Much of the commentary that has followed the defection of Douglas Carswell to Ukip has focused on Eurosceptic disquiet within Conservative ranks that threaten to pull the party apart even before a referendum on EU membership can be held. But the challenge that Ukip poses to the Westminster village is a symptom of the ongoing crisis of political trust that reached a climax with the expenses scandal and the global financial crisis. Indeed, Carswell’s statement on his resignation is just as much a statement on the failings of contemporary politics as it is about the need for EU reform or reduced immigration (factors typically claimed to be pivotal to Ukip support). Carswell’s views are firmly in line with widespread public discontentment with politics today, and are especially close to the intense contempt for the political class felt by Ukip supporters.
In a YouGov survey last year, we asked respondents a series of questions about the ability and willingness of politicians to deal with the problems facing Britain today. Many of their views reflect the criticisms that Carswell directs at the Conservative party and towards the political class more generally. These reflect a much more fundamental challenge to the political class than gripes over government policy on the EU and immigration. Three failings of politics stand out in Carswell’s statement that are also reflected in public opinion: self-interest, spin/cynicism and lack of leadership.
There is a lack of conviction and seriousness, Carswell argues, about the challenges facing Britain: “The problem is that many of those at the top of the Conservative party … aren’t serious about the changes that Britain desperately needs.” We found that 33% of people, and 28% of Ukip supporters, agreed that “politicians possess the leadership to tell the public the truth about the tough decisions that need to be made.”
The ruling class is attacked by Carswell for lacking principle and being motivated by self-interest: “Few [politicians] are animated by principle or passion. Those that are soon get shuffled out of the way. Many are just in it for themselves. They seek every great office, yet believe in so little.” We find a prevailing belief among the general public that politics privileges the rich and the powerful, with 72% of respondents agreeing with the view that politics “is dominated by self-seeking politicians protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society”, and just 8% disagreeing. A striking 85% of Ukip supporters take this view, contrasted with just 53% of Conservative supporters.
Politics has become too much a parlour game for the ruling class, detached from the concerns of ordinary people, Carswell argues: “Politics to them is about politicians like them. It’s a game of spin and positioning.” This too-clever-by-half schoolboy approach to politics leads to an emphasis on headline-grabbing: “They don’t think things through. They make one glib announcement after another – and then move on. On to the next speech. The next announcement. The next headline.” This viewpoint is resoundingly supported by respondents to our survey, with 80% agreeing with the statement “politicians are too focused on short-term chasing of headlines”. An astonishing 88% of Ukip supporters held this view, with just 1% disagreeing.
While the Carswell defection can be seen as a consequence of the fault lines over Europe that have existed in the Conservative Party since the 1980s, it also reflects a clear groundswell of public opinion calling for change in the way politics is carried out. The prevailing mood of contempt for the practice of politics and the political class has not been seriously addressed, despite much rhetoric and promise. This may only be the start of a fracture across the whole political spectrum – as frustration grows with how little has changed, both inside and outside the Westminster bubble.
Further details of the original survey can be found here.