Author: Kenan Malik
Labour understands people’s economic insecurities and fears about austerity, but fails to recognise cultural anxieties or concerns about immigration. The Tories have a better grasp of cultural insecurities, but a tin ear when it comes to people’s economic concerns. Or so runs the argument that seems to have gained purchase among pundits and politicians.
It’s the latest packaging of the wisdom that mainstream political parties are out of touch and that they need to change their policies, especially about immigration and austerity, to win back voters. But do they? Or, rather, should they?
It is unquestionable that mainstream parties are out of touch with voters, who often regard politicians with contempt. It is unquestionable, too, that politicians often don’t take seriously people’s concerns, whether economic and cultural. What is more questionable is the insistence that parties should change their policies so as to align themselves more with public opinion. The role of political parties is not simply to reflect public opinion. It must also be to change opinion, to win voters to a political perspective. Otherwise there would be no need for political debate.
Social democratic parties throughout Europe have responded to the rise of the far right by adopting harder rhetoric about migrants. The consequence has been merely to confirm the belief that the far right was right all along and to intensify cynicism towards the mainstream. It has not improved the fortunes of social democracy.
Engaging with people’s concerns often means reframing those concerns to show that, while people’s grievances are real, the causes and solutions may not be as they see them, particularly about immigration.
Mainstream parties are not out of touch for not reflecting popular opinion – it’s because they have lost the art of connecting with people in order to change their minds and to win them over to a different perspective. It is the art of political persuasion, not proficiency in tailing public opinion, that needs to be rediscovered.