Japanese lessons for Nick Clegg and David Cameron

Britain’s leaders face the same problems as Hatoyama’s coalition government did -- until its collaps

The resignation last week of Japan's prime minister Yukio Hatoyama was greeted with a grim sense of inevitability by the Japanese public, which has grown used to a rapid turnover in the country's top office.

Hatoyama's successor, Naoto Kan, is Japan's sixth prime minister in less than four years. But the latest resignation has particular resonance for politicians in Britain. Hatoyama led a coalition government comprising his own centrist Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), along with the smaller left-wing Japan Social Democratic Party (SDP).

Although Hatoyama's resignation came largely as a result of his own blunders, the final shove was provided by his coalition partner, the SDP leader, Mizuho Fukushima. Hatoyama's nine months in office were dogged by scandal, indecision and missed opportunities, but he was finally forced out over his failure to fulfil an election promise to move the controversial US Futenma marine base, currently located on the island of Okinawa.

His reversal on Futenma was seen by the public as symbolic of a broader inability to deliver on critical issues. When he came to power last August, public support for Hatoyama and his government stood at an astonishing 75 per cent; by the time he resigned, it had fallen to 19 per cent.

Fraught alliance

Hatoyama's failure over Futenma put pressure on his party's already fraught coalition with the SDP, which represents what remains of Japan's socialist electorate. Opposition to the Japan-US security alliance is a central pillar of their pacifist platform, so, not surprisingly, the SDP's Fukushima refused to support Hatoyama's decision to revert to the status quo and allow the US military to remain at Futenma.

The prime minister was thus forced to dismiss her from her post as minister for consumer affairs. The rest of the SDP swiftly followed their leader in leaving the coalition.

Within Britain's coalition government, David Cameron and Nick Clegg claim to have come to an "agree to disagree" arrangement over replacing Trident. But defence-related issues could easily open up divisions at Westminster similar to those that have occurred in Japan.

There are other similarities between the governments. In Japan, as in Britain, the coalition partners garner electoral support in conflicting ways. Elections for Japan's House of Representatives, the more powerful of its two chambers of parliament, are based on a mixture of proportional and single-member seats. The majority of DPJ MPs are elected in the single-member category, so the party must maintain a centrist stance in order to attract a wide variety of voters from as many constituencies as possible.

The SDP finds itself in the opposite position. The number of its members is in single digits, with more than half elected from proportional lists. The party's survival depends on its reputation as a progressive alternative to the two main parties.

Central to this aim is the SDP's unique commitment to reducing the presence of the US military in Japan and retaining the country's pacifist constitution.

Principle or pragmatism?

While the British Liberal Democrats enjoy wider electoral support than the Japanese SDP, their positions are in some ways similar. The majority of partisan Liberal Democrats -- those who vote for the party out of conviction, and not tactically or in protest -- are drawn to what they consider a more challenging agenda than the one offered by Labour or the Conservatives.

Like Japan's SDP, the Lib Dems will be punished by their core supporters if they are seen to compromise on their principles and election promises.

With elections for Japan's upper house around the corner in July, Fukushima's options were either to walk or to face the wrath of SDP voters at the polls. She orchestrated her own dismissal rather than be seen to support the DPJ over the Futenma controversy.

Surely it will not be long before Nick Clegg faces a similar dilemma. Perhaps the moment has already passed; joining a Conservative-led coalition in the first place was a slap in the face to many Liberal Democrat voters.

A departure from government on principle before the next election might mitigate the electoral damage to the Lib Dems. Both Clegg and Cameron should watch developments in Japan with interest.

Dr Tina Burrett is assistant professor of international relations at Tokyo's Temple University.

Special subscription offer: Get 12 issues for £12 plus a free copy of Andy Beckett's "When the Lights Went Out".

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Hyper-partisan Corbynite websites show how the left can beat the tabloids online

If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Despite their best efforts during the election campaign, the Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph and Express failed to convince voters to give Theresa May a majority, let alone the landslide she craved. Instead, Labour made inroads thanks partly to increased turnout among younger voters who prefer to get their news online and from social networks.

