How Labour can counter the populist threat

The party should radically devolve power and budgets to bridge the gap between "representative" and "responsible" government.

Ed Miliband’s determination to end "machine politics" and reenergise representative party politics comes at a time when the UK’s established democratic system is showing signs of distress: from the movements for Scottish independence and the UK to leave the European Union, to UKIP’s steady rise and the electoral abstention of large swathes of working class and young voters. Political parties like Labour find it increasingly difficult to represent the people that elect them as well as govern responsibly in an era of increasing complexity.

The late political scientist Peter Mair documented this dilemma as that of an acutely growing gap between "representative" and "responsible" government, predicting that it would be one of the principal sources of democratic malaise that confront western democracies. Traditional political parties were once more representative, giving them the legitimacy to govern responsibly on behalf of a given electoral constituency. However, structural changes and growing complexity – globalisation, European integration, the rise of technocracy – have moved parties on from their representative role, enhancing, or forcing them to enhance, their responsible governing role. This refers to the process of being prudent and consistent in government, as well as being accountable and conforming to external constraints and legacies.

Mair’s key point is that demands for "responsiveness" and "responsibility" are increasingly at odds with one another, and parties’ capacity to reconcile this tension has been undermined by their "professionalisation" and resulting decline as representative organisations. Populists have been quick to capitalise on this, positioning themselves as the "tribunes of the people".

So how do mainstream parties square this need for complex governing structures and the simultaneous demand for a sense of simplicity, belonging and engagement – the need for cold technocratic speak and emotive "popular" story telling? Two areas for improving representational politics in the UK should be explored and driven-forward.

The first is the devolution of power and a more fiscally federal model for the UK – one of the most centralised states in the OECD.  The coalition’s City Deals are a start, but a Labour government can go much further in giving city-regions and local actors the tools and incentives to shape their affairs and tackle regional and sectoral imbalances in the UK economy. The recent Centre for Cities report highlighted the overwhelming dominance of London. Is it a coincidence that the cities of Belfast and Cardiff come first and second in a league table of successful city regions in the recession? Devolution deals with the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies appear to have incentivised dynamic collaboration between businesses, universities and devolved government. Scotland is also pushing for more movement in this direction (Edinburgh was second to London in creating private sector jobs), along with England’s core cities and key cities.  

This territory is interesting when applied to the populist phenomenon – as well as countering some of the socio-economic drivers of populism, an agenda which gives voice and levers to local communities and cities also can have significant political and cultural benefits.

The second area is a new politics of institutional creation and reform. The traditional political party is dying – literally. Politics thus needs to find new ways of opening up and engaging with people. This covers giving people greater say in choosing their democratic representatives, rebalancing the scale of career versus non-career politicians, and opening the door to more civilised and consensual politics. But it also goes much further: individualism, consumerism and immigration have all eroded solidaristic models of the past. As Matthew Taylor argues, the starting point must not be on applying emergency treatment to a broken model, but on "supporting a new set of institutions from the bottom-up to tap into the emergent individualism of Europe’s people, particularly the young…This individualism largely rejects hierarchical paternalism and mass solidarity in favour of a philosophy of self-help and social enterprise underpinned by fast forming and reforming networks of interest."

This point is consolidated by Moisés Naím’s analysis on the increasingly hamstrung nature of top-down legislative power: he points out that in 30 of the 34 countries of the OECD, the head of state is opposed by a parliament controlled by the opposition.

The rise of populism can be seen as a corrective if political parties see it as a signal to  bridge the gap between "representative" and "responsible" government.  Indeed an important question, which goes to the heart of this dilemma, is whether such reforms to strengthen the responsiveness of policymaking would actually lead to a healthier and better democracy.

These questions are further complicated by the extremely low standing of elites and the bankruptcy of economic orthodoxy which prevailed over the last three decades. As Tim Bale writes, centre-left parties like Labour have the difficult task of finding a "penchant for populism" on the economy to gain a hearing and win elections. This needs to be balanced with the rebuilding of credibility and reputation for economic competence as well as a programme for governing responsibly. There also needs to be a concerted recognition of the non-economic or political drivers of populism: with politicians developing responses to popular concerns over culture, identity and community in an age of increasing insecurity.

All in all rising levels of democratic stress and the changing nature of power structures look unlikely to be kind to parties and elite institutions that stand still. Ignoring the populist signal is a dangerous game. 

Michael McTernan and Claudia Chwalisz lead the new Policy Network and Barrow Cadbury Trust project on ‘Understanding the Populist Signal’. The project will look at political renewal in populist times. The first event will be held in London on 6 February 

Nigel Farage canvasses for UKIP's local candidate Glyn Wright in Salford on September 30, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.