Optimism is in short supply in Britain. In this week’s focus group in Newcastle-Under-Lyme, participants thought the country was going in the wrong direction in almost every respect we discussed.
Communities were becoming more fragmented, crime was rising, the economy falling and public services strained. A place that used to be proud of the potteries, coal and steel, was described by one man as now being best known for “monkey dust”.
The greatest surge of pride in the group was for Robbie Williams’ planned return to Port Vale. Where there is no optimism for the future, nostalgia flourishes – even if it is for Angels instead.
This sense of decline is not unique to the de-industrialising heartlands of England and it is going to be a challenge for the next government, whatever its composition.
Our two main parties have competing narratives to explain the decline. For the Tories, the problem is the EU. For Labour, the problem the is “the few”. For voters, it isn’t that simple.
The Tory narrative doesn’t quite hold, even for this group of predominantly Leave voters. While some wanted Brexit for an outcome it would deliver – control on immigration seemed particularly important – for others the reason to get Brexit done was so we could move on to other issues. There is little expectation that simply leaving on 31 January will trigger a transformation. But, as one voter said: “I didn’t vote for a deal. I voted to leave.”
Labour’s efforts seemed even further from hitting the mark. When I asked the focus group how the country came to be in this dreadful state, the person who came to mind was not one of Jeremy Corbyn’s “billionaires”, but a mere millionaire: Kim Kardashian. She was cited as the pin-up for a generation who are perceived to want fame and fortune without putting in the work to earn it. This focus on the moral and practical value of labour is seldom heard from Labour. The left has had enough of “hardworking families”.
Both parties appear to have recognised voters’ belief that turning Britain around will involve turning on the taps when it comes to government spending. There was a demand for investment in local services and infrastructure. However, this came with a real concern about where the money would come from. “Borrowing” is a dirtier word than “tax”.
The next government is going to face two big challenges: It is going to need to deliver real positive change of the sort people have not experienced since the Great Financial Crisis. Public services need to improve, housing has to be more accessible and wages need to finally start consistently rising.
But, beyond that, there is also a need to rebuild a sense of empowerment – that people are co-authors in the story of Britain, not collateral damage from the way their country is changing.
Solving that conundrum will require a different approach to policy and economics than in the past. Business will be more important as a partner, government will need to find new ways of relating to citizens and we will need to think seriously about how to have an informed population as media consumption shifts further and further away from public service broadcasters.
Election campaigns should be when we sort those issues out, but in truth they are not – particularly when the leading party has a five-year manifesto that would be timid for a one-year budget. So, the debate immediately after the election will really matter. We can expect partisans to interpret the result as confirmation of whatever they initially thought. The challenge will be to break that cycle so we can get to a form of politics that takes citizens seriously.
James Morris is a former pollster and managing director of public affairs at Edelman.