Centreground Political Communications

Escaping the Westminster bubble

Written by on October 19th, 2011

AllihiesToday’s political reportage will surely be dominated by Ed Miliband’s and David Cameron’s clashes at Prime Minister’s Questions over the Liam Fox affair and the stream of economic bad news. But, outside Westminster, does any of this have much impact? writes Adrian McMenamin.

One of my earliest memories, from around the age of two or three, is being asked by my mother to lie on the floor and keep quiet while someone came to the door – possibly the milk man or the bread man – looking for payment.

I do not mention this because I want to boast of my proletarian credentials: my late father was a civil servant and my mother, while having spent a year in a hospital bed with tuberculosis, left school early and worked in a shop and then a factory, was a grammar school girl, and went on to university in her thirties before working as a teacher.

Rather, I mention it because I know millions of other people in Britain and Ireland will have similar memories (though the demise of weekly collections and deliveries means our children do not) and yet it is impossible to imagine that any of the three leaders of the UK’s major political parties ever had to dodge a bill in this way.

Prime Minister Cameron is said to be worth £18 million in his own right. Nick Clegg is certainly also not short of a bob or two. And even though Ed Miliband had a reasonably “normal” childhood attending state schools, the idea that he has some sort of personal understanding of what it’s like not knowing how one is going to get through the week does not wash.

The rarefied background and circumstance of all three leaders, none of whom, as the hackneyed saying goes, have ever done a “real job” in their lives, is, I think, one of the major contributing factors to the sullen attitude many British voters towards politics today. They feel little connection between themselves and their rulers. In a more deferential age that might not have mattered, but today it is very important.

There is no point in me pretending I personally care much about Cameron or Clegg’s predicament. But in the end they have the levers of government on which to pull. Getting policy right will do a lot to communicate to voters that, even if neither man can feel the voters’ pain, they are at least willing to handout the analgesics.

Ed Miliband does not have that option. The obvious response is to crank up the rhetoric but I do not think anyone is going to be won over by that alone. And there are no silver bullets lying around either.

Instead, he needs to spend much less time at Westminster and far more time out on the doorstep, at the school gates and in the markets and cafés where the rest of us spend our time. Politicians often instinctively reject this – an hour on a local radio phone in or spent doing an interview with the regional evening paper feels much less impactful than scoring some points in Westminster, but maybe the time has come to recognise that, in many ways, Westminster is the problem.

The one thing Ed has in equal share with his opponents is time – and there is still quite a lot of that left before the 2015 election, so he should use it to establish a himself much more strongly across the country – if necessary spending days, and not just hours, on regional visits.

The hard work can pay off. Twenty one years ago Mary Robinson, seen by most as a brave but hopeless outsider candidate, began her campaign for the presidency of Ireland in Allihies, thought to be the furthest part, in travelling time, of mainland Ireland from Dublin. She was making two points: that she would be a president for all the people, and that she was different from the crowd in the capital.

By the time the other parties had woken up to her campaign of crossing the country and taking the time to talk to the people she met, they were already in her wake. Even as they geared up to attack her they were engulfed in a classic Dublin political scandal and Robinson was on the verge of making history.

One should not overstate the parallels – Ireland has a smaller population than Greater London. But the core point is the same: hitting the regional campaign trail means taking only a small step forward, but given time the steps add up.

The video is of the street I grew up in in Belfast in 1969 – about the time of the described incident. None of the children in the video are me though – Adrian

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