Will our tarnished democracy be enough to face future challenges? Photo: Getty
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Democratic crisis: how do we stem the remorseless rise of nationalists and populists?

Bleak prospects.

Perhaps most revealing about the Twitter affair that engulfed Emily Thornberry MP were the comments of the White Van Man himself, Dan Ware. He is reported to have told journalists that he wasn’t aware that there was a by-election going on in Rochester and Strood, and that he would not have voted even if he had known. In the past he had been a Conservative voter, but now he had joined those who see no point in voting. As he put it: "No matter who you have, it doesn’t matter".  

British politics is passing through a very strange period. There have been many scandals in the past about individual politicians from John Profumo to John Stonehouse to Jeffrey Archer. But the current scandals go beyond the individuals involved.

The release of the facts about MPs’ expenses, even though a majority of MPs were shown to have done nothing wrong, followed by the shocking revelations about Jimmy Savile and his friends in high places, has deepened cynicism about those in public life and led to wild rumours of conspiracies and cover-ups.

The perception that many public figures are self-serving has grown, feeding the widely held view that those who govern us now form a distinct political class which has become separated from those it governs.

As trust and legitimacy have declined, so a crisis of representation has developed. Both established UK parties have been losing support, their leaders have had negative ratings since 2010, their combined share of the vote has dropped from over 95 per cent in 1951 to 65 per cent in 2010.

Party membership is in steep decline, and ageing. Less than 1 per cent of British voters now belong to a political party. The political class has also come to be recruited from a narrower set of occupations. Only 4 per cent of current MPs are from manual working class backgrounds and more MPs have worked full-time in politics in one capacity or another since leaving university.     

The parties whose membership is growing, who appear confident and sure of their purpose and who communicate in a much more relaxed and direct way with the electorate are the insurgent parties, the Scottish Nationalists, the Greens and Ukip, all of whom are seeking to overturn the existing party system and to challenge core mainstream policies.

This is a phenomenon not confined to the UK but found in many other parts of Europe, as austerity has worsened in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash. So far none of these parties has broken through and disturbed the consensus over core commitments such as maintaining austerity and membership of the EU, but some are getting closer. A victory of one of these insurgent parties in a major European country can no longer be ruled out.

In the UK, the success of the SNP and Ukip threatens to break apart the two Unions, the British Union which is the basis of the United Kingdom, and the European Union which Britain joined in 1973. Support for both are unravelling, forcing the Westminster political class onto the defensive.

The UK has faced political and constitutional upheaval before, notably in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Those years saw a dramatic reorganisation of the British state, the departure of most of Ireland from the Union and the development of a party system based on mass democracy and the opposition between capital and labour. The heyday of this new order was reached in the Seventies when most of the electorate identified with one of the two great blocs, third parties withered away, governments won by-elections, and party membership and trust in political leaders were both high.

Since then the parties have been using up the moral capital which was built up at that time, reflecting the close identification of both parties with particular but distinct common values, purposes and interests. That identification has been gradually eroded both by the professionalisation of politics as an activity and by the rise of a more issue based and instrumental politics as greater individualisation has taken root.

The Labour and Conservative traditions were slowly hollowed out, and the parties have found it much harder to express a sense of common purpose and common values. In the Scottish Referendum campaign with a few exceptions, most notably Gordon Brown, the Unionist politicians found it hard to voice a positive case for the Union. Their campaign stressed all the negative things that would happen if Scotland voted yes.

Until the old parties start to rethink how parliament should be reformed to represent the people and find language and purpose that resonates once more with voters, the prospects for stemming the crisis of representation and the remorseless rise of the nationalists and the populists seem bleak.

Andrew Gamble, Emeritus Professor of Politics at Cambridge University, was speaking at St Edmund's College as part of The Von Hügel Institute lecture series, ‘Ethical Standards in Public Life’, co-hosted with St Mary's University, Twickenham

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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.