In this member post, Young Fabian member Amrit Caleyachetty reviews Deborah Mattinson’s book “Talking to a Brick Wall: How New Labour stopped listening to the voter and why we need a New Politics”, which was recently discussed by the Young Fabian Book Club.
As Labour’s chief pollster from 1983-2010, Deborah Mattinson’s book, Talking to a Brick Wall, may offer some guidance on regaining the confidence of voters in Southern England. Mattinson weaves together focus group discussions of middle-class swing voters and her own observations, to suggest that over time not adequately paying attention to voter’s expressed needs and aspirations, resulted in the decline of the voter-politician relationship.
Chapters 4, 5 and 8 provide evidence of what can be achieved when policy initiatives are carefully planned. The Working Family Tax Credits and increased child care funding were developed from a genuine understanding of the “squeezed middle” (p.76). Another example is when the NHS became crucial in determining Labour’s second term success (p.110) – voters identified key problems in the NHS and their need to see visible improvements, whilst surveys quantified support for a tax rise.
However, too little is said about voters’ ambivalence towards the government’s overall performance despite improvements in public services (p.120). Mattinson suggests that the voter-politician disconnect can be explained by the predominance of politicians and advisors with minimal real-world experience (p.287) and “Peter Pan politics”, where voters “live in a perpetual child-like state” (p.288). As politicians become increasingly removed from the vicissitudes of everyday life, they are less likely to understand the voter (p.290), a point highlighted with examples ranging from costly initiatives such as the Millennium Dome and the Iraq War (p.78, p.123), to the over-reliance of announcing large public funding initiatives which simultaneously attracted media superlatives and voter scepticism (p.109).
Voters preferred hearing examples of how policy would positively impact their everyday lives (p.112).
Yet the book offers no compelling evidence to suggest this is a new problem. Policies ensuring better parental leave, Sure Start, and Working Family Tax Credits, demonstrated Labour had the ability to understand voter’s problems and to attempt effective, sustainable solutions. As for Peter Pan politics, voters with inflated expectations create a climate where politicians – as Polly Toynbee writes – “lack the nerve to spell out the mountains to be climbed, and the true cost of getting there.” Politicians who are wary of ballot box reprisals are, understandably, less candid with the facts, which the media are all too ready to expose.
Mattinson’s ‘Citizen’s Jury’ of Harlow voters offer recommendations for reducing voter discontent. These focus on the role of politicians, their accountability and the voter’s need for more information (p. 313). However, if we focus predominantly on ideas for political reform, we may forget an important point: “…how did they [voters] know Labour had turned a deaf ear? It was because of what Labour did (or didn’t do), not because of what Labour said” (p. 318). Ultimately Labour will be judged upon how it views the intersection between society and market forces, and how its policies reflect this understanding.
Mattinson’s effort to synthesize the large amount of qualitative research into a coherent narrative should be appreciated. However, for some readers there may not be enough critical commentary and attention paid to how, despite New Labour’s political ability, a perception exists that there were more policy misses than hits. We’re left uncertain to the degree to which focus groups were used to decide policy details at the expense of economic or social justice arguments. And the book does little to explore why certain policies lacking merit were adopted.
This isn’t just a Labour problem. But if we talk about the need for a new politics, we must spend some time understanding why we didn’t fully achieve our potential.
There also needs to be a distinction between the problem of not listening and selective listening. If you think the problem of a declining relationship with voters is mainly due to not listening, then the obvious response is to increase research on what voters want, adding to the library of information we already have on voter’s needs and aspirations. If you consider the voter-politician disconnect to be a selective listening problem, you would have to rethink whether adding to our existing knowledge would be beneficial.
Instead, you would want to improve on how we make policy decisions based on the information given; you would want more astute politicians with non-political experience relevant to their post to challenge questionable policies and demand relevant outcomes. And you would want politicians and their advisors to become more insightful of their tendency to become over-enamoured with the current political process – a process that engenders an academic detachment towards the very people who are the subject of their actions.
A clear message emerges from Talking to a Brick Wall: we can re-establish our relationship with voters by communicating, clearly and honestly, thoughtful policies guided by Labour’s progressive vision and grounded in low-middle income voter’s needs and aspirations.