Back to the streets

Having gulped down fish and chips in a West Country caf’, we
hurried back to our convoy to head for the next campaign stop.
Local party officials paid their farewells to their two very
special guests as the armed protection officers herded the pair
tactfully towards the open door of their bullet-proof car.

“But I haven’t met any people,” complained John Major, stopping in
his tracks.

Sighs and anxious glances at watches. One aide unwisely muttered
something about timetables and itineraries.

The then prime minister – fed up, and not for the first time,
completely surrounded by security, aides and the media scrum during
the 1997 General Election campaign – took his wife’s arm and
pronounced that they would walk through the small market town. That
way he might actually get to meet “someone”. By that he meant those
whom politicians refer to as “real people”. Soon the Majors were
chatting to mildly bewildered pedestrians, swallowed up by the
prime ministerial entourage.

This particular exercise in trying to reconnect with “normal” life
was wrecked when accompanying photographers went into manic mode.
The reason? The Majors had paused by a charming little hardware
store that sold everything. The sign over the door advertised the
owners: Sleas Brothers.

The higher up the ladder, the harder it becomes for politicians to
maintain that magic link: keeping their finger on the public
“pulse”. And they find different ways of handling it. John Major’s
soap box was one; Tony Blair’s jacket-off, I’m-just-a-regular-guy
style is another. Gladstone perhaps took the common touch bit a
little too seriously in his forays into the West End, often
returning to Downing Street with a couple of prostitutes.

In this age of security threats and media demands, especially for
“strong” visual images, prime ministerial “meet the people” events
are precisely choreographed and screened.

That in this era senior politicians come into limited contact with
those outside their own limited comfort zone is a problem. That
some have never ventured into this territory is unforgivable.

Hence Michael Portillo’s comments during his week as a “single
mother”, and the impact of the Easterhouse estate visit on Iain
Duncan Smith, were depressing. Are there not single mothers and
drug addicts, and streets imbued with feelings of hopelessness,
even in those politicians’ respective constituencies of Kensington
& Chelsea and Chingford & Woodford Green?

For some of us, one of the attractions of politics – as with
journalism – is that one has the licence to go anywhere, knock on
any door and ask damned fool questions.

Most politicians regularly canvass their electorate and hold
surgeries. A strength of the first-past-the-post voting system is
the link between our MPs and their constituencies. This should make
it hard to remain totally immune from hearing the problems of “real
people”, whether they involve local services, school places, delays
in operations or problem neighbours.

Friends and family should feel duty-bound to keep their political
nearest and dearest alert to what is happening in “the real world”.
Tony Blair could have benefited more from this if he had maintained
a separate family home instead of moving his young family into
Downing Street.

The Westminster village is incestuous and cosseted. Its key
“players” – be they politicians or political journalists – return
from their few hours’ involvement in by-election campaigns mildly
surprised at hearing what people are discussing in local pubs and
outside school gates.

However, Duncan Smith deserves great credit for reminding all
Conservatives that there must be no no-go areas for the Party; that
we cannot be a prosperous, confident and secure nation while there
are environments such as the Easterhouse estate.

Some Tories used to argue that these areas were Labour-controlled
and so demonstrated their opponents’ failings. This is a cop-out.
And Michael Howard is following Duncan Smith’s lead by looking at
ways to tackle such deprivation.

More centralisation, more bureaucracy, more bodies referred to by
acronyms and, even, more taxes are not the answer. Labour is
absolutely right to target antisocial behaviour as a significant
factor. But all the Asbos in the world will not bring forth a cure.

A good first step might be for all MPs to spend a little time as
volunteers working in the most challenging environments. And to do
it without any cameras or journalists in tow.

Sheila Gunn is a political commentator and a Conservative
councillor in the London Borough of Camden.

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