Interesting things have been happening in British politics. And while there’s no obvious connection with trends in New Zealand, you don’t have to look too far beneath the surface to see parallels.In recent elections for the European Parliament, the representative body elected by voters throughout the European Union, 33 percent of the British seats were won by the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip).
Ukip outpolled both the Conservative and Labour parties – the first time a third party has managed this in a British national election since 1910. The result saw Ukip win 24 seats in the European Parliament, up from 13 in the last EU elections. Labour won 20 seats and the Conservatives (the major losers) 14.The great irony is that the majority of British seats in the European Parliament are now held by a party that is committed to taking Britain out of the EU.
This is a seismic shift in British politics, and it has left the two major parties reeling. In the past they – and the British media – have tended to dismiss Ukip and its leader, former Conservative Nigel Farage, as an extreme right-wing fringe.Now they must take the newcomer seriously, even though Farage’s party still has only a tenuous foothold in the British parliament, where it holds three seats in the House of Lords.
There is a much bigger story behind this, and it has been unfolding over several years. It is about the growing separation between the political elite and the people they supposedly represent.Ukip and its unorthodox leader, a populist who's not ashamed of his fondness for a pint at the local, are seen as having tapped into a feeling of disenfranchisement among voters – a sense that democracy has been stolen from them.
The party’s rise has coincided with the emergence of what commentators call the new political class – an elite of professional political operators that has taken control of the major parties and is seen as having lost touch with ordinary people.Among Tory voters, in particular, there was frustration that the Conservative Party led by David Cameron wasn’t listening to their concerns about the intrusive influence of the EU in British affairs. You can bet it will be listening now.
Ukip has also tapped into mounting public concern about the level of immigration to Britain from Europe under the EU’s “open borders” arrangements. The party has positioned itself as anti-immigration, exploiting public resentment at recent arrivals from Eastern Europe claiming welfare benefits and placing further strains on an already wheezing National Health Service.Labour as well as the Conservatives has dismissed Ukip’s concerns as racist and fascist, but some commentators are now suggesting Labour will have to revise its stance because it too is vulnerable to a backlash in working-class areas, where migrants are taking jobs and undercutting wages.
So where are the parallels with New Zealand? Oddly enough, they have nothing to do with immigration.New Zealand is in the midst of an extraordinary demographic change – arguably far more dramatic than the one Britain has experienced. We are now one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the Western world. But although politicians are arguing about the stress immigration is placing on housing and infrastructure, the transformation has otherwise been remarkably painless.
Large-scale immigration always has the potential to create problems, especially where ethnic groups congregate in ghettos and refuse to mingle with wider society. Recent tension between rival factions in an Auckland mosque serves as a warning that the situation in our biggest city, especially, needs to be carefully monitored. Overall, though, we can pat ourselves on the back for absorbing the new arrivals almost seamlessly.No, the similarities with Britain relate to the relationship between political parties and the voters – because here, as in Britain, we have seen the emergence of a new political class that is increasingly isolated from voters.
The era of big political meetings and street-corner campaigning is long gone. Membership of the major parties has reportedly been in decline since the 1970s. Election campaigns are largely conducted by the party leaders on television. Even senior cabinet ministers are almost invisible.All this adds up to a public disengagement from politics and a vacuum between electors and elected. This vacuum has to all intents and purposes been filled by the new political class – the consultants, advisers, spin doctors, opinion pollsters, lobbyists, assorted insiders and even news media who live inside the Wellington bubble and only fleetingly make meaningful contact with real people in the outside world. Politics is largely conducted through opinion polls.
British political commentator Peter Oborne wrote about this phenomenon as long ago as 2007 in his book The Triumph of the Political Class, in which he argued that politicians had emerged as a separate interest group. He went even further, claiming that the people at the top level of the major parties had more in common with each other than with ordinary voters.The same might be said of New Zealand, where Labour and National both occupy essentially the same social-democratic political space.
In Britain, Farage has deftly exploited this feeling of voter alienation. In New Zealand, his closest equivalent is Winston Peters. Now there’s a scary thought.