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Democracy distorted

To fight Boris Johnson’s populism, progressive politics needs to offer an alternative to “the people” and “the enemies of the people”. 

It was the harrowing of the North: the Ragnarök of Remain, when the waters closed over the progressive forces of British politics. As Labour’s “red wall” crumbled and its citadels burned, the 2019 election became a night of endings: of the Corbyn project; of Britain’s membership of the European Union; and of the Liberal Democrats’ dream that they could break the mould of British politics. Among the former Conservatives who ran as independents or for other parties, not one returned to parliament. Of the Independent Group for Change, none survived the slaughter.

For the shattered forces of the left, a “period of reflection” lies ahead. That process should be unsparing of those who have brought the left to this pass – some of whom might gently be reminded that reflection is an activity that starts from self-criticism, not something to be admired in front of the mirror. But the analysis should not be wholly inward-looking. Boris Johnson was able to draw on two forces that pose a fundamental challenge to progressive politics: the dark energies of populism, and the distorting effects of our electoral system. Tackling both should be central to a renewed progressive offer.

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Populism is not an ideology, unlike socialism or liberalism. It is not defined by particular issues, unlike the Green Party or the Brexit Party. It is not simply the pursuit of popularity, and it does not sit neatly on a right-left spectrum.

Populism is an authoritarian vision of democracy, which claims a monopoly on “the will of the people”. Populists divide the world into two camps: “the people” – a homogeneous bloc of opinion, for whom they claim to speak – and “the enemies of the people”, drawn from a list that might include politicians, judges, Brussels, “the establishment”, separatists or the BBC. For populists, “the will of the people” is not something worked out in negotiation between different voices and viewpoints. It is a single intelligence, issuing instructions to its representatives that must be obeyed without question. Populism casts dissent as sabotage and opposition as treason. It regards checks on its authority as an offence against democracy, whether from parliaments, the courts or unsympathetic media.

Across the world, populists have used that vision to corrode democratic norms. From Hungary to India to Brazil, insurgent parties have challenged the independence of the judiciary, rolled back the freedom of the press and claimed popular mandates to undermine their political opponents. In the United States – the world’s flagship democracy – the president has denounced the courts, smeared his opponents and waged open war on the independent media. He called for one opponent to be locked up and has tried to blackmail a foreign state into subverting another rival.

In Britain, the populist assault found a gateway in the tabloids, which cast politicians as “traitors”, civil servants as “saboteurs” and judges as “enemies of the people”. With the rise of Boris Johnson, it moved decisively into the corridors of power. From the moment he took office in July, Johnson posed as the champion of “the people” against their enemies in parliament. A man who had twice voted down Theresa May’s Brexit agreement now blamed parliament for “sabotaging the negotiations”. “The people of this country,” he declared, “know that parliament does not want to honour its promises… the people at home know that this parliament will keep delaying.” It was time for MPs to “move aside and let the people have their say”.

That assault on parliament, in the name of “the people”, formed the atomic core of Johnson’s government. The Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, anathematised the House of Commons as “a dead parliament” with “no moral right to sit”: a parliament that had tried “to block 17.4 million votes”. “Downing Street Sources” boasted of ignoring parliamentary votes, defying legislation and even reviving the royal veto – while their myrmidons in the press shook their spears and cheered. A columnist in the Daily Mail told readers that “when leaders represent the will of the people – and the laws they are breaking are illegitimate or undemocratic – violating them is nearly
always justified in retrospect”.

All this culminated – just three months ago – in the unlawful suspension of parliament. The significance of that event can hardly be overstated. A prime minister was found by the courts to have made unlawful use of the royal prerogative to shut down our democratic institutions. That would once have ended his career. Yet when Johnson returned to the Commons, after the courts had forced its recall, his supporters rose to their feet and cheered.

In the election campaign that followed, Johnson became perhaps the first prime minister since the 18th century to run against parliament, rather than the opposing party. MPs, claimed the Conservative manifesto, had “devoted themselves to thwarting the democratic decision of the British people”. Having tweeted (falsely) that Johnson’s deal had “passed parliament”, the Tory party pivoted swiftly to the opposite position: that parliament had “blocked Brexit” and obstructed “the people’s priorities”. In pursuit of that claim, it doctored news footage, disguised its Twitter feed as a fact-checking site, and posted adverts that were so dishonest even Facebook refused to run them.

The tragedy of all this is that it succeeded. A strategy based on trashing parliament, threatening broadcasters and corrupting public debate won for the Conservatives their biggest majority in a generation. That discovery may do more lasting damage than any legislation in the next five years.

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For the first time since the early Nineties, the Conservatives have a secure majority in parliament. In the short term, that is likely to dull their hostility to the institution. Eurosceptics may even rediscover their enthusiasm for “the sovereignty of parliament” now its composition is again to their liking. But a party once dedicated to Britain’s ancient institutions now judges them by a higher standard: their fealty to “the will of the people”, as interpreted by the party. A hung parliament, or one less pliable than at present, will feel the lash again.

