Can Europe Make It?

The failure of political consumerism

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When the parties claim that they hear what the public is saying about, say, immigration, the public knows it is being told what it thinks the parties want it to hear. What has been lost is any sense that the parties speak from conviction.

Julian Baggini
23 September 2013
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Nigel Farage. Flickr/Euro Realist Newsletter. Some rights reserved.

In this excerpt from ‘A very British populism’, published as part of Counterpoint’s ‘Europe’s Reluctant Radicals’ project, Julian Baggini explores possible causes for the rise of populist UKIP in the mainstream parties’ failure to capture the popular vote and address public concerns.

When looking at the ‘supply-side’ factors for the rise of the populist UKIP, the failures of the mainstream parties are usually seen in terms of being too dismissive of popular grievances. However, I think there is a deeper problem here, one that cannot be remedied simply by starting to pay attention to issues which have hitherto been ignored or swept under the carpet. The problem is in how the parties now chase the popular vote and respond to public opinion.

All the main political parties seek to be popular, but none seek to be seen as populist. This is not a contradiction. If the democratic mainstream responds to popular demand, then the political elite does its job and there is no need for a populist backlash against it. However, I would argue that as the political parties have become more professional in their pursuit of the popular vote, so have they aggravated rather than ameliorated the drivers of populism.

The emptiness of Middle England

The first factor is the realisation by the parties that the mathematics of elections means that it seems obvious that it is more important to listen to public opinion than that of the party membership. From this it follows that parties must appeal to the centre, and that their policies must be driven by opinion polls.

In theory, this would seem to transfer power away from a small cadre of party activists and towards the genuinely popular voice, and so stifle the drive for populism. And yet it is precisely since the parties have fought for the middle that populism has become a significant, though still minor, force in British politics. However, on reflection, this would seem to be an entirely natural result. A politics that focuses on the swing voter and Middle Britain can only marginalise the marginalised yet more. When all parties speak for the mass in the middle, none appear to stand for anyone at the still expansive edges.

What’s more, few identify with this supposed middle anyway. ‘Middle England’ – a term which started gaining currency in the Major years and settled on its current ubiquity under Blair – is everywhere and nowhere, a fictional place which no one calls home.19 ‘Mondeo man’ and ‘Worcester Woman’ are abstractions, averaged-out constructs that no one would feel represents them. Neither the typical nor the average voter exists in the real world, which means parties are effectively standing up for people who aren’t there. When you try to speak for everyone you end up speaking for no one.

Another effect of the race for the middle is to create a sense that dissent is being stifled. Back in the heyday of post-war two-party politics, although people still complained that ‘all politicians are the same’ – meaning that they looked after their own interests – most took it for granted that Labour and Conservative stood for very different interest groups and values. The drive towards the middle has created the perception of a cosy consensus at the heart of the political establishment. And if there is no challenge, no real conflict, in the middle, then people will feel the need to look to the fringes to provide the necessary dissent.

The end of representation

There is another effect, less noticeable but perhaps even more important. This is what could be termed the rise of political consumerism. Consumerism is about giving people what they want, without the ‘mediation’, as Tim Bale puts it, of politicians or experts.20 The parties have adapted to this accordingly. Rather than reflecting the settled will of the party membership, from whose ranks they are drawn, today’s career politician belongs to a separate profession, a kind of executive manager who starts on the career ladder as a graduate. In true consumerist style, this manager’s job is to deliver to the public what it wants, or to make it want what it is able to deliver.

What this erodes is any real sense of representation. The politician represents neither the electorate nor her party. No matter how hard she strives to give people what they want, she belongs to the ‘them’ whose job it is to serve ‘us’, and inevitably she does not fully succeed. For the traditional working class, this has become even worse, because there at least used to be a route into Westminster through the trade unions into Labour. But with the unions diminished and the party desperate to avoid being seen as being comprised of union lackeys, that base for entry to political participation is now limited. So, fewer and fewer senior Labour politicians are seen as ‘one of us’. Of the 22 members of the shadow cabinet, ten went to fee-paying schools and three went to grammars. Nine went to either Oxford or Cambridge.

The weakening of class identity as a whole also feeds into this. When it is no longer even clear what it means to be working or middle class, there is no clear sense of belonging to a group that can be represented. ‘The likes of us’ are no longer members of a well-defined group, spread all over the country, but more fragmented groupings, such as the people ‘born and bred around here’ or ‘from the estates’. No mass group even claims to represent these people in anything other than vague, general ways, partly because to identify too much with one such fragment of the population risks putting off those in others.

Pallid consensus versus red-blooded conviction

Put these factors together and the result is toxic. No one feels as though the political elite represents them, no one feels a connection with Westminster, and a large minority feel that no one is even interested in their problems. So the irony is that precisely by trying to pander to the will of the majority, the mainstream political parties have created a dislocation between political elites and the public, creating the conditions for populism. When consensus politics collides with discontent, there is no channel for that discontent other than through the populist fringes.

The Greek and Dutch examples in previous Counterpoint reports seem to bear this out.21 In Greece, the mainstream parties offered no resistance, no alternative, to the EU plan. In the Netherlands, the mainstream parties would not talk about immigration. With no room for friction on the key issues at the centre of power, discontent has to find other outlets.

Once that discontent arises, the logic of political consumerism means that there is a new demand which the parties need to supply. But it is too late. The discontents have already lost any sense that the parties speak for them. When the parties claim that they hear what the public is saying about, say, immigration, the public knows it is being told what it thinks the parties want it to hear. What has been lost is any sense that the parties speak from conviction.

UKIP, on the other hand, comes across as an old-fashioned party of conviction. UKIP doesn’t oppose immigration because focus groups tell it that it must. It exists because it opposes immigration. Nigel Farage may be dismissed by many as a buffoon, but few doubt his sincerity. Could the same be said of the perception of other party leaders? No wonder then, that according to ‘Ipsos MORI’s March Political Monitor report, Farage is not only the party leader the public most thinks is doing a good job – he’s the only one to get a positive satisfaction rating. Thirty-five per cent said they were satisfied with the way he was running his party against 26 per cent who were dissatisfied. By comparison, 32 per cent were satisfied with Ed Miliband, 52 per cent dissatisfied; 31 per cent satisfied with David Cameron, 61 per cent dissatisfied; 22 per cent satisfied with Nick Clegg, 65 per cent dissatisfied.22

No more market politics

This is a striking example of how profoundly wrong it is to apply market thinking to politics. Giving people what they want doesn’t work: they have to believe you want it too. Even in the market, on which this kind of politics is modelled, the most successful companies in the long-term create products and services with real merit, not just ones that push the buttons of the day. That strategy may result in a sales peak or a poll surge but it is no recipe for creating lasting appeal.

The lesson for responding to populist concerns should therefore be clear: the mainstream cannot take them on board as a tactic. It has to be convinced of where they have merits and where they do not, champion the former and challenge the latter.

This kind of ‘Yes, but…’ politics does not go down well. Party strategists will tell you of the importance of clear, unequivocal messages: that much as it would be nice to have a nuanced public debate, nuance doesn’t work. Unfortunately, they could be right. But if the current approach isn’t working and is simply making populism respectable for UKIP – and who knows what might follow it – business as usual is not an option.


This article is part of an editorial partnership with Counterpoint, which was launched in November 2012. See the other excerpts from the Reluctant Radicals partnership.

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