That contemporary democracies are increasingly characterised by popular disaffection towards political elites has been widely noted now for a number of years. But the impact of this disaffection has changed. Whilst it was relatively benign and passive before the global economy entered its long period of crisis and stagnation in 2007-2008, the urgency of economic crisis and the severity of austerity politics are now combining to prompt new patterns of political dissent. This includes: increasingly visible signs of popular opposition to government policy and the political elite more generally; the failure by centre-left parties to capitalise electorally on these signs of opposition, which they might have otherwise been expected to do; and an apparent increase in voting intentions for parties of both the radical left and right. As a result, most polls indicate that the 2014 European parliament elections will see parties of the radical right and left increase their share of votes and seats, with an associated drop in support for both the centre-left and centre-right.
Academic research into this topic has tended to agree that people are showing growing signs of political disaffection. The most commonly observed trend is a decline in voter turnout, but also included is declining party membership, declining party identification, and declining trust of citizens in political institutions. In trying to understand these trends, the recent results of a YouGov poll conducted for Fabian Review suggested that one of the main reasons for non-voting was a disconnect between the culture of the popular classes and that of the political elite. Whilst not necessarily rejecting the notion that cultural differences are to blame for the lack of popular engagement with contemporary politics, most academic studies tend instead to focus on more long-term socio-economic and political explanations. These include developments which have reduced the scope for political choice and therefore rendered voting less important, including globalisation, lower economic growth and a neoliberal consensus. It also reflects changing expectations amongst an electorate that is no longer satisfied by a political system in which participation is limited to infrequent voting for political parties and their pre-formulated manifestos. Alongside these trends commentators also point out a parallel rise in ‘innovative’ forms of political participation, in which participation extends beyond the formal sphere of parliamentary politics. This includes petition-signing, attendance at demonstrations, as well as more direct action-type activities such as occupations, banner drops, blockades or media stunts. What observers tend to agree is that, whilst we might have witnessed a decline in popular trust in the political class, this does not necessarily reflect a wider disinterest in politics. The issue is with established channels of representation – and the fact that they do not appear to be doing their job of representation – leading to both a decline in voting and a rise in ‘extra-parliamentary’ forms of political participation.
The global economic crisis appears to have exacerbated these trends. Most obviously, this is the case with the indignados of southern Europe, large public demonstrations in squares such as that witnessed in Syntagma Square in Athens, the ‘Uncut’ movement in the UK, and the Occupy movement of the global north. What is perhaps novel about the post-2007/8 period, at least from the perspective of the formal sphere of politics, is the way in which these processes appear to have developed into a rise of protest votes and a polarisation of party systems. In the case of Greece, where these trends are perhaps most clearly evident, we see Syriza and Golden Dawn with a combined total of 89 seats (out of 300) in the most recent Greek general election in 2012. This is despite Syriza gaining only 14 seats in 2007, and Golden Dawn holding no seats at all. At the same time, the Greek centre-left party, PASOK, has seen its share of seats collapse – from 102 in 2007 (rising to 160 in 2009), to just 33 seats in the most recent 2012 election (the vote share dropped from 38 per cent to just 12 per cent). This is despite the fact that PASOK has been a clear natural party of office for much of the past four decades, being in government for 24 of the 33 years since 1981. Most of the predictions for the forthcoming European parliamentary elections indicate that these trends are likely to be seen across the EU, with a considerable fall in support likely for the centre-left and centre-right parties, alongside an unprecedented rise in the share of the votes for both the radical right and left.
How should political parties respond to each of these trends? How can parties re-engage with the electorate? Can we expect parties of the centre-left to re-connect with the electorate in such a way that a new, electable, progressive social coalition could be assembled?
Perhaps before we answer these questions we need to think in a little more depth about why these trends are happening. As already noted, this might be a question of the representative political elite having a detached political culture, but it would seem that this detachment exists for a reason. It may be that the electorate might be right in thinking that the political class have nothing else left to offer. Alongside globalisation and three decades of neoliberal ideology (which espouses the importance of ‘letting the market decide’), there is an overwhelming sense that the governments of most advanced industrial democracies have now simply run out of financial options, other than reducing spending and imposing austerity measures. Faced with such a context, would it not make sense for the political elite to actively construct a culture of political disengagement, to ensure insulation from an increasingly mobilised and discontented society? We might expect the political elite to construct a common sense that ‘there is no alternative’ to balancing budgets.
