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The humiliation of the populists

Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon have both been undone by democracy.

By Andrew Marr

Political writing has a default mood. A vaporous pessimism, with windily non-specific warnings about the future is, I find, the safest tack. Folks rarely get fired for being too bleak because modern political societies have a constant need for adjustment and warning. In our fallen democratic condition, the grief of recent failure can be intense.

Bland Cassandras are à la mode. But after recent events we must admit the unthinkable: our local systems are working. Parliamentary democracy is redeeming itself.

At Westminster, a rule-breaking populism has been expelled. In Edinburgh, a democracy that was subsiding into a one-party, top-down system with inadequate countervailing forces, is being purged by law. These are two leaders who could hardly be more different and who cordially despise one another, but Boris Johnson in England and Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland both thought they represented an entire people.

[See also: Nicola Sturgeon could lose all that she holds dearest]

What has happened to them is a boon for British book festivals but also, frankly, for British democracy.

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For the thing about populism is that it doesn’t smoothly coexist with parliamentary politics. Johnson’s populist supporters, and the man himself, constantly point to the 14 million votes “he” won, a vast shadowy army at his back, ready for revenge and awaiting their moment. It’s true he had a charismatic, emotional relationship with many new Tory voters who switched from Labour at the last general election. Last year, Jacob Rees-Mogg told BBC Newsnight: “It is my view that we have moved, for better or worse, to an essentially presidential system.”

This leads directly to the charge that El Presidente was brought down by an undemocratic coup, kangaroo court, witch hunt, or establishment plot. In the ahistorical, imported online media environment in which we now live, this kind of nonsense can be taken seriously. It’s worth calling out. We don’t live in a system of presidential elections, or plebiscites, but in a long-tested and flexible parliamentary democracy.

This means not one conscience alone, but hundreds of consciences, and an endless stodgy conversation which depends on norms, reason and the truth. Johnson fell because he lied: because MPs, including Conservative MPs, discovered that he lied and that he didn’t care – and they couldn’t stand it. He tried to put his father into the House of Lords. The Prime Minister said “no”. Michael Howard, the former Tory leader, told me that Johnson had lied about those exchanges too. ¡Basta! Enough. God knows it has its flaws – but this is a parliament working.

One day, Tory England, you might face a left-wing government, which overrode the courts, curtailed civil and media liberties, and imposed draconian retrospective taxation. You’d be screaming for parliamentary democracy then. Today, the Johnson ultras are playing with fire.

Watch: Andrew Marr explains why the humiliation of the populists means democracy is working

[See also: Boris Johnson won’t be back]

Populism has also evolved a distinct modern style. Silvio Berlusconi, who died on 12 June, set the unmistakeable tone of Big Daddy media populism in Italy. He built a television empire draped in female flesh and football before he went into politics. Donald Trump, another deal-maker and TV star, looked on and learned. The gap between his “pussy-grabbing” and Silvio’s “bunga bunga” parties isn’t that big.

Boris Johnson, meanwhile, interviewed Berlusconi for the Spectator in 2003 in Sardinia. It was love. “We were trying only to judge whether he was on balance a good thing. Our answer… is an unambiguous yes. It is hard not to be charmed by a man who… will crack jokes at important EU gatherings, not only about Nazi camp commandants but also about whether or not his wife is running off with someone else.”

And much more. You get the picture. Can you think of anyone who has less of that style than Nicola Sturgeon, creator of Scotland’s cool and achingly modern matriarchy? But populism comes with different strokes for different folks. The original sin of populism isn’t misogyny but division. If you’re not with us, you’re not a patriotic Brit, or a real American, or an authentic Magyar, or a proper Scot. And that’s dangerous because once you “other” your opponents, then the reasons to stick by commonly agreed rules and norms begin to shrivel.

In the case of the SNP, an assumption of absolute virtue and absolute contempt for unionists led to a suffocating belief that “we can do no wrong”. Civil society and the civil service both twisted to face the New Virtue in Scotland. Those who weren’t compliant enough, externally or inside the party, were deftly elbowed aside. This left a worryingly small, increasingly assured and essentially self-policing core.

Which isn’t, again, a uniquely Scottish problem. The same thing happens anywhere under the rule of one party for a long time, particularly if that party arrogates to itself national identity and destiny. For anyone who believes in plural democracy, the push-back by the Scottish police and by internal SNP critics is as reassuring as the quiet courage of Conservative MPs on the Commons Privileges Committee. It’s the system, however ill, eventually pushing back.

