The anger out there
There is a dangerous mismatch between what politicians are doing and what people are feeling. I've been on a road trip through the English Midlands to take the temperature of the jobs market. It's cool and cooling, but people's frustrations are going in the opposite direction.
In the first place is the bank bonus issue: it's simmering in the public consciousness, because it is seen as manifestly unfair that bankers get bailed out while ordinary businesses do not. The government's decision to launch an inquiry led by a banker, however intentioned, looks to the average person tapping the touch screen in the Job Centre like an exercise in circumlocution.
Next is the issue of migration. The "British Jobs for British Workers" issue has not gone away because of the settlement of the Lindsey Oil Refinery dispute. The militants who ran the strike are now looking at the Olympic Games venue, where there's been a reported surge in migrants registering for National Insurance numbers. But independent of what the union activists do, the issue has been placed firmly out there in the public consciousness. The LOR dispute was atypical in that any pressure on wages and resources created by East European migrants is, say economists, felt at the low end of the income scale. This, I am pretty certain based on anecdotal evidence, is where the greatest hostility to migrants is being expressed.
A third issue is politicians themselves. For the past few days I've had the chance to ask ordinary people - minicab drivers, railway passengers, youths on street corners - "what should the government do?" It's usually greeted with a guilty grin and a shrug of the shoulders indicating they don't give a fig. "The politicians can't do anything," is something I have heard spontaneously more than once. Listen carefully: people tend to talk about "the politicians" negatively in general (which is bad news for the opposition). And while a few politicians may draw satisfaction that people think they "can't do anything", I do not think these comments are meant to exonerate them.
"It can't get any worse"
There's one other bit of zeitgeist out there that I hadn't expected. A cab driver put it this way: "The people I pick up are single mums, students, people on long-term sick, pensioners... how much worse can it get for people like that? The credit crunch won't really affect them because they're already at rock bottom: it can't get any worse." And if you think about it there is a whole layer of the UK population that is cushioned from falling income by benefits. Every ticket you print out at the Job Centre points out, at the bottom, that if a job is on or around the minimum wage you will be entitled to tax credits. What I think is happening is that people at the low-wage end of the jobs market are presuming they will just get another low-paid job. This "our lives are crap already" mood is something I just don't think politicians are hearing. You could take heart from it, because it's the source of the doggedness in British people that got them through the War and the Depression. However, you would not want to get yourself on the opposite side to them in this mood.
Now these are just impressions, and the politicians normally have an even better mechanism for keeping their fingers on the pulse of mass feeling: a political party. But many senior Labour backbenchers are warning that their party has become "hollowed out". I passed through Stoke-on-Trent, where the BNP has won 29 council seats out of sixty, and the Labour Party is down to sixteen. [Update: Thanks to all those who pointed out my error regarding the number of BNP councillors in Stoke, the correct figure is nine.] A senior member of the party in the Potteries told me the party mechanisms have "collapsed"; "If you want your drains fixed you go to the BNP," they said. Meanwhile there is no bailout for the last major ceramic factory, Wedgewood, where 350 people were made redundant at one day's notice last month.
Obviously all the main political parties have vibrant and real relationships with that part of the UK population that reads the Telegraph or Guardian, or watches Newsnight. But seasoned political operators know that is not what constitutes a relationship with the masses. (I will add that both Labour and Conservatives have recently brought back seasoned political operators to frontbench positions.) So I have a hunch that the sheer scale of discontent and fractiousness in the country are being under-estimated. The latter-day substitute for parties - private focus groups - will be picking this up, but probably not as viscerally.
Labour Party problem
Finally, there is a specifically Labour Party problem. On several occasions in the past few weeks mid-ranking people inside the Labour party and trade union movement have asked me privately: "Are we finished?" Theories are circulating about whether actions in government are being taken with a view to shaping the party in opposition. For thoughts like these to cross the minds of ministers would be self-destructive - so no sensible politician can allow themselves to think that way. But outside the inner circles this is the mental conversation the Labour movement is having with itself.
On a day when the CBI is saying the credit crunch is getting worse for companies, and the CIPD is predicting three million unemployed, there is a lot of what anthropologists call "social noise" at the statistical level of reality. But around the mass emotional impact of this recession, there is "social silence", except in the tabloid newspapers and on the social networking sites.
Thus the UK political class, and much of the media, finds itself at a bit of a disadvantage. Last week I saw Chinese premier Wen Jia Bao on the TV with Gordon Brown. It occurred to me that the Chinese Communist Party, through its networks of mass surveillance, probably has a better handle on the mood of Chinese people than any politician in the UK system could have on the mood of people in Britain, given the professionalisation of politics and the hollowing out of parties.
Tomorrow I'll blog about the people I met on my journey. My report will be shown on a Newsnight special, Wednesday at 10.30pm, on the day we expect unemployment to top two million.