Maddening times

The European referendum is taking place in the context of – and because of – the disintegration, and reinvention, of party politics in Britain and around the world. The next chapter of Blimey, it could be Brexit!

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
4 May 2016


The Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf is a clear-eyed analyst of economic affairs and a critic of the way they are regulated. When it became clear that the British might vote Leave, he concluded that to do so would be “mad”. His judgement has echoes of the prime minister’s description of UKIP as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, shortly after he became Tory leader, and Cameron’s close ally describing the Tories who wanted a referendum on Europe as "mad, swivel-eyed loons". The two diagnoses of craziness are different. David Cameron was making a personal attack on those who “bang on” about Europe and sovereignty. Wolf was assessing the potentially imminent consequences of Brexit in terms of the UK’s economy and its role in international affairs. Cameron condemned people; Wolf, a policy. 

Cameron joined the more sober approach when he co-authored an article in the Guardian with Brendan Barber, until recently head of Britain’s Trade Union Congress, to proclaim, “For the sake of every worker in Britain, we urge you: vote to remain”. Although he is an unlikely workers’ friend, the Prime Minister used his new proletarian alliance to point out, as does Wolf, that all the main institutions and authorities of the global order share a similar sober view:

“independent experts, trustworthy organisations and friends of Britain from around the world. Whether it is the Bank of England, our universities, the trade unions, employers large and small in every part of our economy, the IMF, President Obama, our allies in Nato or the Commonwealth, the message is the same: Britain is better off in Europe.

They couldn’t, however, resist a dig at their opponents being nutty,

“Of course, the leavers say this must be some sort of conspiracy masterminded by shadowy international elites. All we have to say is: to have been able to bring even the two of us together today, these evil geniuses must be very good.

How pathetic an insult to the intelligence of workers – and even Guardian readers.

Two things are going on here. The first is a refusal on the part of those arguing for Remain to take seriously and confront the core argument made by the Brexiteers about democracy and self-government, summed up in the phrase “taking back control”. I have looked at this in previous chapters and will return to it later.

The second is about not rhetoric but what is really going on. Something is taking place that ‘should’ be implausible, if not inconceivable. How is it possible that a great conservative country, conscious of its role in the West and deferential to authority of all kinds, might say “up yours” to all official, received and expert opinion – economic, diplomatic, and political.

From the elite point of view, that up to 25% of the English, mainly the older, feeling defeated, often living in retirement clusters along low-grade seaside resorts should want the UK to ‘leave the world’ is not surprising. That they should have some political voice and be able to make a loud noise is part of the 'faux frais', the incidental costs, of ruling - if you are a member of the elite. But that Brexit is holding at around 45% support according to the polls; that it has two ruling party politicians: the cabinet’s most able thinker and one time confidant of the prime minister, and the Tory's most popular star, as its leaders; that they are supported by around half of the party's MPs and a clear majority of Conservative voters; that they might even win! This should not be remotely credible.

Something is taking place that cannot be dismissed as “mad” or conspiratorial, as if the person asserting this is part of a healthy body of opinion with all parts in order. For there is a greater madness in the air. Multiple layers of dissociation crack Britain apart (and not just Britain). At the moment, the most significant fissure runs right through the country’s historic ruling coalition: the 180-year-old Conservative and Unionist party of the Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is gespalten. I use German to signal that a deep process is unfolding. I’m going to try and assess it.

The referendum is part of a worldwide rebellion against elites, establishments and political castes. The most striking way of visually capturing the political impact of these forces here in Britain is by bookending my assessment with two graphs: the first shows the dramatic collapse in party memberships since 1950, the second a surge in new affiliations since 2010. They are coming up shortly. But I discovered that presenting them opens a can of many delightful worms and other creatures, called the sociology of modern politics, on which there is a vast literature. Here I want to step back from the narrowness of which side of the referendum debate accused who of what, to situating it in the larger ocean of today’s political sociology.

