Ed Miliband’s biggest challenge will be to convice a fatalistic electorate that government can make a difference

Miliband is not only taking on the Big Six energy companies, he is pushing back against a public fatalism about government power to effect change that has been over 30 years in the making.

Over the weekend the commentariat were mostly talking about Russell Brand’s inspirational/nihilistic (delete according to taste) monologue on Newsnight.

Whether one liked what Brand had to say or not, he did seem to tap into a certain mood which is currently fairly prevalent among a large section of the electorate. That mood being fatalism.

While it is demonstrably not true, as Brand put it, that all politicians are “frauds and liars” – I know several who write for this blog who are anything but – nowadays that sort of rhetoric goes down well with aworryingly large number of people.

There is one obvious reason for this: trust in politicians hit an all-time low on the back of the Parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009 and it is yet to recover. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey of 2010, taken shortly after the scandal reached its peak, four in 10 people no longer trusted politicians to put the national interest first, and a majority of voters believed MPs never told the truth.

People have never put all that much stock in politicians of course, and the expenses scandal did a great deal to erode trust further. But to some extent voter apathy (not the ‘frauds and liars’ sort, but the more common sort of fatalism) might also be blamed on the limits within which today’s managerial politicians operate: voters are only too aware that there is only so much today’s politicians can do, therefore they don’t put much faith in those they elect (if they vote at all) to change things.

For better or worse, most questions today tend to be decided ultimately and by all three parties on the basis of what works best for ‘the market’. It is not a question of what you would like the government to do, it is a question of what government can do without creating ‘instability’ in that market.

Any politician that proposes a radical sounding policy runs the risk of not being taken seriously by the electorate however popular that policy might be; ultimately the public are highly sceptical as to the government’s ability to effect meaningful change at all.

And therein lies the potentially problem at the heart of Ed Miliband’s proposed energy price freeze. People like the gist of the policy – 80 per cent of the public back the idea of prices being pegged while the Big Six energy companies are reformed according to a poll for today’s Independent – but a majority (52 per cent) don’t believe Miliband is capable of delivering on his promise, according to the same poll.

The is an example of the wafer-thin managerial framework within which today’s politicians must operate – the centre ground, if you like.

Even popular policies which propose modest corrections to market distortions are viewed with fatalism by an electorate which doubts the ability of politicians to make a real difference.

In convincing the electorate to back not only his energy policy but also his party’s whole cost of living agenda, Ed Miliband is tasked not only with drowning out the rhetoric from the Conservative Party and the right-wing press, but also with persuading a sceptical electorate that government can intervene in the market to create better outcomes.

To say that this won’t be easy would be an understatement: Miliband is not only taking on some of the most powerful people in Britain, he is pushing back against a public fatalism about the power of government that has been some 30 years in the making.

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