How to respond to Boris Johnson – and how not to

We keep losing – because we keep reacting in the same way. No more!

Neal Lawson
24 July 2019, 2.28pm
Newly elected Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson, July 23rd 2019
Han Yan/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

After Brexit and Trump, we get the first day of the third instalment in the great moving-right-show: Boris Johnson. Take five to be angry, appalled, apoplectic even. Go to the Fck Boris event organised by community activists this evening. It’s a necessary but far from sufficient response. So afterwards stop for much longer and ask: why did this happen? And from that, ask what do we do to change the political dynamics so it doesn’t keep happening?

Because the truth is that most of the three years since the apparent ‘wake-up call’ of the Brexit vote have been wasted, otherwise Johnson would not now be the Prime Minister. So, this time, how do we wake up properly and really build from here?

Everything starts with the right analysis. So, let’s be sure what the wrong analysis is. Some will hide behind the fig leaf that Johnson was elected by only a tiny fraction of the electorate. Well, that’s true and it’s not a good thing, but that is the system and anyway, at least there was some competition – unlike when Theresa May became PM or before that Gordon Brown. We have to change the democratic and political system, not our opinion depending on who benefits from it.

Others will dismiss Johnson as a joke, a buffoon. But anyone who gets to be PM has something about them – even if we don’t see it. Trump was immediately written off, and we were told he would last only a few months as President – but who would now bet against a second Trump term? Johnson’s victory doesn’t tell us how stupid he is, it tells us how weak progressives have been. If we get the leaders we deserve, what does Johnson say about us? The worst thing we can do is dismiss him. Don’t forget, he won the London Mayoral election for the Conservative Party, twice.

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Meanwhile, others will react to every word and chase every hare he sets running - diverting us from the real work of building alternatives to him and his politics.

The next wrong response is to focus too much attention on him personally. He is a ‘bad man’, just like all the other ’bad’ people who aren’t ‘good’ like us. Let’s replace the bad people with the good people and then everything will be rosy. This dumbing down and focus on perceived personal morality takes us almost nowhere. In part, because it polarises and allows for neither nuance nor change and encourages a simplistic left populist response in which, just like the populist right, means are justified by ends.

Maybe the worst wrong response follows on from that, which is to welcome Johnson’s victory because he clarifies and further polarises everything. He now makes the choice clear: it’s either Johnson or Corbyn. Given our voting system coerces people to accept their least worst option, you can see people’s eyes lighting up around the Labour leadership. A possible route to office on about 30% of the vote is opening up, given the now four-way party split. It’s an Ed Miliband strategy minus about 5%. Given the leadership’s refusal to countenance any kind of Progressive Alliance in 2017, when they said they would publish a Labour Queen’s Speech and dare other parties not to back it – today you can imagine the same scenario unfolding, as they secretly hope the other opposition parties refuse to toe the Labour line, so that they too can be denounced as ’bad people’ and things get even more polarised.

This plays to an underlying chaos theory of change prominent in some sections of the left: that the worse it gets, the better it gets. But such a highly instrumental approach ignores two key points: first that the right, and their shock doctrine, nearly always tend to do better out of chaos than the left, and second, that the alliances and forces we are going to need to deal with the myriad and complex challenges we face – not least the climate emergency – are going to be wider and deeper than the likely 30% of the people who may end up voting Labour – many, because of the voting system, while holding their nose. Fake votes do not a mandate make.

So what is the better response to Prime Minister Johnson? If we don’t dismiss him, personalise it all around him or see him as a means to build from the chaos he may well bring?

The key is to see him as a symptom of the deep crises we face and the loss of trust and faith in the political system to meet those challenges. Fundamentally, it’s about the structure and culture of our democracy and its ability to help deliver a good society – or not. People feel like their lives are out of control because they largely are. We have to take that sentiment and build a new democratic and political settlement that answers people’s hopes and fears.

Beyond that, the challenge put to him should not be to demand he miraculously brings the country together, though no doubt he will stand on a podium to declare he will do just that. There are serious and deep disagreements in our society and it’s the job of leaders to help us to live with them and lessen the sharp inequalities and sense of polarisation. A healthy democracy depends on the acceptance of differences and not their dismissal.

If Johnson fails, it is because he doesn’t have the necessary self-awareness, humility, inclusiveness, trust or courage - the very hallmarks of 21st century leadership. The test of us is whether what comes after him is better – not, once more, worse.

Today, our response to Johnson should be relatively sanguine. The Prime Minister matters, but actually the world is being made and remade beyond the gates of Downing Street and even Westminster. The failure of both the bureaucratic state and the free market are giving way to the age of participation. You don’t have to be PM or even an MP to change the landscape. Just ask the Youth Strikes for Climate or Extinction Rebellion – perhaps most of all, ask the real victor this week, Nigel Farage and the Brexit ‘Party’ (assurances from Matt Hancock not withstanding).

We need a more passionate and compelling vision than Farage’s, a progressive vision that we pursue with ambition and relentlessness, giving people hope that change is possible, not on the basis of othering people, but on a humanitarian and rights-based approach. But also by offering a genuine new politics and democratic settlement, rather than Farage’s false prospectus of a divisive rubber stamp democracy. Not least proportional representation, a systems change that would deter parties electing such divisive leaders in the first place.

These are dark days for progressive British politics, but it will look even darker if we respond in the wrong way - again! On the day Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister, we vow that we can, must and will do so much better.

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