This concerns the relationship of at least five things: civil society, meaning the public of different classes and interests and their social organisation; political parties, how they organise and recruit and represent; governing elites, being the leading figures in the parties, the governing administration, the political media, and key policy think tanks and organisations; corporate power, meaning the leading figures running the great financial, service and industrial interests; and the state, meaning both the civil and legal servants but also the weight of the relatively immense interests of the forces of order, education and welfare tax-raising, and the capacity to regulate.

Across the west there has been a double-movement dissolving the relationship between the elites of the post-Second World War era and their public following. First, the 1970s saw the beginning of a de-politicisation that accelerated for a full generation. It witnessed the end of mass parties embedded in their different classes and control of political parties being sucked upwards into a political-media caste which then sought to manipulate support from above. The impacts of this four-decade transformation, from 1968 to 2008 to give it symbolic years, are still making themselves felt. Since the financial crash a second, explicitly ‘anti-systemic’ set of movements, on both the left and the right, is growing which is challenging rule from above.

The long disenchantment that hollowed out the major parties was integral to the new form of domination. It looks at first sight as if the sense of impotence and powerlessness it generated and the weakening of loyalty was a consequence of failure. In one sense, it was. It measured the decline of an epoch. But it was also functional for the rise of corporate power and a measure of its success. For a transformation of the elites, a revolution in a way, took place. In Britain this saw the replacement of the old Establishment by a professional political-media caste, that embraced internationalised corporate power. Tony Blair, David Cameron, are both members of this slick caste. One whose loyalty is to globalisation and its revenues at least as much as to the people of its own country. Their supramacy is eased by people staying home rather than voting; their capacity to make policy from above assisted if their own political parties are weak and hollowed out.

By contrast, the surges of protest now bringing people into party memberships defy the fatalism and challenge the hollow legitimacy of the corporate order. They can take the form of rapid, active withdrawal of support for old parties, or the rise of new parties, or transformative insurgencies within traditional ones. A very early example of this double-movement of the long collapse of traditional loyalty and then the rapid rise of an ‘anti-system’ replacement, has been the takeover of Scotland’s devolved parliament by the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) from Labour. So early, that the SNP is now in danger of becoming a centralising party of the traditional kind (some would argue it already is) in Scotland itself, even while remaining the most threatening anti-Westminster force in the UK.

What happened in Scotland was distinct – the consequence of a new parliament. In Austria, a fascist and a green have just eliminated all the other candidates to become the choice for Austrian voters in the final round of their presidential election. This is the first example of the complete elimination of all the traditional parties by external insurgencies from left and right. The phenomenon is not confined to small countries. Were Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to have become the presidential candidates in this year’s American election, it would be thanks to internal insurgencies overthrowing traditional elite party supervision on both sides. The fact that it seems to have actually happened on the Republican side is astonishing enough - and means that 'mad' is threatening to become the new sanity. But organisationally, the Sanders insurgency is less reliant on a demagogue and may prove the more lasting threat to 'the system'. 

The decoupling of the public from the public realm over forty years, followed by revolts, protests and mobilizations against the old order since the financial crash, is the double backdrop to both the existence of the referendum in the UK and to the crisis of legitimacy of the Brussels system across Europe that is feeding back into the British decision. No analysis of the possibility of Brexit, no debate about whether the UK should Leave or Remain, no decision as to which way to vote if you are a UK elector, no understanding of the range of issues in play or what is potentially at stake, is worth its salt without taking a measure of this double process. On the one hand, the extensive erosion of loyalty to, membership of, support for and participation in the traditional parties, their associations and unions; which permitted the new elites to be free of old-fashioned obligations and ties that bind. On the other, the sudden challenges to elite legitimacy as economic growth slows, which finds the governing classes surprised by their own helplessness due to their having discarded the machinery of loyalty that protected them. This is the environment at once poisoning and stimulating early 21st century public life. It is the context of the “madness”. It is the breakdown.

1968-2008 The long rise of the neo-liberal cartels

We are now living in the aftermath of the failure of neoliberal, market fundamentalism that found its most naked government advocates in the UK, and its most complete institutionalisation in the European Union. That the two should be at loggerheads is one of the paradoxes of the referendum.

