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Coffee House

This is what politics has become

30 March 2012

1:48 PM

30 March 2012

1:48 PM

George Galloway’s victory last night is a reminder of a wider
problem in British politics: the low regard in which all main political parties are held. By-elections can throw up quirky victories, usually ironed out in the general election. There won’t
be an army of Galloway’s marching on parliament at the next election. It’s like Glasgow East: a classic Labour safe seat-cum-‘rotten borough’ taken for granted (and ignored)
for so long that the ruling party’s apparatus had atrophied. Like John Mason in Glasgow East, Galloway won’t
last long.
  
But the same phenomenon which took Galloway to victory last night, and humbled the main parties, is also at work in Scotland. The unionist parties are on their knees; polls suggest the Lib Dems
will lose all of their mainland seats. And this is not because of a surge in support for independence. The SNP, for all its ills, has mass support (and no donor problems) for a simple reason: it is
a cause, a movement. Once, this could be said of the Conservatives and Labour. Not any more.

David Cameron seems to fit into a fairly long tradition of being a Tory leader who doesn’t seem to like the Tory party very much. Ed Miliband was enstooled by his union paymasters, none of
who would look out of place in a 1978 news bulletin. The Lib Dems’ identity is being subsumed beneath that of the coalition. The three parties are not doing enough to connect with the
concerns of the public. In private, Tory ministers have become used to answering criticisms with two words: Ed Miliband. In other words, ‘yes, we may be only 6 per cent of the way through the
cuts, dismal progress, with no growth to speak of. But what are these voters going to do? Vote Red Ed?’
  
Voters, now and again, do have other choices. The government is lucky that UKIP is so dismally led — because, like the SNP, it is a cause (and not one I agree with). It may yet overtake the
Lib Dems to become the 3rd-largest political party. The main options on the Westminster menu did not inspire the voters of Bradford last night. This should be a message not just to Cameron, but all
political parties: this isn’t a game of political chess, this isn’t about finding the middle ground in Westminster but the common ground with the public.

Six years ago, a group called the Power Inquiry published
a report
into this. Party membership may be plunging, they said, but let’s not insult the public by calling this apathy. People are still joining groups like the RSPB and volunteering in
their communities. They are just not excited by the choice in front of them. Political parties have spent so long copying each other that they have forgotten about the outside world. Ferdinand
Mount, a former Spectator political editor, was one of the commissioners. The report made very little impact, as it delivered a message that the main political parties don’t want to hear. But if
we’re to draw any lessons from Galloway’s victory, I suspect a few of them can be found in that report.

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