So what’s new? Party leaders that voters regard as useless – isn’t that the normal condition of modern British politics?
Actually, no it isn’t, or at any rate not in its current virulent form. All three main party leaders enter the conference system with strongly negative ratings. David Cameron has the least bad score, with 40% of the electorate saying he is doing well. But rather more, 52% say he is doing badly, so he has a net rating of minus 12. Ed Miliband (minus 46) and Nick Clegg (minus 50) fare even worse.
True, all three men have suffered negative ratings for much of this Parliament. But things were not always like this. Today’s sustained, across-the-board contempt is historically unprecedented. It reflects not just the particular deficiencies of the three men but something deeper about the way British politics has evolved since the Second World War.
From the 1940s through to the start of the new millennium, Gallup tracked the reputations of Prime Ministers, adding in opposition leaders in the Fifties and Liberal leaders in the Sixties. For the first two decades after the war, voters generally held prime ministers in high regard. Occasional negative scores did not last long. Indeed, from the mid-Fifties until the early Sixties it was normal for both the premier and opposition leader to enjoy positive ratings.
In the mid-Sixties that changed. Since then it has been rare for both leaders to be popular at the same time. For more than four decades the normal pattern was for one to be up and the other down. In the early Eighties, Margaret Thatcher usually commanded respect while Michael Foot did not. Fifteen years later, Tony Blair’s rating was strongly positive while John Major struggled to impress any bar the most loyal Tories.
On the few occasions when both Prime Minister and opposition leader slipped into negative territory, we invariably liked the third party leader, from Jo Grimond in the era of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath, to Charles Kennedy when Blair fell out of favour and Michael Howard failed to impress.
Today we are in a completely new era, with all three party leaders unpopular, and not just for a brief time but month after month. How come?
Plainly the specific qualities and shortcomings of Cameron, Miliband and Clegg play their part. But something bigger has been going on. Half a century ago, most people identified strongly with Labour or the Conservatives. Most of the millions who had manual jobs in factories, mines, steelworks and shipyards were trade unionists, instinctively anti-capitalist and strongly in favour of Labour’s post-war agenda.
At the same time, most middle-class voters liked the NHS but remained wary of change, especially anything that smelt of “socialism”. They were natural Conservatives, overwhelmingly voting for the party and often joining it. Thus were the great ideological dividing lines of the twentieth century reflected in homes throughout Britain. People took sides and were loyal to their leader.
That is not all. Many voters who were committed to one party nevertheless respected the other side. That is why, when Gallup started measuring the ratings of both main party leaders, sometimes both enjoyed approval ratings of more than 50%. This was an era when the big beasts of politics had been through the war – on the front line (such as Edward Heath, Denis Healey and William Whitelaw), protecting convoys (James Callaghan), breaking the Enigma code (Roy Jenkins) … the list goes on. They entered politics with experiences and a perspective that very few of today’s MPs can match.
What is more, politics mattered, not just because of the struggle between socialism and capitalism but because democratic politics was the means by which we converted military victory into a humane and prosperous peace. Despite Britain’s chronic debts, successive governments delivered a National Health Service, national insurance, full employment and an ambitious house-building programme. Politics was noble trade in which fierce rivalries could never completely obscure the comradeships forged in the fight for national survival. “Honourable member” was regarded as a proper way to describe an MP, not a term reserved for heavy-handed irony.
Of course it was never completely like that. Post-war Westminster had its share of crooks, liars, bullies and back-stabbers. But a more docile media than ours paid less attention to such goings-on.
Contrast all that with what we have today. The ideological contest? Over. The factories, mines, steelworks and shipyards? Largely gone. The shared national experience of war? A distant memory.
In their place we have pygmy politics: footloose voters, a fragmented economy and politicians with little real-world, let alone life-threatening, experience. Many voters think of them spending their time contesting minor tactical differences, uttering dreary sound-bites, claiming dodgy expenses and failing to protect our living standards. The one bit of good news is that today’s media is far more vigilant – but this merely adds to the woes of our political leaders.
Add in the mixed record of the coalition, and the transformation of Nick Clegg’s reputation from honest idealist to promise-breaking hypocrite, and the low standing of our three party leaders should come as no surprise. We no longer have a pristine third party, unsullied by power, to engage our affections.
Still not convinced? Then consider this comparison between then and now. It comes not from opinion polls but from Barnsley. In 1950 a Labour victory in this rock-solid mining seat was a foregone conclusion. Yet 89% braved a cold February day to cast their vote.
Wind the clock forward to 2010. Barnsley is adapting to post-industrial life. Despite the warm May weather, turnout was just 59%.
In 1950, Frank Collindridge MP could look back on three decades working down the mines, starting when he was 13. In 2010 Eric Illsley could reflect on how his university degree had helped him to become a trade union official.
One year after the 1950 election, Collindridge was dying from the coal dust in his lungs. One year after the 2010 election, Illsley was in jail for fiddling his expenses.