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In the meantime, other institutions stand in the firing line. An ominous passage in the Conservative manifesto promised “to restore trust in our institutions” by reviewing “the broader aspects of our constitution”. That review would cover “the relationship between the government, parliament and the courts”; “the functioning of the royal prerogative”; “the role of the House of Lords”; and the “abuse” of judicial review “to conduct politics by another means”. A new voter ID law will suppress turnout among poorer and minority voters, distorting representation far more than the tiny level of voter fraud it is supposed to combat.

Supportive media will be rewarded: the second part of the Leveson Inquiry on relations between the police and the tabloid press has already been cancelled. Critical outlets face a harsher climate. The BBC will be threatened with the loss of the licence fee and have restricted access to ministers. Channel 4, which won the Daily News Programme of the Year Award at the 2019 Royal Television Society awards, now faces a review of its broadcasting remit after riling the government during the election campaign.

If the progressive forces in British politics are to rebuild, they must challenge not only Johnson’s policies, but the authoritarian populism that underpins them: a populism that turns “the will of the people” against our democratic institutions. They cannot do that by embracing a milk-and-water populism of their own, based on hostility to “the media”, the crushing of internal enemies and increasingly hollow claims to represent “the many” against “the few”. As Labour has amply demonstrated, an unpopular populism is not a route back to government. If Labour can no longer hold together its historic coalition, it will need to relearn a politics that is pluralist, dialogic and respectful of difference. It will have to get better at working across party lines, and stop treating smaller parties as poachers on its electoral estates. That will require a step change in its political culture, and a willingness to look afresh at our archaic electoral system.

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Britain has long been saddled with a voting system that treats millions of votes as worthless, shuts out challenger parties and produces perversely undemocratic outcomes. In 1983, the SDP-Liberal Alliance won more than a quarter of the popular vote, coming just 2 per cent behind the Labour Party. Yet it won only 23 seats, compared to 209 for Labour. In 2015, Ukip won nearly four million votes, while returning just a single MP. In 2019, the Liberal Democrats won three times as many votes as the Scottish National Party, yet the SNP holds 48 seats to the Lib Dems’ 11. Sinn Féin secured seven seats with 180,000 votes, while the Greens held just one with nearly five times that number.

Yet first past the post is no longer merely a flawed means of recording preferences. With the rise of tactical voting, it has become one of the central forces dictating voter behaviour, as people struggle to cast their ballots in ways that might counteract its effects. On all sides of the Brexit divide, voters were asked to back parties they disliked to stop parties they deplored, in a bid to undo the effects of the electoral system. As election day approached, candidates came under pressure to stand down altogether, in order to concentrate the Remain or Leave vote. The electoral logic was obvious, but it expressed a troubling principle: that voters should not just be advised to vote tactically, but should be compelled to do so – deprived of the opportunity to vote as they wished. In a democratic society, this is a slender thread on which to hang popular consent.

It used to be said that first past the post provided stable government, constrained the extremes and forced parties to compromise, building broad coalitions of voters that covered a wide spectrum of opinion. That has long ceased to be true. Today, as member-led parties tack to the extremes and drive out dissenting voices, it is the electorate that is expected to compromise, by picking the least objectionable party with a hope of winning.

By inflating the representation of the largest parties, and shutting out minority voices, first past the post legitimises the core claim of populism: that single fragments of opinion can speak for “the people”. Boris Johnson’s self-styled “people’s government” commands an unchallengeable majority at Westminster on just 44 per cent of the vote. The SNP, which styles itself as “Scotland’s voice”, captured more than 80 per cent of Scottish seats on 45 per cent of the ballot, leaving unionism in Scotland almost entirely unrepresented.

The result is a parliament that locks out great swathes of opinion. In the year of the climate emergency, the Green Party returned one MP out of 650. Labour Leavers and Tory Remainers might as well not exist. If parliament is supposed to be “a mirror of the nation” – a place where the country, in all its diversity of opinion, comes together to “parley” – the current version falls far short of the ideal.

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The 2019 election was a disaster, not only for the Labour Party and the advocates of a further European referendum, but for a model of democracy that is pluralist, discursive and respectful of difference. The challenge for the progressive forces of British politics is not simply to rebuild their electoral fortunes, but to roll back a distorted vision of democracy: one that makes “the people” a bludgeon with which to silence opposition; that makes a desert of minority opinion, and calls it unity.

Populism will not be defeated by its own weapons: whether that’s a rhetoric that casts its own supporters as “the people”, waging holy war on their “enemies” in “the elite”, or an electoral system in which “the winner takes all”. Progressives must commit themselves instead to a democratic pluralism that celebrates the glorious cacophony of public opinion: that refuses to shrink the boundaries of “the people” to its own party faithful. That requires change both to the culture and institutions of British politics. It is a much harder task than electing a new leader or waiting for Brexit to “end”. But without it, more defeats lie ahead: not just for the left, but for the values it seeks to express.

Robert Saunders is reader in British history at Queen Mary, University of London and author of “Yes to Europe! The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain” (Cambridge University Press)

Robert Saunders teaches history at Queen Mary University of London. His most recent book is Yes to Europe! The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain

This article appears in the 20 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning