“So Tony Blair has triumphed with the lowest turnout of voters in 80 years. Just one in four voters backed New Labour. Indifference to political rhetoric was the clear winner. And this was predicted, months out, in a surprising study from Demos. And as Malcolm McGregor observed (The Australian 21/6), voters in Britain have just sent out a message they want “public investment over public squalor”.

In “Basildon – The Mood of The Nation” (Demos 2001), Dennis Hayes and Alan Hudson found that alienation among key swinging voters is blocking out messages to reconnect and rebuild civil society. Such messages only further alienate a politically weary electorate.

Prime Minister Tony Blair soundly defeated William Hague. But, after an election campaign marked by race riots and a collective yawn. Old style personality politics rather than the rallying cries of New Labour’s Third Way pushed the polls to Labour. Blair out manoeuvred Hague on the personals – everything from son Euan’s drinking spree to baby Leo’s first word.

So, the Demos study of what is happening to the voters of Essex’s Basildon is worth considering. Because, while intellectuals find the discussion of where-to-next politics fascinating, voters are turning away. They’re more individually focussed, they’re alienated and their tolerance of new ideas is increasingly short lived.

Basildon, the seventh and largest of the post-war New Towns planned for outer London, has long been a barometer of election results. It’s dominated by skilled manual workers, these days in financial services and computer software, the class of voter believed by both sides of politics to be a key to electoral success.

After the war, as Basildonian Alf Dove put it for the survey, Labour’s vision dominated the aspirations of the town: “Suddenly the chance of starting a new life … The concept of the new town was you came here from the smoke and you got a house. People like me just back from the war I was pleased just to have a house to rent!”

With Thatcher, Basildon went middle class. Alf Dove watched Basildonians turn against Labour at election after election telling local candidates that Thatcher had given them their houses. In 1997, however, Labour took Basildon back with a swing of 14.7 per cent.

But, after surveying the town, Hayes and Hudson have concluded that the electoral shift to New Labour “cannot be taken for granted”. It masks, they say, “a deeper underlying change in people’s attitudes to politics, making it harder for any collective institution to claim their allegiance for very long”.

Basildonians are generally optimistic about their own lives but not their childrens’ or grandchildrens’. They don’t see their jobs or careers as the most important thing in their lives and younger workers are adjusted to the flexible labour market. Social networks do not come from work, hobbies or relaxation activities. Many prefer individual pastimes.

The one dominant network in the lives of Basildonians, however, is the family, what the authors call “the bedrock of social interaction”. Very broad family relationships created from “divorce, remarriage, single-parent families, step-parents, widows and widowers”. As people’s involvement with outside institutions like trade unions, church or clubs has faded, family life has gained their interest.

Hayes and Hudson say this is “repositioning the balance of their lives between public and private concerns”. And the gap between contentment for themselves and concern for the future the authors see as a “poignant expression of the dislocation between individual identity and the sense of social possibility … the inability to connect an individual project or set of hopes and aspirations with collective fortunes and endeavours”.

Self reliance is the post Thatcher reality, along with being the best survivor. And there is only family to rely on. This leaves a general alienation with all political parties. Present day political institutions are seen as inadequate, even incapable of solving social problems. Voters have very little faith in anything other than themselves.

The Basildon survey has echoes in all Western democracies, especially Australia – disengagement from traditional institutions, distrust of elected representatives, the feeling of having to go it alone.

Winding back the welfare state has left a vacuum. The Third Way hopes to fill this with a bright and empowered citizenry. But Basildon suggests the terrain is more fragile than expected. Evangelical rhetoric is unlikely to shift such alienated and individually focussed voters. Urging involvement in civil society and “joined up government” both globally and nationally could well turn even more away.

Instead, voters feel they have given enough. Economic reform seems to have stripped them over a decade and more. They are waiting for something in return. This explains the scapegoating – words like dole bludger, welfare rorter, tax cheat. So much has been taken and so little to see for it, someone must be getting more than a fair share. The electorate is not in a giving mood, but one of expectation.

In some ways, the Third Way could be one of the most alienating messages to foist on any electorate right now, especially if it’s the trust of voters politicians want. Tony Blair, in the future, could be well advised to spend more time hanging about with baby Leo rather than writing pamphlets on political revival for the Fabian Society.”

Article published in The Australian