Today’s failure comes after remarkable achievement. At the turn of the century neoliberalism was triumphant in Europe, after winning the Cold War, breaking the Russian economy and integrating Eastern Europe into the European Union. I stumbled on a handy way to illustrate the difference between then and now in America, in a comparison of 1999 with 2016. As a homage to Prince and his track 1999, Isaiah J. Poole writing on Campaign for America’s Freedom, looks at the year 1999 in the USA. He glimpses a golden moment. It was before the election of George W Bush, and the collapse of the bubble. (It was also the year, just to throw in a couple of factoids, when openDemocracy was conceived and massive protest against globalisation took place in Seattle, for the masters of the WTO still thought they could meet in convenient, urban locations.) Poole notes that America “succeeded in creating a near-full-employment economy, wages were rising in a way that was not dramatically out of line with their productivity, and we did it without giving huge tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy”. The contrast with today is striking. In 1999, the economy was growing at over 5%, unemployment was falling below 4% (3.5% among whites, 7.8% for African Americans), median family income had risen 6% since 1995 with productivity up by 8.7%. Today, unemployment in the US is over 5%, median income has fallen to $66,632 (by $1,939 in 2015 dollars), a massive increase in top incomes has occurred, while the number of very poor has increased significantly.

Similar contrasts can be devised for the UK and the EU as a whole. We are all uneasily aware of the way such figures in the West register the story of this century’s first fifteen years: the absolute impoverishment of many in some countries most; an exceptional increase in insecurity, especially for the young, along with indebtedness; a considerable increase in wealth of the well off; and a stupendous increase for the very wealthy. What is less generally recognised is that this represents an extraordinary failure of government. It is one thing for a market society to have slumps, downturns and crises, which will be met with stoicism by working people if they affect everyone. It is different when it extends impunity to owners, speculators and financiers so they can milk the downturn as well as profit from the previous boom. People talk of the current failure of the liberal elites. There is just as much a failure of the conservative right for allowing itself to be suborned by greed.

A young person growing up in a western economy in the 1990s may have seen no alternative to capitalism. But the ruling democratic system preened with apparently justified vindication over its embrace of human rights as Communism fell; the good had prevailed in a re-run of the war against the Axis powers, and now standards of living would rise thanks to market democracy. China was growing fast after its embrace of capitalism; Clinton’s ‘triangulation’ seemed less a lasso of hopes than an opening towards a new digital economy; the European Union was growing and deepening with a new, shared currency in preparation. There may have been only one future on offer but it was a future loaded with promise.

Compare this snapshot to the experience of growing up after 2010. Washington and London had lied about their reasons for invading Iraq. Nor had they lied in a good cause, but in the name of a ‘war on terror’ that continues to provoke rather than vanquish terrorism. Paris and Berlin collaborated passively. After throwing away its moral ascendency, the West’s economic growth model crumpled with the financial system. The damage was limited by printing money, but you can’t print credibility. And then there is climate change – as the planet burns, the rich tan themselves in the glow of unparalleled inequality.

Where did such a flawed governing processes come from, that led downwards from such a vantage point? Why did governments across the west, including social democratic and Christian democratic ones, act in concert to protect elite inequality at the cost of the public? The late Peter Mair has set out a devastating account in "Ruling the Void, the hollowing out of Western democracy". His analysis stretches back into the seventies. He shows, with a wealth of comparative information, how the last decades of the 20th twentieth century had witnessed “a gradual but also inexorable withdrawal of the parties from the realm of civil society towards the realm of government and the state”. Mair emphasizes that the “withdrawal of the elites” was paralleled by citizen disengagement, with steady falls in average turnout, decade by decade. He describes the “passing of popular involvement” in political life. With Richard Katz, Mair identifies this as a shift from the original mass parties who represented ‘their people’ and mediated between civil society and the state, to catch-all-parties who seek to represent the ‘whole people’ not just their class and try to combine some of this with concern for the interests of the state as such, by becoming, finally, what Mair calls “cartel parties”. These are in effect extensions of the state itself and use its resources to help fund their reproduction. The process involved a downgrading of “the party on the ground” in favour of the party in parliament or government, whose leaders – this is a process he documents taking place across Europe – opted for “responsibility” at the expense of “responsiveness”.

