Party Conferences operate in an unreality bubble.
Our political class are operating on another planet if the evidence from all three conferences is anything to go by. John Harris had the unenviable task of visiting all three but he went further and took his discoveries out onto the streets of Britain. Where he met real people.
“Having been to all three events, I agree that all was probably for the best in their utterly surreal version of reality. Now the parties have abandoned the old seaside conference venues like Blackpool with their cheap B&Bs, troublesome activists from the provinces find that four days of networking costs the same as a high-end foreign holiday, and conveniently stay away.
By way of reinforcements, a strange breed of pasty-looking young men in dark suits – aspiring political insiders, who actually look borderline unemployable – has affixed itself to all three parties. Some fringe meetings offer a break from the tedium, but even in the case of the admirably democratic Lib Dems, the spectacle in the main hall is often deathly. With the absence of natural light, the whole hurly-burly engenders a feeling of latent unease: after a few days, you feel as if you are going mad.
Since 2009, my conference work has been built around making a series of Guardian films, each part of which ends with a trip into the real world to divine how messages from the bubble play with the public. And here is the real news: though political disconnection is hardly new, and the conference ritual not exactly designed to engage people outside, I have never sampled public scepticism so deep and seemingly immovable. The point was underlined by a day in the suburban Tory/Labour marginal of Wirral West, where no one expressed the slightest faith in politics.
Abstention was rampant. Even those who did vote did so out of weary duty rather than any positive belief – and if it was like that in relatively comfy Merseyside dormitory towns, what of Toxteth, or Speke?
Most notably, there was a pretty much unanimous view that Britain was in decline, in every conceivable way. At one point, I spoke to a loquacious, level-headed twentysomething woman, who had two things to say: that if the minimum wage went up, she could hold down two jobs rather than her current three; and that she felt so bleak about the country's future that she had decided not to have children.
The analysis people tend to come out with is not the standard-issue hell-in-a-handcart stuff that has probably always been built into the national psyche. Most of the people I have met have very good reasons for their pessimism and disconnection: their accounts of how grim they feel have been detailed and completely rational. The prospects for the economy barely need mentioning. Nor do the cruelties of rising prices. Most remarkably, there is an all-pervading sense that some fundamental compact with power has been broken. Speak to anyone with kids, and out it all comes. How will they afford a house? How is the £20,000-plus price-tag on higher education meant to pull anyone towards university? How can you remain content on a stagnating low-to-middle salary when the rewards for those who landed us in this mess remain so insane?
Even if he was lamentably short on convincing answers some of that was mentioned in Cameron's speech. But plenty wasn't. The whole political class extols the soul-cleansing wonders of work, but stays largely silent about what it actually entails. Yet the supposed benefits of flexible labour markets have long since curdled, as evidenced by a freshly demobbed soldier I met in New Street in Birmingham, five minutes' walk from the Lib Dems. Thanks to an employer who ensures all his staff are technically self-employed, he was selling paintball sessions for commission, which currently pays him not much more than £1 an hour. If I understand the Tories' latest welfare plans correctly, people will now be compelled to search for such non-jobs for most of their waking hours, and travel for up to 90 minutes to do them – grotesque proposals that Labour will presumably be too craven to oppose. Meanwhile, many of those in slightly better jobs are haunted by the constant fear of being undercut by work-hungry people from abroad.
Most commentary about the political ritual offers no clue that this is how bad things are. Consider, for example, the media reaction to Ed Miliband's speech in Liverpool: a cynical, shrill chorus focused on questions – Is he weird? Did he swallow his lines? Where's his brother? – that are surely only discussed with any enthusiasm in the backstage media bunkers. Most of the public are light years away from any considerations so personal. Right now, in keeping with the nationwide political switch-off, they have no idea what Labour stands for. The conversation about whether its leader is "weird" is part of the arcane white noise from which millions of people are completely cut off. Miliband's challenge is more fundamental: even if his message is broadly right – and I think it is – the medium may be broken beyond repair.
I watched as Cameron did his best to cut through to the public. He managed to alchemise populist thwack and patriotic optimism out of a desperate set of circumstances. But the vast crack in his rhetoric was self-evident: in effect, he was approximating the nothing-to-fear approach of Roosevelt, while extolling the fiscal stupidities of Herbert Hoover. "So many of our communities are thriving – let's make the rest like them," he implored, as if mere derring-do could turn South Shields into Cambridge, and Nottingham into Notting Hill. His pop at "can't-do sogginess" surely amounted to the grim spectacle of silver-spooned millionaire telling the rest of us to awaken an optimism completely contradicted by events. That's what millions of people feel like, and they have every right to.
Even in the hands of its more deft practitioners, politics is failing, at speed. The corrosion of trust that took root under New Labour and the catastrophic effects of the expenses crisis are obvious; perhaps even more crucially, the economic articles of faith that have so dominated the past 30 years are broken. The result is a vacuum that could be filled by one of three things: a reinvented one-nation Conservatism that amounts to more than the inexplicable credo of the "big society" bolted on to unreconstructed Thatcherism; a bold, modernised kind of social democracy; or a nasty, pinched populism that will reach for achingly predictable remedies. We all know the drill: raise the flag, pull up the drawbridge, send home the Poles, turn the screw on the poor. (my emphasis)
The murky id of the Conservative party is defined by those ideas, but parts of Labour are surprisingly open to a similar approach. On left and right, politicians who fear that kind of future should realise the urgency of the moment. Politics needs new ideas, language and voices. The bubble that has defined the past three weeks must be burst – before it's far, far too late." Guardian 6/10/11