Indeed, given that the political class routinely proclaim the importance of increased democratic and political engagement, it is remarkable how infrequently this translates into more concrete moves towards actively encouraging those new forms of political participation, as they emerge. This seems to suggest that there is a lack of genuine desire to see innovative forms of political engagement gather real momentum. See, for instance, the lack of any substantive political opposition by the Labour party leadership to the convictions of the UK Uncut protesters following their brief and peaceful occupation of Fortnum & Mason. The immediate reason for this lack of visible support for more genuine political engagement could have been the perception amongst the Labour party leadership that this would very quickly be tainted as ‘radical’ or ‘returning to 1979’ by the right-wing press. But it would also appear that most of the Labour party buys into the idea that there should be a more minimal form of democratic participation – hence the use of focus groups, targeting of the median voter, and distancing from the trade unions. This can perhaps in turn be explained in terms of the reduced range of feasible policy options created by the lack of economic growth and rising public debt – a context in which meeting more substantive demands would be too costly and therefore unachievable. In this context, a demobilised population might well be considered politically convenient.
We see similar trends with regard to the views of the European political elite, and especially the centre-left political elite, regarding the European Union. It continues to be the case that decision-making authority is passed to the institutions of the European Union, despite its arcane and opaque nature, and the even greater levels of disconnection from the electorate than we see in national politics. Seemingly, the political elite would largely prefer to shift decision-making to the EU forum, because that is so much more isolated from political pressure than the national sphere – and in doing so it is easier to ensure that austerity and pro-market policies are the order of the day.
So, then, the more pertinent question than how can political parties respond might be: how can they respond in a more progressive way? How can they respond in a way that does not effectively constitute an attempt to silence and exclude?
Social democratic parties might look to Latin America for examples of experimentation by parties of the left. Here the most obvious differences to social democratic parties in Europe are the much more dynamic connection between parliamentary left parties and grassroots social movements. Whereas social democratic parties in Europe have lacked any meaningful engagement with many of the new social movements, and sometimes adopted a position of outright opposition to their natural allies such as the trade unions, Latin America’s so-called ‘pink tide’ has instead witnessed innovative experiments in re-connecting the political elite with grassroots initiatives. In the process they are creating new experiments in ‘radical social democracy’ and reinventing the left and social democracy ‘from below’. This is especially so in the case of Venezuela under Hugo Chávez, Bolivia under Evo Morales, and Ecuador under Rafael Correa. This has seen, for instance, innovative partnerships between social movements and parties of the left over water sector reforms. We have also seen in Venezuela under Chávez the development of Consejos Comunales that provided for a ‘localised social democracy’, in which, as Sara Motta writes, “the management and organisation of local community development are not undertaken by a technocratic or political elite but rather through a partnership between local community and state officials”. Even in some of the more moderate social democratic governments that form part of the ‘pink tide’, moreover, we witness a strong connection between social movements and political parties. For instance, in Brazil the election of Lula’s Partido dos Trabalhadores in 2002 was in part based on its relationship with the MST (Landless Workers’ Movement), albeit a relationship that over time became more problematic as the PT sought to contain the more radical elements of the MST.
But this prompts a final question, of whether political elites want to reconnect with social movements in order to form a new progressive alliance? We often see social democratic parties act indifferently or even to repress new social movements that have mobilised across Europe in recent decades. This stands in contrast to the experiments in radical social democracy witnessed in Latin America, which as Steve Ellner points out, showed a willingness to support and seek out social conflict. This approach, says Ellner, resulted in radical social democratic candidates in each of these three countries winning referendums, elections and recall elections with sizable majorities (sometimes over 60 per cent). In contrast, recent research that I have conducted has highlighted how social democratic parties have been less than willing to embrace those innovative forms of social mobilisation and dissent that have emerged since the global economic crisis. In response to the occupation to prevent the closure of the Vestas environmentally-friendly wind turbine factory in 2009, for instance, the leadership of the Labour party made no public comment at all. Similarly, in response to the so-called ‘Blockupy’ protests focused on the European Central Bank in 2012, the German SPD issued only one reported statement, focusing on the banning of the protest and saying little on the actual claims being made by the protest movement.
If we are to see a more constructive engagement between newer social movements and social democratic parties across Europe, then we will also need to first see social democratic parties adopt a much more explicitly positive attitude towards contemporary expressions of dissent. That this does not appear, at least at present, to be forthcoming might be one of the problems. In short, parties need to let go and embrace the democratic energy outside of formal politics if they are to reconnect and beat the populist challenge. The question remains whether current party leaders feel either able or willing to enter into a process that is both more risky (as it would imply a loosening of their control of the party machine) and represent a dispersal of power away from the party leadership (and therefore represent the wilful ceding of power by those who have made a career out of accruing it). Alternatively, it might be more realistic to focus on attempts to directly build that democratic energy, as it develops outside of formal politics itself.