Populism – characterised by an appeal to the masses against elite institutions – has found fertile ground recently. The frenzied subprime lending of banks illuminated just how reckless, and in some cases just how corrupt some of the most powerful individuals are in Britain. The appeal of UKIP instills fear in both the left and right, because its lure comes less from a deep seated Euroscepticism and more from its audacious challenge to an unpopular establishment. Nigel Farage’s policies, particularly on immigration, are seen as a direct challenge to the position of the ‘liberal elite’.
With these issues in mind, at a Fabian Fringe event during the Labour party Conference, David Lammy MP, Sadiq Khan MP, Zoe Williams, Evan Harris and Sunder Katwala shared their perspectives on the question: “What is the answer to Populism?”
Ultimately there was a recognition that the ‘political class’ itself had to change.
According to a recent Ipsos MORI poll just 6% believe that MPs put their country first. In addition a Policy Exchange poll in 2010 showed that 81% of the population believed “Politicians don’t understand the real world at all.”
Trends in party membership are an equally damning indictment. In the 1950’s party membership of the Conservative party was put as high as 2.8 million, now according to ConservativeHome the Tories claim merely 134,000. In 1952 and 1953 the Labour party claimed over a million members, where as of December 2011 membership was about 193,000. If the ‘political class’ has to change, the question is how?
Many prescriptions are long term in nature. For example, a genuinely representative commons would require greater social mobility. But in the meantime, David Lammy suggested that we needed to be ‘radical’ in how we select genuinely representative parliamentary candidates.
I would add that the mannerisms of politicians have become unnatural and frustrating to watch. Farage’s ‘cheeky chappy’ style is seen as a refreshing change to the perceived stuffiness of Westminster. Politicians being more honest and taking at least some responsibility would signify a greater strength than evading questions and using spin, both of which are unconvincing anyhow.
And the playground inspired ‘Punch and Judy’ mudslinging that characterises PMQ’s and other public clashes is a turn-off for most ordinary people – it should be replaced with more constructive and respectful dialogue.
At the same time, the answer to populism in some instances can be to harness it. People are rightly indignant about an unfair and broken economy, and a politics which fails to resonate with them. Populism can be part of the political solution because it addresses people’s legitimate concerns.
What frustrated many in the Labour ranks about Ed Miliband’s leadership is that this open goal went passing for too long, conceding ground to UKIP. However in the leadership speech, noise about standing up to ‘vested interests’ was backed up by action – most notably in the pledge to freeze energy bills.
This approach can win enormous political capital for Labour, and ensure that the right wing cannot monopolise the spoils of populism.