Two cheers for populism


A democracy in which everyone agreed wouldn’t be worthy of the name. Liberal democracies are meant to be – need to be – vibrant, chaotic and awkward. A place where grand differences can be thrashed out. A place where ideas compete, and where people feel their views and interests get a hearing.

Without disagreement, democracies become staid, dull, and ossified. This is the silver lining to last week’s European Election results: the populist surge might jolt our faltering democracy back to life. (Note, for example, that turnout for European elections had fallen every single election since 1979 – until last week, when it increased for the first time).

After all, our precious democracy isn’t exactly in rude health. Over the last thirty years, electoral turnout in the UK has been on a downward trend; only 65 per voted in the 2010 general election – and only 44 per cent of those aged 18-24. Last year’s British Attitudes Survey found that only a third of 16-24 year have an interest in politics, and only half think it’s a duty to vote. A 2008 survey found that 68 per cent of British respondents were either ‘not very’ or ‘not at all’ satisfied with democracy overall.

This is far more worrying than UKIP. Of course, there are reasons to be worried by the growth of populist parties. I’ve written about that here in a major study of right-wing populism I carried out in 2012. After all, the populist spectrum ranges from libertarian right-wing anti-EU parties like UKIP to genuinely racist, dangerous and violent parties like Golden Dawn in Greece (who should not be put in the same brackets as UKIP at all).

And then there is the difficult task of trying to unravel what these parties really believe. Most of them use the language of rescuing free expression, democracy, and self-determination, although their actions sometimes tip into a nastier strain of xenophobia. But these elections were more than the march of the far right: it was a kick in the teeth for the establishment.

While the right scored well – the Front National, UKIP and the Danish People’s Party all topped their respective polls – the left also did well. Podemos in Spain – a brand new party – won 8 per cent of the vote, Syriza came first in Greece, and the Italian comedian blogger Beppe Grillo came second with 21 per cent of the vote.

Of course, both sides have their own discontents. For those of the right, its worries about immigration – both its cultural and economic effects – and the feeling that traditional values are being washed away by political correctness and morally blind multiculturalism. And on the left there is deep anger about EU-driven austerity measures, out of control international finance, and soaring unemployment.

What’s more, each country has its own circumstances. Here at home the prospect of a referendum and a coalition government; in France, a UMP mired in scandal and stuttering economy; in Italy, a corrupt and dysfunctional parliament – and so on. But they all pit the good, honest, ordinary voter against the out of touch, liberal, mainstream political elite. The populists claim to represent the former against the latter, an authentic and honest voice in a world of spin and self-interest.

In that they certainly reflect the public mood. In 2012, 82 per cent of UK citizens said they ‘tend not to trust’ political parties. It’s a similar story across much of the continent. And there is also some truth to the claim that we are governed by a narrow elite drawn from the same cast of actors. Since 1979 there has been a large decrease in the number of MPs who were formerly manual workers, from around 16 per cent of all MPs in 1979 to 4 per cent in 2010. Over the same period the number of MPs with a political background grew from 3 to 14 per cent.

The French, Italian, Spanish political classes are, I suspect, worse still. Many feel that politics has slowly drifted away from normal people, with politicians slippery public relations automatons terrified of speaking their mind. The pressure of the 24 hour news cycle has made it de rigeur for all politicians to sit down with close advisers before a big interview and decide what ‘narrative’ they need to create around an event.

The poor chap is then obliged to squeeze in as many neat soundbites as he thinks he can get away with. It’s skilful and depressing – but extremely embarrassing when someone lifts a lid on the whole sorry business. Such as Ed Miliband’s disastrous interview to the BBC about the strikes last year.

You will be forgiven for thinking back to George Orwell’s masterful essay ‘Politics and the English Language’:

“A curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy… who has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself.”

One of the reasons Farage, Le Pen, Grillo et al have done so well is because they actually speak like ordinary people. Farage publicly, aggressively drinks pints – a habit shared with at least as many people who voted for him. Beppe Grillo swears a lot – a habit shared with approximately everyone.

More importantly they sound like people who say what they think, not like someone who’s swallowed a briefing paper. They are willing to criticise behemoths: the EU, immigration, multiculturalism, the banking system. They are willing to be outspoken and controversial. Perhaps this is an even more devious trick. But at the moment it’s working rather well.

Where anti-establishment politics tips into racism and violence of course this is deplorable. But outside of that, the democrats among us should give two cheers for this populist defibrillation. It will make the whole system more chaotic and more divisive, but also more dynamic, diverse, and open.

People care about politics – but are fed up by the way it’s done at the moment. I expect to see more people joining politics because they think Mr Farage or Marine Le Pen represents them; and still more deciding they’d like to get involved because they want to oppose them. All this will bring more people into politics again.

The answer now is not to throw stones at the populist parties, or to dismiss the people who voted for them with patronising claptrap about them being scared, racist, or it being a ‘protest’ vote. They should focus instead on figuring out what they need to do to win them back or find new supporters.

That means listening to voters not the party bosses; to present better ideas than the populists; to respond to people’s concerns in a meaningful way, not by forcing down a Gregg’s sausage roll in front of a camera or trotting out a focused-grouped statement. To respectfully give the populists the chance to voice their position, and aggressively take them on. Otherwise known as democracy.