[See also: It’s time for Rishi Sunak to get ruthless with Boris Johnson]

But politics never stops. One day there will be more populists and the way the cards have fallen makes it likelier that Keir Starmer will be the next prime minister, probably with an overall majority. And that, in turn, will confront him with huge and difficult choices. Will Starmer, if elected, try to get Britain back after all into the European Union? Every instinct I have says no.

But what of voting reform? This is a more interesting proposition. If Starmer was able to bring together the large but long-separated Liberal and Labour traditions, he could make 2024 not the moment of another, possibly short-lived, Labour interruption in British politics but the beginning of a long, left-liberal hegemony, as long-lasting as the Conservative one has been.

At last September’s party conference, Labour voted strongly to introduce a proportional voting system during the first term of the next Labour government. With at least 140 local parties backing it, this was the most popular issue. Crucially, the big unions – which always used to squash voting reform – changed their minds; both Unite and Unison, accounting for more than half of union conference votes, are now pro-PR. Polling suggests more than 60 per cent of Labour voters and more than 70 per cent of party members back the change; in parliament at least a third of Labour MPs do as well.

So, for Starmer, this might appear a slam-dunk. His relations with the Liberal Democrats are good enough. How good? A first test will be the three by-elections coming up this summer as a result of Johnson’s departure from parliamentary politics.

Unsurprisingly, the Lib Dems have been moving fast. Rhiannon Leaman, Ed Davey’s chief of staff, who lives in Leighton Buzzard, and Dave McCobb, director of field campaigns, were on the ground quietly scoping Mid Bedfordshire a good week before Nadine Dorries announced her resignation as an MP. Although Dorries had a 24,000 majority over Labour in 2019, with the Lib Dems in third place, by-elections are different beasts. The Lib Dems have concluded that too few disappointed Tories would defect straight to Labour, but that Mid Bedfordshire is just the kind of “Blue Wall” seat they can take.

In covert conversations, nobody is suggesting that either side fails to put up candidates; rather that the two centre-left parties expend most of the energy and money where they are likeliest to win. Lib Dems argue that if Keir Starmer’s party lost Mid Beds that would be a big blow for the Labour narrative; whereas if this happened to them, it would be greeted with a general shrug.

[See also: The Conservatives must finally move on from Boris Johnson]

Labour have had their own teams flat out in Uxbridge (where Boris Johnson was MP) and Mid Beds – and in Selby and Ainsty, whose Conservative MP Nigel Adams has also stood down. Selby looks almost as safe as any Tory seat could be, and Adams had a 60 per cent share of the vote at the last election. But his seat is being redistributed in a way that helps Labour and it has become one of its less obvious targets: the party will fight very hard here.

Team Starmer is not rejecting Lib Dem overtures outright. Though neither party will admit that conversations are taking place, both emphasise the existence of a left-liberal majority across the United Kingdom that has so far been suppressed.

Again, all this might seem obvious and easy for Starmer. He certainly has the ruthlessness necessary to make a move as big as publicly converting to PR. It would be hugely popular in the party and would answer the question about how radical, given the fiscal restraints, he can be.

He knows that changing the voting system would mean the breakaway of a modest number of hardcore socialist radicals. He could live with that. Indeed, it might make his life as prime minister easier. He also knows, surely, that it would splinter the Conservatives much more damagingly; Nigel Farage’s come-hither wooing of Boris Johnson has already begun. The end result, if Starmer is bold enough, could indeed be the securing of a moderate, liberal, centre-left political establishment – although at the price of admitting more extreme politics at either edge (under PR, Farage’s Ukip would have won more than 80 seats at the 2015 general election). 

His biggest problem is still how to get there. Another referendum – this time on PR – would revive, even energise, the right-wing English populism which has taken such a knock in recent days. It would soak up the energy of the first period of a Starmer government and if lost, hammer its authority. So, the promise would have to be inserted in the manifestos. But would that turn off wavering once-Tory voters? As the Johnsonian politics of fixes and dodges fades from the scene and parliament regains authority, that is the giant conundrum facing Starmer and Labour this summer.

[See also: Boris Johnson statement is an insult to everyone]

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Over and Out