Are we the electorate they deserve?

Voters tend to believe that politicians let them down, but maybe the boot is on the other foot
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Indy Politics
As this election begins, the voters are behaving like tourists in a red-light quarter. There in the windows, garishly lit in pink or blue, sit the candidates. There in the darkness outside are we, sniggering at their charms and blemishes. We think they can't see us. But as a matter of fact, they can. We are watching them watching us.

And what do the candidates make of those who will choose or reject them? It's a question nobody asks. The convention is that we, the electorate, do the inspecting and do it in the most superior, condescending manner imaginable. The media encourage us to sneer at the eagerness of the politicians to seduce us, and foster the prejudice that the parties and their leaders are a pretty sad crew dolled up to impress and deceive. We are supposed to think that none of them is really worthy of us - the great British public. But put the question round the other way. Are we worthy of them?

It is one thing to sense and enjoy the power of the voters to choose who shall govern. Even though that power is slightly illusory, under our weird electoral system and the tradition of Cabinet absolutism, that is a democratic feeling. But it is quite another thing to approach politics with the sort of noisy, generalised contempt for politicians which is so apparent in 1997. That, in the end, is an undemocratic feeling.

To meet party leaders, in my experience, is to be surprised by their quality. None of the three main leaders - five counting Alex Salmond and Dafydd Wigley - is Mandela, Gladstone or de Gaulle. But they are all likeable; they are intelligent, anxious to do good for their fellow humans, not excessively vain, not corrupt or cruel. They vary, admittedly, in strength of character. And it's a pity they are all male. But on balance Britain is lucky to be able to choose between such men.

While we stare at them, they are also assessing us. It may be that they wish for a better electorate than the one they face. After the East Berlin rising in 1953, Bertolt Brecht is supposed to have made the ironic suggestion that the Communist regime should dismiss the people and appoint a new one. Messrs Major, Blair and Ashdown must, in their different ways, long to appoint a new, friendly, co-operative citizenry, trotting in its Thursday best to the polling stations on 1 May - an improvement on the grudging, disrespectful, unreliable rabble of punters they are condemned to flatter.

The worst thing about the British voters - as all the party leaders might privately agree - is that they have grown unpredictable. For 18 years, they have been doing much the same thing. Now they are apparently about to do something different, by electing a Labour government. Even that is uncertain. The 1992 general election showed that voters had become strikingly devious, lying wholesale to pollsters and experimenting with tactical voting. If they swing decisively to Labour, or simply away from the Tories, nobody knows for sure why they will do so, apart from non-explanations like "enough is enough".

What is certain is that attitudes - the prejudices and reactions which determine how a vote will be cast - have altered a great deal in those 18 years. This is not the electorate of 1979, the last time that the British risked real change. And the alteration is not just the natural one of older citizens departing and younger ones replacing them. After the radical upheavals of "ideological" Thatcherism and its aftermath, people think of themselves and other people and politics in a different way. This is a matter of quantity rather than of quality. There has been no fundamental revolution in public attitudes, and polls all through the Thatcher era have shown the British doggedly insisting that they still approve of the principle of higher taxes for better services in health or education. But they have grown reluctant to live up to that principle in the polling booth. They judge old values in new ways.

One change, which helps to account for the unpredictability, is the decline of "tribal" voting. Fewer people at each general election vote because their families, fathers, husbands and workmates have always voted that way. This is an old process, already noticeable in the 1970s, but it is still developing. Its causes include the disintegration of the old industrial working class and the new social and physical mobility which separates one generation from the mind-set and class mores of its parents.

With this individualism goes the cult of choice. A better-educated and more independent voter is less trusting, more inclined to weigh alternatives. The 1980s and 1990s have been decades in which everyone was deafened by the rhetoric of consumer choice, propaganda for the daily "election" which takes place when we set out down the aisles of a supermarket and choose this brand over that. But this consumer democracy was not matched by extension of choice in another department of most lives - the work-place. Quite the contrary.

During the years of Tory government, the influence of ordinary employees over their working lives has been steadily reduced. The trade unions were castrated, wage councils abolished, collective agreements on pay and conditions cancelled, workers' rights and security undermined. The same woman may be a sovereign pushing the shopping trolley but a serf when she sits behind the check-out till. This contradiction has added a sharpness, an edge of irrational aggression, to the way in which a voter studies the electoral menu.

Solidarity has diminished too. Again, the signs of this were emerging in the late 1970s, before the Conservatives returned to power. In constituencies where unemployment was rising, workers who still had a job were no longer inclined to vote Labour in sympathy. Margaret Thatcher instantly grasped the significance of this. In the 1980s, she dared to let unemployment reach levels unheard of since the Slump, correctly guessing that public opinion would no longer rebel.

With this change came a fall in expectations about "government". The British have lost a great deal of their old trust in the essential probity and benevolence of constituted authority. After 1979, the Tories set out to convince the British that the state of the economy was the result of global forces, as blind and uncontrollable as the weather. More recently, as the economy has strengthened, John Major has tried to reverse this argument and claim the credit for his own policies. But much of the Thatcher teaching has stuck in people's minds. One consequence has been the devaluation of democratic politics itself, now regarded by many people as an expensive way of letting an ambitious minority feather its nest.

But there have been changes for the better. One has been the rapid spread of the "rights culture", imported from the United States and Europe. People now talk about their "rights" (although the archaic British system of governance, with no written constitution, is not based on any concept of individual rights against the state), and they challenge authority with a new confidence. The law has responded quickly, building up the practice of judicial review to accommodate this flood of complaints against the actions of central and local government. The political Establishment has moved more slowly, growling that the populace talk only of entitlements and forget about duties. But some Bill of Rights now seems inevitable.

The "rights" movement is only one way in which the European Union has begun to influence the way the British think. Even more important is the arrival of what can be called "national relativism". Twenty years ago, few people who complained about British institutions looked overseas for models. Now such comparisons are made every day, with French railways, German schools, Danish farming, Dutch budgeting, Italian regionalism. Not all these comparisons are to Britain's disadvantage; it's plain that we do some things better. But this habit of comparing our society to others is the opening of a big window on the world - and it can't be shut again.

Looking down from their platforms and soapboxes, the party leaders watch us and wonder about us. There have been three elections since 1979, but perhaps this is the first time that they are registering how unfamiliar this electorate has become. It is ironic that many of its features - its poor opinion of politicians, its lack of deference, its individualism and self-confidence - are at least partly the result of two decades of Tory policies and propaganda.

In this, the Conservatives recall the fate of Deacon Brodie, the Edinburgh town councillor and inventor who was executed for running a burglary business on the side. Like him, they have constructed a patent gallows which now seems about to hang them. But if Tony Blair wins, he will inherit this dismaying new public, restless for change and yet harshly unforgiving to the politicians who alone can bring change about. He must feel uneasy too. The candidates watch us watching them - and they should tremble.