Mal Fletcher
Voters Are Not Lurching; They're Responding to Elitism

In the wake of Sunday's European elections, The Times announced on its front page yesterday that Europe had 'lurched to the right'.

In the UK, where European and local council elections were held simultaneously, it noted that Ukip made significant gains over the more established political parties.

Since then, the domestic news cycle has been dominated by stories of how the other major parties plan to respond. We've heard talk of the need to clarify party messages, better connect with voters and possibly even change leaders.

Perhaps someone on the editorial staff of The Times can explain why headline writers opted to describe voters as 'lurching' to the right when the alternative result would usually be described as a 'shift' to the left.

To lurch is to stagger or lunge suddenly, usually without forethought. When editors apply such an adjective to voting preferences, they infer that electors have cast their ballots carelessly.

This writer has no particular axe to grind for the UK Independence Party, but similar forms of words are used by newspapers whenever a collective vote shifts slightly away from the established political parties.

This is true for both sides of the political spectrum, but perhaps especially so when people seem to be voting for a group that sounds more conservative than the Conservatives.

At the very least, news sources seem to imply that voters are less well informed than editors who more fully understand the larger issues at stake.

Many of the Brits who voted in these elections did so in such a way as to send tremors through each of the major political parties. They provided a significant boost to the claims of Ukip members that their party is becoming (or has become) a mainstream political force. 

The ultimate test of the latter claim remains, of course, the performance of Ukip in national elections, which are not due until May 2015. A significantly larger voter representation can be expected at those polls and they will test the claim to credibility of any smaller party.

However, the elections proved once and for all that there is deep unrest in parts of the mainstream electorate.

There is disillusionment about what many people see as insufficiently regulated immigration and there is uncertainty about what kind of EU Britain wants to part of.

Will it become again (or remain, depending on your point of view) a free-trading bloc, or will it morph into an emerging super-state, built upon a complete political and economic union?

There is ample evidence that the latter is the preferred option of the EU leadership itself - something that has in recent times begun to raise concerns in normally pro-EU Germany.

Today, the Prime Minister jets off to Brussels to try to prevent a federalist candidate from getting the EU's top job. For many voters, though, he doesn't seem to have the stomach to really take on an EU which has become bloated, over-powerful and self-important.

Whilst there was doubtless an element of protest voting in Sunday's election results, it is disingenuous to suggest that people were simply ticking the first box they could find that said 'none of the above'.

Many may have been protesting, but they were not lurching. The shift is premeditated, though less on the basis of any new-found party affiliation - arguably, people vote less and less on institutional grounds - than on alignment with ideas on specific issues.

Some newspaper political editors seem to struggle to find the right form of words for a shift they surely saw coming and for which they had ample time to prepare.

Perhaps the choice of headlines reflects that newspaper elites are too cosy with their political counterparts, or at least too much like them in terms of the context of their experience.

Both are either geographically or at least culturally located within middle class cosmopolitan enclaves in major urban centres. As such they may be, by virtue of income levels and other markers of social experience, far removed from the on-the-ground concerns and fears of the average voter.

In the political sphere, it is this perceived willful elitism that I think most concerns the voters who are ready to abandon traditional parties.

Slowly and belatedly, various party officials are waking up to this. This morning, Ed Miliband's aides are pledging that their leader will do more to reach out to people who feel 'left behind by our economy and let down by our politics.'

In recent times, people of all political persuasions have begun to ask the following questions, in one form or another, with justification: 'How can Oxford PPE graduates, who become MPs or staffers on both sides of politics, understand my everyday concerns? Especially when they move seamlessly from university into politics without any work experience beyond politics?'

Often, in their rise up the ladder, politicians are accompanied by like-minded political junkies who become professional lobbyists. So, the people who govern and those who most frequently seek to curry their favour and engage their interest have inherited and are living within an insulating political bubble.

Last week Ed Miliband's minders played into this general perception of politics-without-a-common-touch when they allowed photographers to snap their leader battling - to the death, it seemed - a humble sandwhich.

Eating a large sandwich can be a messy affair for anybody. However, the photos quickly went viral online and added to the notion that one of Britain's foremost political leaders, while waxing lyrical on the minutiae of policy, can't handle something as mundane as everyday lunch food.

