Our plea to politicians: keep it real


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As the high party conference season begins, let us make a plea. Could the politicians who are about to address us please use normal English? And could they use it to talk about things that make sense to the greatest possible number of potential voters, rather than to political obsessives?

Of course, the party conferences have already started. The Green Party met in Birmingham in the first week of September, followed by the Trades Union Congress, traditionally part of the season, in Liverpool. Neither was accorded the level of media coverage that will be devoted to the three main Westminster parties over the next three weeks. Unusually, the Lib Dems are going last, in Glasgow the week after next, having postponed their conference because of the referendum in Scotland. Thus it is that today the high season begins, in Manchester, where the Labour Party will seek to persuade us that it should be entrusted with government next year.

So, Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, please spare us the “hard-working families”. The phrase has been so over-used that many journalists spent the first day of last year’s Conservative conference discussing whether the official slogan, which omitted the hyphen, was acceptable. Yesterday, the Labour leader said: “This conference is for all those families who are treading water.” As well as conjuring up an alarming vision of delegates in a swimming pool, this did little to clarify what a Labour government would do.

After a referendum campaign that engaged 85 per cent of the eligible population of Scotland, it would be worth our UK politicians learning some lessons from that great exercise in democracy. But they should be careful to learn the right ones. One reason turnout was so high on Thursday was that an irreversible choice was being made about the future of a nation. Important though general elections are, they are to some extent reversible. The Scottish campaign did make the point, however, that young people and habitual non-voters can be motivated to vote, and to encourage others to vote, if they think it is important enough and if the choice is clear enough.

It helps, as Alex Salmond has always known (he showed it especially in his second TV debate with Alistair Darling) and as Gordon Brown rediscovered late in the day, if political leaders can speak plainly, directly and authentically.

For the Westminster parties, the great challenge for the next election, and for the party conference season that is its prelude, is to respond to the mood of hostility towards “politics as usual”. Mr Clegg’s party is struggling to distinguish itself from its coalition partner, while Mr Miliband suffers from the feeling that, because of the deficit, a Labour government would not be able to make very different choices from a Conservative one.

The mistake that the leaders of established parties tend to make is to try ever harder to make believable promises. The problem, as Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker of the University of Southampton wrote last week, is that “each false dawn risks alienating the public further”. Their research into “anti-politics” suggests that people do not want to be more active, take more decisions or sit on committees. Nor, we suspect, are they much engaged by debates about the West Lothian Question.

“The overwhelming sentiment is for a political leadership that is seen as engaged, connected and responsive and not driven by spin, self-aggrandisement and connections with big business,” say professors Jennings and Stoker. “People want a representative democracy that works.” Let that be the text for the party leaders for the next three weeks – and beyond.