The centre of power in the media has been shifting to the web for years, but during the election we saw just how well a crop of hyper-partisan left-wing news sites are using social media to gain the kind of influence once restricted to the tabloid press.

Writers for sites such as the Canary or Evolve Politics see themselves as activists as much as journalists. That frees them to spin news stories in a way that is highly attuned to the dynamics of social media, provoking strong emotions and allowing them to address their audience like a friend down the pub “telling it how it really is”.

People on Facebook or Twitter use news to tell their friends and the wider world who they are and what they believe in. Sharing the Canary story “Theresa May is trying to override parliamentary democracy to cling to power. But no one’s fooled” is a far more effective signal that you don’t like the Tory government than posting a dry headline about the cancellation of the 2018 Queen’s Speech.

This has long-term implications for the right’s ability to get its message out. Research by BuzzFeed has found that pro-Conservative stories were barely shared during the election campaign. It appears the “shy Tory” factor that skewed opinion polling in previous elections lives on, influencing what people are prepared to post online. If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Distorted reality

Television was once the press’s greatest enemy. But its “newspaper reviews” now offer print titles a safe space in which they are treated with a level of respect out of all proportion to their shrinking readership. Surely this must change soon? After all, the Independent sometimes gets a slot (despite having ceased print publication last year) for its digital front page. How is it fair to exclude BuzzFeed News – an organisation that invests in reporting and investigations – and include the Daily Express, with its less-than-prescient weather predictions?

Another problem became apparent during the election. Because the press is so dominated by the right, coverage from the supposedly impartial broadcasters was skewed, as presenters and guests parroted headlines and front-page stories from partisan newspapers. Already, some political programmes, such as BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, have experimented with including news from outside Fleet Street. One of the newspaper industry’s most reliable allies is looking for new friends.

Alternative facts

The rise of sites spreading the left-wing gospel across Facebook may be good for Labour but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the public. This was illustrated on 16 June in a post by a relatively new entrant called the Skwawkbox, which claimed that a government “D-notice” – now called a DSMA-notice – might be in place restricting news organisations from reporting on the number of casualties from the Grenfell Tower fire.

The claim was untrue and eventually an update was added to the post, but not before it was widely shared. The man behind the blog (who gives his name in interviews only as “Steve”) insisted that because he had included a couple of caveats, including the word “if” in the text of his article, he was justified in spreading an unsubstantiated rumour. Replacing an irresponsible right-wing tabloid culture in print with equally negligent left-wing news sites online doesn’t feel much like progress.

Blood and bias

Narratives about the corrupt, lying mainstream media (the “MSM” for short) have become more prevalent during the election, and it’s clear they often hit a nerve.

On 17 June, a protest over Theresa May’s deal with the DUP and the Grenfell Tower fire made its way past BBC Broadcasting House, where a small group stopped to chant: “Blood, blood, blood on your hands!” Hours later, in the shadow of the burned-out tower, I heard a young woman complain loudly to her friends about money being used to fly BBC news helicopters when it could have gone to displaced victims.

The BBC cites the accusations of bias it receives from both ends of the political spectrum as evidence that it is resolutely centrist. But while many of its greatest critics would miss the BBC if it goes, the corporation could do a better job of convincing people why it’s worth keeping around.

Grenfell grievances

Early reports of the attack on a Muslim crowd in Finsbury Park on 19 June exhibited a predictably depressing double standard. The perpetrator was a “lone wolf”, and the Mail identified him as “clean-shaven”: phrases it is hard to imagine being used about an Islamist. Yet the media don’t just demonise Muslims in its reporting; they also marginalise them. Coverage of Grenfell contained plenty of references to the churches in this part of west London and its historic black community. Yet Muslims and the relief work carried out by local mosques received comparatively little coverage. Community issues such as Islam’s requirement that the dead are buried swiftly were largely ignored, even though a large number of those killed or made homeless by the fire were Muslim.

I suspect this may have something to do with outdated ideas of what north Kensington is like. But it also must reflect the reality that just 0.4 per cent of UK journalists are Muslim, according to a study by City University in London. The lack of diversity in the media isn’t just a moral issue; it’s one that affects our ability to tell the full story.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496