In the same week, while making the cost-of-living his cause celebre, the Labour leader showed that he has little grasp of how much it costs for normal folks to fill their grocery baskets.

Of course, anyone can have a particularly bad week, but Mr. Miliband was already considered by many voters - including Labour supporters - to be a bit too policy-wonkish to be a credible and well-rounded national leader. The events of last week would have done little to overturn this perception.

Meanwhile, Nick Clegg appears to be well on his way to overseeing the demise of the Liberal Democrats as a major political voice. Again, the charge of elitism is regularly pitched in his direction even, at this point, by members of his own parliamentary party.

They fear that he does not represent their overall cause, mainly because of his failure to connect with the electorate on a personal level.

Few of them seem willing to consider that perhaps they have an even bigger problem than their choice of leader.

Perhaps the British nation is less ultra-liberal in its thinking than some of them would like to believe.

Whatever he does these days, Mr. Clegg cannot seem to overcome the common perception that he likes to talk down to people. He often speaks in a way that suggests his perspective is self-evident.

In his televised debates with Nigel Farage, he sometimes seemed exasperated by the fact that he had to argue the rightness of his cause at all - and with someone he appears to regard as an intellectual inferior.

Many people who are not necessarily drawn to UKIP's agenda may have felt alienated by Clegg's aloofness and impatience with dissent during the debates. Certainly in the lead-up to the council elections, many Lib Dem candidates were adamant that they did not want any mention of their party leader in their election literature.

When even your own candidates feel you're out-of-touch, the writing is on the wall - either for the leader, or the party.

Overall, Clegg might appear to be far better suited to the cloistered - some might argue 'cultured' - life of the full-time European plutocrat.

This cohort is, of course, the one Nigel Farage and company are constantly threatening with extinction. So one way or the other, Farage may bring about the political demise of the Lib Dem leader, though with Vince Cable's support he is safe for the moment.

Prime Minister Cameron hasn't fared well in these elections either. Elitism is a charge which has long been thrown his way.

Granted, it is an easy accusation to lay at the feet of someone with a privileged family background. Yet David Cameron does little to help himself when he surrounds himself with senior advisers drawn from a similar cloistered class.

It may be, as one BBC editor suggested to me, natural for a leader to listen most to people who live nearby, or who share a similar life experience and outlook. However, when it comes to being Prime Minister, one is expected to represent or at least understand the interests of a much broader cross-section of society.

Even among normally conservative voters (I use the word here in its small 'c' sense) David Cameron is often seen as being more of a liberal than a conservative thinker on certain key issues.

His promised public debate on changes to marriage never took place and his promise of a referendum on Europe in 2017 seems too weak or meaningless to satisfy many within his own rank-and-file.

Meanwhile, his offer of an independence vote for the Scots was a little too hasty for some - and his making the case for a 'no' vote a little too slow.

Nigel Farage has not been fully tested in regard to elitism - he has, as yet, no domestic parliamentary record. But he may well find himself in a similar position to David Cameron if his relatively privileged background as a City commodities trader ever becomes a story in itself.

He will certainly face the charge of elitism if he continues to lead what looks and sounds like a 'one-man-party', or if Ukip's candidates become either too working class or, far worse, too anti-immigrant.

It's highly probable that as Ukip continues to gather steam the more unsavoury elements within it will begin to become more vocal, particularly those who might once have associated themselves with the British Nationalist Party. This will bring another form of elitism to the fore.

Perhaps it was always this way; perhaps we have always been inherently suspicious of those who lead us. However, the viral nature of 24/7 news and social media reinforces perceptions so much more quickly now - and perhaps more deeply, too.

We may also be especially sensitive on this score because of the sour aftertaste that lingers from the MPs expenses scandal and the recent financial meltdown.

In the public mind, certain MPs and money merchants lined their nests while failing, along with financial regulators and EU leaders, to exercise due care and responsibility in the lead-up to the recession.

Once found out, they contributed to a significant confidence deficit when it came to major institutions. As yet, no one can be sure how deeply that loss of trust has seeped into the national psyche.

Whatever its causes, electors of all political persuasions are right now especially weary of political posturing and wary of political promises.

In the age of rampant social media, where hierarchical structures give the appearance of evening-out, elitism is seen as an especially inexcusable flaw.

Ukip and other as yet untested political groups may continue to rise in polls and elections for as long as it is seen to plague the major parties.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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