British people are kinder and less divided than politicians give us credit for
Nesrine Malik/ The Guardian:
An expiring Tory party lashing about for electoral resuscitation by doubling down on a small number of pugnacious policies. A Labour opposition that has straitjacketed its pledges and ambitions with its fears of blowing its strongest chance in years to gain power. That is the slim space that now defines Westminster, making the preoccupations and tones of our politicians seem more remote than ever.
The result is a widening gulf between people’s reality and what they are relentlessly told they actually believe in and care about. Take immigration – a topic that has for the past three decades been at the top of the political agenda, and is now firmly established as something many should have “concerns” about. But attitudes among the public are flexible, dependent on the type of immigration and the general political mood.
Whatever these attitudes are – hard, soft or indifferent – they have coexisted for a long time now with a large voluntary infrastructure of pro-immigrant and pro-refugee organisations. The latter have been working for so long that perhaps they, rather than the government, define the country’s position on immigration.
But no. It must all be deportations, detentions and a general asylum policy direction that is fully against international human rights law. Never mind that the UK has one of the most positive attitudes towards refugees in the world, according to an international poll. During the 12-month period in which the government escalated its rhetoric and made “stopping the boats” and deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda cornerstone policies, support for refugees actually increased.
The same inversely proportional trend applies to strikes and trade unionism. Within the same period when the government was introducing anti-strike laws, a Sky News poll showed that support for organised strike action rose instead of fell, even while media and government messaging savaged those on strike, and members of the public suffered disruption to schooling, public transport and healthcare. “The findings suggest,” the poll concludes, “that the government, which is refusing to deliver inflation-matched pay rises, may not be able to rely on waning support for strike action.”
Across the board on most of the urgent issues at the centre of politics, the story is the same. A government adopting the most extreme positions, the opposition endorsing them, or not pledging to repeal them, and a public moving in the other direction. The impulse of politicians seems to be to try to sniff out any hint of opposition to change, even hallucinating it, and then lean into it so heavily that change becomes impossible.
Labour’s loss in Uxbridge (after an epic swing towards the party), for example, has been translated into a belief that London’s ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) is what lost it, so Labour has called for Sadiq Khan to “reflect on” the policy. Rishi Sunak conjured up overnight a mythical noble cohort that he “stands behind”, that of “motorists” – a category representing voters whose real-life needs are more important than liberal moral posturing on virtuous policy. Buoyed by what he undoubtedly now sees as a precious wedge issue, he is proposing to ban councils from imposing new 20mph zones and has approved more than 100 new North Sea oil and gas licences.
But zoom out from wedge hunting, and the picture shows that Britons are more positive on green policies than their peers elsewhere, and that Conservative voters here hold positions that people on the centre left do in other countries, with 30% of them saying that they would be put off voting Tory if Sunak does not commit to net zero targets. “The British public,” concludes analysis by the Financial Times, “including Conservative voters – is fully behind ambitious green growth. Confident parties and leaders would channel those sentiments, not undermine them.”