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Why We’ve Had to Dramatically Shift How We Talk About UK Politics

June 25, 2024 1206

Politics is full of narratives and analytical tools that we’ve used for decades. Sometimes when we find that old models no longer work as we imagine that they used to, we spend years talking about it, keeping alive analytical structures that we should have buried long ago. An example of this is discussions about traditional political cleavages in voting patterns which we have been talking about how they no longer work since at least as far back as when Joanie was an undergrad, more than 20 years ago.

Joanie Willett, left, is co-editor of An Introduction to UK Politics, along with Arianna Giovannini

When we first started teaching UK politics about 15 years ago, one of the things that we ‘knew’ was that politics here is pretty stable, and major changes happen in increments rather than in revolutions. Transitions in political power were relatively easy to spot coming, and you knew that unless one of the Big Two parties were looking pretty feisty in the previous election, then it was unlikely that they’d be able to make the kind of gentle voter ‘swing’ required to overturn the government and win the election.

Following this logic, part of the reason why many followers of Labour held their heads in their hands in despair following the 2019 general election, was because the scale of the Conservative victory, together with the spectacular collapse of the Labour Red Wall, looked as if it would lock in a Tory government for another generation. People were genuinely asking what the future was for the Labour Party, especially with the seemingly supreme dominance of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in Scotland, where Labour needed votes if it was to get back into government.

But perhaps one of the political knowledges that we collectively should have kept hold of, but keep forgetting, is that a week is a long time in politics. The things that have happened in the four and a half years between the last election and now have dramatically shifted the political landscape of the UK, to the extent where (at the time of writing), the debate is not if the Conservatives will lose, but how devastating will that loss be.

An Introduction to UK Politics is a novel and progressive textbook from Sage (the parent of Social Science Space). It brings together leading researchers in the field and offers a complete picture of UK politics. Its pluralistic approach and emphasis on the politics of the every day illustrate the many ways everyone in the UK influences British politics and emphasize the value of critical and traditional approaches.
Request a review copy.

But whilst we keep hold of familiar analytical narratives, and ‘knowledges’ about our politics, we miss an enormous amount.

This means that we forget what politics in the UK is for, and instead focus on a distant and remote Westminster bubble, and vague discussions about who you’d like best as prime minister, Rishi Sunak or Kier Starmer.

However, we forget the lessons of the seismic shifts of the past few years. Whether we lay the blame on over-centralisation, weak local government, regional inequalities, a lack of ability to shape the things that matter to us, or a feeling that culturally we are not represented by national political discussions (or a combination of all of the above), the politics of discontent in the UK is real and (as we saw in the vote for Brexit), impactful.

We know that as people get more disenfranchised by contemporary politics, the algorithms of social media and political debates gets pushed further to the extremes. 

In an effort to address this, over the course of the election so far, politicians have given us policy proposals to reduce inequalities, increase regional devolution, and address various parts of the culture wars issues. However, potential voters are still given a narrative framing that looks at the question of who to vote for through the lens of ‘Rishi or Kier for PM.’ 

Not only does this marginalise our smaller parties, who often win a vote share that is not reflected in electoral seats, it also massively overlooks what could be the strength of our first-past-the-post system. People get to vote for the person who they feel will best represent them in their localities, in Parliament. Of course, it might be nice if your MP is also the party in power, but that does not necessarily mean that they will be more or less influential. The key question is about how much you trust your MP to represent constituency interests in Parliament, and how good you feel that they’ll be in the art of doing politics to Get Things Done.

What does this matter in political debate? Well, for the most part, it roundly alienates people even further. It forgets that whatever happens in Westminster is actually led by ordinary people like you and me, in our towns, villages, and cities throughout the UK.

No large political shift has ever happened before without coming from a groundswell of popular opinion amongst civil society, pushed by campaign groups large and small, raising awareness about topics as varied as housing, water pollution, refugees, the NHS, and civil liberties. Often support for UK-wide campaigns comes from the experiences that each of us have in their communities. 

In other words, the ability of your local MP to raise the visibility of matters that you care about is perhaps more important than what political party they represent.

Perhaps one way of creating more stability in UK politics would be to refocus attention on local issues and local questions, right the way from Westminster politics down to a community level.  People need to feel heard and listened to. And government needs to remember that borrowing from Abraham Lincoln, it (should be) of the people, for the people, by the people and that our political institutions only exist because of the activism attitudes and beliefs held by, in and amongst, civil society.

Joanie Willett is an associate professor in politics - Cornwall at the University of Exeter. Her research focuses on the entangled relationship between people, how they organize into communities, and the landscape that they are situated in (geography, geology, and ecology). Willett is co-director of the Institute of Cornish Studies, a former trustee of the Political Studies Association, co-convenor of the PSA Local Government and Politics specialist group, and helps coordinate EdgeNet, a Regional Studies Association network which explores questions of peripheral and rural development.

View all posts by Joanie Willett

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