The populist signal is getting louder - and mainstream politics is under threat

Mainstream politicians have responded to populists like George Galloway, Nigel Farage, Beppe Grillo, and Sarah Palin by burying their heads in the sand.

UKIP came from nowhere to finish second in the Eastleigh by-election. According to the latest Ipsos MORI poll, its leader has a positive net approval rating - something that can't be said for David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband. The Tea Party has taken possession of the Republican Party’s agenda in the United States. Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement currently leads the opinion polls in Italy. The Danish People’s Party has overtaken the ruling Social Democrats for the first time in an opinion poll. Respect beat Labour in the safe seat of Bradford West.

George Galloway, Nigel Farage, Beppe Grillo, and Sarah Palin have little in common ideologically. But they share one thing – they are populists and populism is the major challenger brand in politics today. What’s more, the established mainstream parties are disorientated in their responses; so mainstream democracy is under stress. Much attention has been devoted to extremist parties, organisations and movements such as Golden Dawn, the EDL and the National Socialist Underground in German- which do pose a security threat. But populism is something quite different – a signal of stress in mainstream democracy.

Populists in the UK, elsewhere in Europe and the US have been dismissed as 'protest' parties, cranks, closet racists and clowns. In reality, they are a real challenge to the way that mainstream parties approach democracy - as a set of compromises underpinned by institutional balances. Populism is an expressive way of doing democracy that has disdain for politics, complexity and compromise.

Populists want democracy to be more driven by the 'general will', a return to a morally pure past, less constrained by law, human rights, and the EU, and for what they see as a corrupt and self-interest political classes to be replaced by 'true democracy'. If the 'the people' want to freeze immigration or protect social spending then that should happen. If the EU is a barrier to the 'general will' of a nation, then it should be confronted. Political elites are corrupt and so is the system they occupy. We need a return to the heartland of the true spirit of a people – before self-interested elites took possession of our democracy. These are the populist modes of argument – whether they are of the far-right, far-left, or even the centre.

Unless mainstream parties of the centre-right and centre-left wake up to the nature of the populist threat, their ability to govern will be heavily restricted. The populist radical right is the most successful variant of populism today - the most successful new party movement in Europe in the last quarter of a century. The Danish People’s Party, the FPO in Austria, Geert Widlers’s PVV in the Netherlands, UKIP in the UK and the Front National in France are just some of the variants of this political family.

The populist radical right was growing well before financial crisis, recession and austerity and is responding to real demands for better protection of ‘the people’ and ways of life. Even in the UK, hitherto insulated by its majoritarian electoral system, the populist radical right in the form of UKIP is beginning to make in-roads. If they get their organisation and tactics right as the Greens did in 2010, it is not impossible to imagine Nigel Farage winning a parliamentary seat in 2015 or even before – contrary to conventional wisdom.

This is not a 'protest' or a 'joke'; it is a direct challenge to the democratic norm. Failure to respond adequately could further fuel the rise of the populists. Mainstream democrats can reverse this tide or they can be swallowed by it. Dismissing the threat and burying heads in the sand is a foolhardy response - and yet that is what it appears to be the approach.

Does it matter? Yes, because populists rarely have any real answers and they can stoke up antipathy for minority groups as well as the way modern democracy functions. This spreads further cynicism, threatens the well-being of some, and undermines the ability of mainstream parties to act in the national interest - even if they are in office. Populism does reflect a real set of values and attitudes which are an entirely legitimate democratic expression, the parties and movements are dishonest about the reality of the constraints that all political decision-makers face.

They express what some of the people want but can't meet what the people need. Their further success is likely to corrode trust in a way that is damaging - regardless of their electoral success or failure. And this is why populism and its actual nature should no longer be ignored.

How can mainstream parties respond? The new Policy Network report into "Democratic stress, the populist signal and extremist threat" outlines two mains substantive responses – statecraft and contact democracy. If the charge is that mainstream elites no longer govern in general interest then they to prove that they can. This means pursing approaches to political economy, welfare reform, public services and immigration that meet needs and respond to the values of the majority – which are mainly pragmatic. Secondly, there is some truth in the charge that mainstream democracy has become distant, closed, controlled by cabals and politically nepotistic. Mainstream parties have to open out, rebuild their local organisations in a way that responds to people instead of just pumping out junk mail, and bring in more a diverse range of representatives – in terms of their real life experience.

Populism – especially in its radical right manifestation – is a real threat to mainstream democracy under stress. The response is not to dismiss it – a natural but counter-productive reflex. Unless there is a more convincing statecraft blended with a renewing contact democracy, then stresses can become crises. The signal is clear. The mainstream response has been anything but. 

 

Anthony Painter is author of the new Policy Network/Barrow Cadbury Trust report Democratic stress, the populist signal and extremist threat

UKIP leader Nigel Farage at a press conference on March 1, 2013 in Eastleigh, Hampshire. Photograph: Getty Images.

Anthony Painter is a political writer, commentator and researcher. His new book Left Without A Future? is published by Arcadia Books in November.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.