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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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