader point not about the particular example, politicians and canvassers will of course meet some bigoted voters.

But it also seems that it would be political suicide for any politician to even answer a question like "Are some voters bigoted?" in the affirmative. And that is even the case with regard to BNP voters. The media and political classes consistently stress that it would be wrong to stigmatise those voting BNP as racist, despite their voting for a racist party, as this would be to fail to deal with their genuine concerns.

Up to a point. Of course, bigoted voters with strongly racist opinions are a small minority of those concerned with major public issues such as immigration. But there is a tendency to wish them away and pretend they do not exist.

Analysis by Peter Kellner of YouGov's polling suggests that about half of those who voted BNP last June (1% of the total electorate) appear to be motivated by strongly racist opinions, and about half by broader grievances and discontents

The BNP won 6% of the total vote in the European elections. But only one elector in three turned out. That means just 2% of the total electorate voted BNP. And YouGov research for Channel 4 News found that (depending on precise definitions) roughly half of the BNP’s voters are truly racist; the other half are people who feel insecure and alienated from the main political parties. So just 1% of the electorate were racist BNP voters last week.

There are many good reasons to be optimistic about the decline of bigotry in Britain. Who, just 20 years ago, would have imagined that the mainstream media, and not only activist groups, would do so much to scrutinise and challenge the party's commitments to gay equality as a test of whether they were electable?

As I blogged recently, there is good evidence that racism is steadily falling in Britain, but that is far from the same thing as claiming that it no longer exists.

The British Social Attitudes series shows gradual but sustained intergenerational falls in racism and indicators associated with racial prejudice: for example, 60% of those born in the 1910s oppose mixed-race marriages compared to 24% of those born in the 1970s. The 25% saying that they regarded themselves very (2%) or a little (23%) racially prejudiced in 2000 had fallen from 35% (5%, 29%) in 1985. In a 2002 MORI poll, 59% of us agreed that Britain is a place with good relations between people of different ethnic backgrounds, while 20% disagreed (+39%); interestingly non-white Brits were more optimistic (+51%), agreeing by 67% to 16%.

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