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

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