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.

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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.