How to win political battles in the era of anger?

Written by James Frayne on 23 February 2016 in Opinion

Anger and disillusionment derive from a belief that politicians no longer care about the concept of fairness.

With Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders riding high in the American Presidential primaries, and with Jeremy Corbyn leading the British Labour Party and a referendum on Europe looking like a close race, mainstream politics as we know it is being shaken to the core.

Anger and disillusionment seem to be abiding principles of the electorate in the United States and Britain and in other developed countries across the world. What does all this mean for British politics in this Parliament and for the EU referendum? How should the political parties tap into this anger?

The first thing politicians have to accept is that anger and disillusionment are not irrational. Over the course of the last fifteen years, major reversals for the political establishment have been treated as blips that will come and go. But the upset landslide at the 2004 North East Regional Assembly referendum, the persistent rise of UKIP and the election of Corbyn are all part of a pattern. They were not simple, unthinking protest votes brought about because of a temporary dip in the quality of mainstream politicians.

Perceptions of politicians' honesty and competence count, but anger and disillusionment derive primarily from a belief that politicians no longer fundamentally care about the concept of fairness. Whether it was the people of the North East rejecting politicians plundering their earnings to pay for white elephant vanity projects, working class voters rejecting apparently over-generous welfare arrangements for EU migrants, or left leaning Labour voters rejecting the supposed excesses of the capitalist system, fairness lies at the heart of British anger.

Because this anger is not irrational from the perspective of these voters, politicians will fail to harness it if they simply take up an angry tone on their behalf. People want to see real solutions to problems, not hollow rhetoric.

This explains apparent anomalies in this era of anger. At the last General Election, the electorate as a whole rejected an often-angry Ed Miliband because they considered him more interested in helping those on welfare than hard working people. The Government's welfare reforms and their pledge to finish the job was too much for him.

For this reason, while Corbyn cleaned up amongst Labour voters, there is no prospect he will win a General Election. His vision of fairness is shared very passionately by a sizeable minority of the population but the same people that rejected Miliband will reject him too.

Those politicians that will be successful will seek to practically address this highly emotive concept of fairness wherever they come across it. Last summer, Policy Exchange published new opinion research showing what policies people would like to see introduced - and those that addressed concepts of fairness scored best. The research suggested politicians should be looking at the following: continued welfare reform, with a particular emphasis on developing a contributory system; keeping taxes as low as people believe are possible to deliver high quality services; avoiding punishing people for things they cannot possibly do without like driving or buying and selling houses; more proportionate sentencing; and restricting so-called health tourism.

An alternative route does exist for politicians that want to tap into public anger. Politicians do have the option of removing themselves from the management and delivery of public services in the name of realism - i.e. accepting that they do not have the expertise to manage and deliver services, which should be done locally.

This would be a way of making a negative case for a small state. While I believe such a case would be possible to sell, few, if any, politicians seem keen on such a proposal. Reagan of course sold a variation of this in the United States but British politicians do not believe it to be possible here. This therefore demands that they take a proactive approach to addressing the fairness question.

And what does all this mean for the EU referendum? Both campaigns are seeking to portray their choice as the safer one, and both are trying to reassure voters on economics. This is sensible; in fact both are non-negotiable. But many people will be deciding how to cast their vote on the basis of what sort of a country we are - and if you look through all the chaos that the polls throw up, this ultimately means whether the country will be more or less fair in the EU.

David Cameron has at least given himself a strong talking point on welfare, restricting benefits to new migrants. But the leave campaign will no doubt point towards issues like state aid, trading arrangements with developing countries and so on. Fairness is likely to become a major feature of the campaign.

It is often said that public anger makes politics very unpredictable. There is some truth to that. But politicians would certainly find ways of channelling public anger - and therefore making it more predictable - if they put the concept of fairness at the forefront of their thinking as they devise and debate public policy.

Whether or not the British people are particularly obsessed about fairness is hard to measure (it seems to be so), but for a very significant number of them, it seriously affects the way they think about politics.


James Frayne is Director Policy & Strategy at Policy Exchange and author of Meet the People, a guide to corporate campaigning.


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