The Centre for Labour and Social Studies (Class) held its first conference over the weekend, where over 75 of the biggest names in progressive politics came together to discuss the future direction of policy, particularly in terms of alternatives to austerity. At Class we thought it would be a good idea to preface the conference by doing some research on public opinion. Just how much appetite is there for the kind of policies our speakers might propose? What are people’s experiences of recession?
We thought we’d start with the so-called economic recovery. There’s something about David Cameron’s claims of victory that just doesn’t chime with recent headlines, like Shelter’s recent warning that 80,000 children are living in temporary accommodation, or the Guardian’s report that over 5 million British people are earning less than a living wage. So we asked respondents whether they felt they were personally benefitting from the recovery. It didn’t come as a great shock to discover that nearly 4 in every 5 Britons said no, they didn’t. Which begs the question: who is benefitting from economic recovery?
Perhaps it’s the energy companies who recently assured us that £3.7bn in profits is ‘not particularly big’, or perhaps it’s Richard Branson who insists he’s not a tax exile (I remember reading about his private island when I was standing for two hours on a Virgin train – a pleasure for which I paid nearly £90). Perhaps it’s the private jet industry, which today the Telegraph breezily reports was given a welcome boost by the superrich.
The results of the poll strongly suggest the bounteous profits of energy firms, rail companies and the like are not trickling down to working people – with even 7 in 10 people who voted Tory in 2010 saying they’re not personally benefitting from the recovery. That could explain why the majority of people think it’s time for the government to intervene in energy and transport prices. In fact, most people are to the left of Labour when it comes to this: not only do more than 7 in 10 people want the government to have the power to control gas and energy prices, but more than 6 in 10 want energy and transport companies to be nationalised altogether. Remarkably, UKIP voters are more in favour of nationalised transport and energy than their Conservative and Lib Dem counterparts.
Following the noises Ed Miliband has been making about living standards, it’s not surprising our poll could be seen as a boost for him. Twice as many respondents said he represented the views of working people compared to David Cameron (32% compared to 16% respectively). However, it was ultimately bad news for both leaders as a greater number of people said neither one represented working people (38%). Given that, maybe it’s not unsurprising that Russell Brand seemed to strike such a chord when he declared, “Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites.”
Politicians have been talking about the disillusionment Brand highlights for some time. It was something Emily Thornberry pondered at our conference when she observed “the electorate isn’t doing what we think it should be doing, and voting.” I have often wondered why political disillusionment is such a mystery to MPs. The political class is increasingly made up of middle-class professionals whose lives are far removed from most people’s, and who are currently presiding over the worst crisis in living standards since the Victorian era. Admittedly I haven’t interviewed every disillusioned voter (or ex-voter) in the country, but I’d wager the fact that politicians don’t seem to show much empathy or interest in the average British person’s life has something to do with dwindling election turnouts and increasing cynicism. I wouldn’t be surprised if the sheer lack of action from politicians over rising living costs isn’t making the British public feel slightly irked.
Perhaps, then, MPs could take our poll as an instruction on how to capture public trust. There’s no doubt Labour’s policy to freeze energy prices for twenty months has been remarkably popular. It’s not outlandish to take this poll as a sign that the public wants the government to go further – to relinquish absolute trust in the free market and actually step in to make sure the people’s needs are being served. Perhaps that’s what nationalisation means to the 2 in 3 people who are in favour of it: bringing public services under public control so they can work for the good of the public, instead of a few individuals profiting at the top.
It’s understandable that there is some reticence on the part of MPs to embrace policies like nationalisation of public services. Miliband’s energy policy, which was – for all intents and purposes – a fairly gentle step in a social democratic direction, resulted in threats of blackouts and accusations of socialism from business leaders and the government. Right-wing libertarian Allister Heath described the results of our poll as “terrifying,” and lamented, “the public is turning its back on the free market economy and re-embracing an atavistic version of socialism.” If that’s the kind of histrionics these kinds of policies invoke, little wonder politicians are anxious.
But it’s also clear, from the recent energy price hikes alone, that the government’s policy of letting private companies do as they please isn’t working either. When a company’s pursuit of profit means ordinary people freeze to death, I doubt the public thinks politicians should let something as facile as name calling stop them from intervening to lower prices. Whichever party chooses to put radical policies to the electorate, it’s true that it will likely face a backlash. But it’s also true that the public wants big changes – and whoever is brave enough to deliver them might just end up in office.