If Labour is to recover from its disastrous defeat, it has to pay much greater attention to the forces of disengagement and alienation that are imperilling UK democracy and politics. Disillusionment with the political system has never been more damaging to the centre-left cause. Much attention has recently focused on the threat posed by the rise of the UK Independence Party. Ukip have not yet won a seat from Labour, but they are now in second place in dozens of ‘heartland’ Labour constituencies across Northern England and the Midlands. Understanding exactly why voters have drifted from a party of the traditional left to a party of the populist right will be crucial for Labour’s electoral recovery.
According to polling carried out by IpsosMORI for Policy Network, voters have defected to Ukip because they have manifestly lost faith in the conventional political system. Political disaffection is, of course, widespread in contemporary Britain. According to our survey, only one in 10 people believe politicians ‘are out to do the best for their country’. Half of all voters think politicians are merely out for themselves. However, among Ukip voters, the figures are worse: just three per cent trust politicians’ motives; seven out of 10 believe politicians are brazenly pursuing their own interests. Ukip supporters, as well as SNP voters, are far more likely to worry that their voice doesn’t count in the decisions taken by local politicians: 61 per cent and 57 per cent, as against 38 per cent and 35 per cent among Conservative and Labour voters. 70 per cent of those who back Ukip believe they have little influence over national politicians; among Green voters, this figure rises to 80 per cent. Meanwhile, 83 per cent of Ukip voters believe the system of governing in Britain requires radical improvement and reform.
This indicates that the role of political disengagement in driving Ukip support has been understated in much political commentary. The left have tended to blame economic factors for Ukip’s rapid rise, notably increasing employment insecurity and downward pressure on living standards in the face of rapid globalisation, exposure to the European single market, and of course, rapid inward migration. The right, on the other hand, have focused on cultural identity as an explanation for the defection of mainstream voters. The liberal cosmopolitan mind-set of the ruling political elite and their refusal to acknowledge the importance of the nation and patriotism to citizen’s identity has insidiously chipped away at support for the established parties. Of course, economics and culture are inevitably intertwined, while neither account fully recognises the extent of alienation from the political system, a key driver of Ukip’s insurgency.
Clearly, it would be churlish to dismiss the role of economic forces in the wake of the 2007-8 financial crash. Disengagement reflects a broader failure of the major political parties to evolve a new economic model in the aftermath of the crisis. All successful governing projects since the Second World War have offered voters the promise of economic security combined with rising material affluence: this was so for post-war corporatism, for Thatcherism (albeit accompanied by disruptive liberal reforms) and eventually, for New Labour. Today, however, no coherent programme is on offer, creating a seismic vacuum in political ideas. However, alienation cannot merely result from parties no longer delivering the ‘bread and butter’ of secure, well paid jobs, rising material living standards and increased personal consumption. Something is rotten at the heart of British democracy and politics itself.
To regain the initiative, parties like Labour will have to fashion a genuinely new politics, a theme so far absent from the party’s leadership debate. Labour has a particular responsibility given the electoral decimation of the Liberal Democrats in 2015: if Labour does not speak up for political reform, for constitutionalism, and for civil liberties – then who will? But it is also in Labour’s electoral self-interest to win back disgruntled Ukip voters. Policy Network’s recent study, ‘The Populist Signal: Why politics and democracy need to change’ by Claudia Chwalisz indicates the potential for democratic redesign and institutional renovation. This is not about more tinkering with political structures in Whitehall and Westminster, but enabling citizens to play a meaningful role in the governing process, while at the same time radically devolving power. Giving people a stake in decision-making is often dismissed as pandering to the affluent chattering classes. However, according to Policy Network’s poll, up to 70 per cent of Ukip voters would be prepared to participate in a local citizens’ assembly. 54 per cent want to take part directly in a constitutional convention to consider the future of UK democracy. Elsewhere in the industrialised world, governments are experimenting with new forms of democratic involvement from citizen’s juries and community assemblies, to the random selection of local political representatives.
The world is making the transition from an age of representative democracy to an age of participatory democracy. The process is uneven and at times unleashes contradictory forces, but the direction of travel is unmistakable. The left in Britain must ensure it is on the right side of history. In the wake of its terrible defeat in May, the party would do well to remember that titan of the post-war Labour government, Aneurin Bevan’s, immortal phrase: ‘The purpose of getting power is to be able to give it away’.
Patrick Diamond is a lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London and a former adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Policy Network’s report is ‘The Populist Signal: Why politics and democracy need to change‘ by Claudia Chwalisz.