The Ed Milliband guide to being a normal bloke

It’s been a busy week in news with the Ukraine situation, pedophilia scandals and Venezuela burning.  But find some time to spare a thought for poor Ed Milliband, the man who pushed through the “biggest changes to the Labour Party since 1918” in the week that nobody cared. Ed’s reformed the party in a bid to make it more accessible, affordable and expansive to people.  An attempt to convince people that “Labour Party members are normal” by focusing on something only policy wonks like me will ever care about.

Scaling back union voting power in leadership elections and offering a new lower price for supporters of the Labour Party, the new system has been described as a “bigger change than Clause IV” by some Labour MPs.  The plan is to open up the Labour Party to people who’ve given up on politics, refranchise the disengaged and create a movement for change from “the bottom up.”  And for the low, low price of £3 he’ll throw in some emails and possibly a picture too.

If I sound sneery about it, it’s because I am.  It’s not going to make Labour any more inclusive or interesting than before. Candidates are still chosen by the MPs after all.  And one person one vote has been in place for all MP selections since 1993. At the same time when politicians went from household names to an airbrushed, identikit Oxbridge lot which even professional satirists like the Spitting Image creators think, “all look alike and they present alike.”  More to the point though, it’s an insulting misreading of the UK population.

For decades, politicians of all persuasions have wrung their hands in public over falling voter bases, disengaged youths and the crisis of democracy.  Everyone at some point has heard about the boredom with politics in the UK.  Usually from a talking head on the TV or an empty one in Westminster.  Nadine Dorries, for example, informed people that more voted for the finals of X-Factor and I’m a Celebrity than voted in the 2010 election.

The problem is, it’s all wrong.  Not just the argument, but the claims and counter claims, the righteous indignation of MPs and comedic tax exiles alike.  It’s all based on rubbish statistics and the least amount of analysis possible.  Confusingly, politicians are aware that it’s rubbish.  They know the public still cares and gets involved politically.  But still, they make the argument anyway.  Meanwhile 82% of the public thinks that politicians can’t be trusted to “place the needs of the nation over their own political party.”

First of all, let’s deal with Nadine Dorries.  If you take the X-Factor final votes and then generously double that for the I’m a Celebrity’s finale, you get 16 million votes.  The last general election had around 29 million votes cast in it.  Clearly the British public still cares about politics.  They just don’t really care about political parties.

Since the 1970s the amount of people who are members of political parties has plummeted to about 1% of the population.  At the same time, union membership has halved, with most members being older and working in the public sector.   Younger workers are much less likely to vote than their parents and extremely unlikely to join political parties.  Even protest parties like the Greens have a membership with an ever increasing average age.  Membership of all parties is split between an older group that MPs don’t listen to and a small, younger one using party membership to shine their cvs for internships and political careers.  The anti-politician mood is only heightened by the sense of a remote privately educated political elite, parachuted into safe seats as soon as they leave the think tank.

The thing is though, party membership in the UK was always a niche interest.  Even at its peak, membership was only 4% of the population.  About 5 times as many people tune into watch an episode of Sherlock.  Still, if we assume that 4% of the public should be really politically engaged where did the rest go?

Fun fact: over 20 million people in the UK volunteer at least once a year.  It’s a surprising statistic for a nation that doesn’t care about politics.  Ranging across everything from citizens advice to kids’ football, a third of the UK gives up its time to try and make society better.  That’s more than twice the amount of people that tune into watch an episode of Sherlock.  They might not call it politics but they are actively attempting to improve lives of the people around them.  And that number has increased by millions since austerity began as volunteers fill in the spaces where government used to operate with food banks, education or advice.  Recently Manchester City Council turned over the running of some of its libraries to volunteer groups rather than closing due to cuts.  In the face of austerity millions of people are getting involved at the local level to save the things they care about.  A bottom up movement to stay the same.

This Obama-Lite rhetoric about change is inevitably going to sit poorly with these people.  How could it not?  They’ve been directly involved in saving services in their towns while Labour promise to run exactly the same cut-happy government as the current one.  Charitable involvement spikes when cuts to services are made because people want government to provide the things they like.  They like libraries, they like healthcare and they like living on a street where people can afford to eat.  Ed could make Labour Party members seem normal by actually offering to keep these things running, not fiddling with electoral systems. Instead of talking about making Labour a centre for the community, he could promise to pay for community centres.  Or even better, they could go round to the ones still open and convince some volunteers to stand for their own communities as MPs.  There’s certainly no shortage of them around.