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How Labour can counter the populist threat

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

Nigel Farage canvasses for UKIP's local candidate Glyn Wright in Salford on September 30, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

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