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'What Is Middle Class Morality? Just an Excuse for Never Giving Me Anything': How Do Politicians Change Public Attitudes?

One consequence about the election of Jeremy Corbyn is that a conviction politician (whether you agree with him or not) has been elected to lead a major political party.

One consequence about the election of Jeremy Corbyn is that a conviction politician (whether you agree with him or not) has been elected to lead a major political party.

All politicians claim to be conviction politicians but successful politicians usually engage in political debate in that limited 'space' occupied by public opinion. Focus groups and survey data is used to ensure politicians understand where the public are on an issue, then politicians take care not to advocate policy changes which will receive a hostile reception. Conventional wisdom is to keep quiet about convictions outside this space.

There is, however, an important caveat to this process. Public opinion is substantially shaped by the media which, in turn, is owned by big business and reflects the priorities of big business. A policy change within the permitted space but which impacts adversely on businesses will inevitably be slammed by the tabloid media. When the choice is to back the views of its owners and major advertisers on the one hand or the views of its readers on the other hand, there are numerous examples of the tabloid media backing corporate interests. So a politician who promotes a policy change which is popular with the public but which goes down badly with the business community can expect a hostile reception from Fleet Street.

However, public opinion is not immutable. We have seen very substantial changes in public attitudes over relatively short periods. An example is public attitudes to homosexuality which has gone from supporting criminalisation to supporting equal rights and gay marriage. Equally attitudes to issues as diverse as the social acceptability of drink-driving, smoking in public places, racism and sex equality have changed markedly in the last few years.

These changes have been driven by numerous factors, including pressure groups and a few brave politicians. Governments, by and large, have legislated cautiously and not sought to impose laws or policies on the public until it judged the public were ready for the change. Opposition leaders have more freedom to lead public opinion than the government, but if they seek to position themselves as a 'government in waiting', the opposition can subject itself to the same constraints imposed by the limits of current public opinion as the government.

But all those rules can be torn up if the opposition elects a leader with clear political convictions whose response to the majority who do not agree with him is to campaign to change public attitudes. This means that, at least for the next few years, Labour may well find itself 'doing politics' outside space occupied by majority public opinion by championing causes that do not appear at the top of the public's list of concerns.

The most significant area where a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour Party will challenge public opinion is the extent to which the public care about how the government treats our most vulnerable citizens. People at the bottom of the pile don't vote so their voices rarely get prominently and repeatedly heard in political debate. That seems set to change.

Welfare reform has been popular because the public has been led to believe that the masses of the undeserving poor by living off benefits whilst making no attempt to make any economic contribution to society. In Pygmalion George Bernard Shaw wrote about Eliza Doolittle's father who described himself as the 'undeserving poor'. Complaining that he had the same needs as a widow, he then said "What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything".

The Conservative response to harsh treatment of the 21st century poor is to use their poodles in the media to peddle the myth of the undeserving poor or even to concoct stories to support government propaganda, as we saw with the DWP leaflet about welfare sanctions.

The Conservatives and their poodles in the tabloids have clearly adopted a 'play the man and not the ball' strategy. Hence the concentration on peripheral issues such as singing the National Anthem. The real challenge for a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour Party is whether he can avoid being labelled as a 'donkey jacket' politician who does not need to be taken seriously and can move public opinion to focus on the reality about government action towards our most vulnerable, and thus lead the public to care more. If, through relentlessly using his position as leader of the opposition to highlight how government policy impacts on the most vulnerable in society, the public cares more about those at the bottom of the pile, he will have had an effect and the Conservatives will have to respond.