As parties drew farther away from their voters, they moved closer to each other: “What remains is a governing class”. The process is supervised by the corporate media, which corrodes the belief in the kind of solidarity and social action parties depend on. As sensationalist coverage undermines political loyalties, the mainstream media enhances its own role, generating a negative feedback loop so far as democracy is concerned. As party leaderships gain a premium through their disciplined relationship with the media, a political caste is created that becomes a sybiotic part of the state itself. Combined with PR systems that make it hard to remove minority parties from coalitions and you have a process that creates a self-serving cartel. This then finds its most complete expression in the appointments to the European Union, in roles untouchable by elections. Fatally, “publics and elites disengage from each other”.

Mair and his colleagues were researching their far-sighted analysis in the mid-1990s. What I had diagnosed in 1999 as Blair’s “manipulative, corporate populism”, they had already seen as an international condition. A crucial expansion of the argument was set out by Colin Crouch in a 2004 Fabian pamphlet, Post-Democracy, which he turned into a book. He observes that although many more countries have become formal democracies benefiting from the rule of law, with elections that can change the governing party and a relatively free media, increasingly politics becomes a branch of a superficial entertainment industry, proffering only small differences of techno-policy between the parties. Thanks to the penetration of market fundamentalism, the decline of trade unions and shrinkage of the organised working class, a hollowed-out politics is incapable of providing any significant alternative to the domination of organized capitalism,

“While elections certainly exist and can change governments, public electoral debate is a tightly controlled spectacle, managed by rival teams of professionals expert in the techniques of persuasion, and considering a small range of issues selected by those teams. The mass of citizens plays a passive, quiescent, even apathetic part, responding only to the signals given them. Behind this spectacle of the electoral game politics is really shaped in private by interaction between elected governments and elites which overwhelmingly represent business interests.

He summed it up as “You can always vote but you have no choice”. That was in 2004. Ten years later an issue of Political Quarterly tested Crouch's argument in the wake of the financial crash of 2008. Its authors found the process had intensified generating, as Adrian Pabst says, a “democratic despotism that maintains the illusion of free choice while instilling a sense of ‘voluntary servitude’”. Voluntary servitude, indeed. But to what? When market fundamentalism succeeded economically it could retain a legitimacy if not loyalty in this way. There is a passage in David Marquand’s passionate philippic against the domination of the market state, Mammon’s Kingdom, where he discusses the dystopian nightmare of regular, quiet servitude without civic energy as a fear that goes back to De Tocqueville.

The decisive importance of Crouch’s work was to see the rise of cartel politics as a consequence of neo-liberal marketisation. Free-market ideology explicitly repudiates the positive role of government in the creation of wealth, sees redistribution as a ‘burden’, persuades the public that tax is a form of robbery and regards state expenditure as a resource to privatise, whereupon the state can be charged rent. This permits an assault on collectivist norms and behaviour such that politics itself needs to be repudiated as an activity orchestrating the public good. In his study of neo-liberalism William Davies calls this “the disenchantment of politics by economics”. It seeks to actively generate quiet servitude.

The strength of this system is also its weakness. Neo-liberalism of course valorises a strong small state for keeping order but it seeks to hide itself as a politics. Its ideology of the market presents itself as not being a political ideology at all. George Monbiot describes how he struggled with “the anonymity of neo-liberalism”, trying to resist its systemic influence when it camouflages its existence. An entertaining example of its culture was the far-right Hollywood network, Friends of Abe: “The group, named after Abraham Lincoln, swore members to secrecy by adopting a line from the film Fight Club: the first rule of the Friends of Abe is you do not talk about the Friends of Abe”. And in a network of trade agreements and above all the rules of the European Union, the predominance of the market was inscribed into ‘the rule of law’ so that it would be situated beyond politics. The flaw in technocratic power stems directly from the effectiveness of this approach – its denial of politics means it is unable to defend itself politically. Committed to an undemocratic corporate or cartel authority, it cannot advocate itself in its own name. This would require in effect taunting people with their servitude and the passivity that it demands. You can see a version of this weakness in the inability of the official Remain campaign to engage with arguments about democracy in the referendum.

