Yesterday, Ryan Bourne tweeted:
Just 13 per cent of people think 'Inequality' is the biggest issue facing country. Yet left wing commentators call others out of touch!
There is, I think, an answer to this. We must distinguish two ways of being out of touch with people. One is by not sharing their views, the other by not heeding their interests. I'll own up to being out of touch with voters' views, but I'm not sure I am so out of touch with their interests.
This distinction is, of course, only possible if people's preferences don't serve their interests. And in the case of inequality, I think one can argue this.
It is at least possible that inequality has adverse effects not just for the quality of democracy, trust (pdf) and social cohesion (pdf) but economic efficiency (pdf) too. This isn't merely because a shift in incomes to the rich, who happen to save more, depresses aggregate demand. It's also because inequality increases the narcissistic self-confidence of the rich and encourages short-termism, both of which contribute to financial crises.
The natural inference of these two thoughts is that inequality matters more than voters believe. We lefties might be out of touch with voters' beliefs - but we care about inequality precisely because we believe it damages voters' interests. And one can argue, as Daniel Hausman does, that it is interests that matter more than preferences.
In saying this, I'm not taking a uniquely leftist position. I'm echoing Edmund Burke, who argued that MPs should ignore the "hasty opinion" of voters if this clashed with the national interest. And I suspect even Ryan would agree. Most people want energy companies to be nationalized. Ryan probably thinks otherwise. This isn't because he's out of touch but because he thinks such a preference would not in fact have the benefits voters believe it would.
My point here is not about inequality: exactly the same thinking applies to immigration too. Instead, it's about the nature of politics. When we lefties (or, more precisely, I) complain that politicians are out of touch, what we mean is that professional career politicians serve the interests of the rich rather than the public. Our fear is that, when Ed Miliband promises to "listen" to voters, he will put Labour in touch not with voters' true interests but rather with their basest and most irrational impulses.