British corporate populists, having lost their popularity, now find their dominance exposed to radical political challenge. What will happen after, as seems likely, they succeed in securing a vote to Remain? The shameless record of Blair, Mandelson, Brown, Cameron and Osborne, from their disastrous grand strategy and deliberate deceit of the Iraq war, to the financial crash, to the imposition of growth-sapping austerity, not to speak of Cameron's lack of honesty, is laced through by fraud and greed. In the largest sense of the word, a corruption of the political system. Which is why even if they see off the challenge of the Brexiteers their Emperor’s clothing will be draughty, exposed by their own side. As Michael Gove wrote in the Telegraph,

“I can understand why there's cynicism about politics and the political class – there have been broken promises and dodgy dealing from some politicians in my lifetime which would make the Borgias blush. Insulation from the electors can breed arrogance and a sense of entitlement. Indeed one of the reasons why I'm campaigning for Britain to leave the European Union is to strengthen confidence in our democracy by making those in power more accountable.

The Borgias live on; only today, unlike at the beginning of the century, we know about in some detail. A key moment for this was the parliamentary expenses scandal, exposed thanks to the persistence of Heather Brooke, just before the elections for the European Parliament in May 2009, as the financial crash was underway. (It led Norman Tebbit, who had been Margaret Thatcher’s campaign manager, to call for people to vote UKIP). In the UK, the historic, gentlemanly establishment, for all its old-boy privileges, prided itself in being lawful, punctilious and not greedy. Its replacement by a venal political caste, that started in the 1970s, triggered an overt toleration of abuse. Nicholas Shaxson’s pathbreaking exposé of tax havens Treasure Islands was published in 2010; and his ongoing work with the tax justice network is now vindicated by the Panama Papers. It was reinforced by The Great Tax Robbery, in which Richard Brooks exposes how the UK itself became a tax haven. David Whyte’s How Corrupt is Britain? answers that it is systemically so, from LIBOR rate-fixing to appointments to the House of Lords. Above all, Owen Jones, in The Establishment: And How they Get Away with It (his title’s present tense is exact), presents a sweeping account of the way British society is ruled for profit; while a more detailed account of one aspect of this, set out by Tamsin Cave and Andy Rowell of Spinwatch, provides a well documented (80 pages of footnotes) account, published last year, on the UK’s £200 million a year lobbying industry (A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain). The disenchantment, fatalism and alienation encouraged by the marketization of politics can be lazy, superficial and cynical. The basis for it - 'that the system is fixed' - it also now justified by a growing body of careful research building a launching pad for active resistence rather than passive detachment.

This was the terrain of politics that witnessed the understandable collapse of party membership. The Conservative party now has little more than 100,000 active members whereas it enjoyed 2 million in the early 1950s, illustrated in a dramatic graph drawn up last year in a research paper by the House of Commons library:

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Labour touched a million at mid-century with a growing trade union movement attached to it. It fell from half a million at the end of the 1970s to arounf a quarter million, the Tories followed with a parallel collapse after the expulsion of Thatcher from No 10.

The graph is not a picture of failure but of success: the triumph of depoliticisation and the replacement of party membership by corporate methods. The Conservative Club headquarters in Knutsford, Cheshire stands as a symbol of this process; of the ebbing of the party along with the commercial renewal of the English right. It’s a splendid listed building at the heart of the very affluent Tatton constituency south of Manchester, where George Osborne is MP. Four years ago it closed. A spokesman told the Knutsford Guardian, “It is sad, but to be honest the number of people who used it didn’t make it viable… In the olden days these clubs were at the centre of the community”. After standing empty, it has been taken over by OKA which is about to open a showroom in it.

OKA is a high-end, global furnishing company co-founded by David Cameron’s mother-in-law Lady Astor. An able businesswoman she and her two partners have built a very profitable business since founding it in 1999. There was a moment of consternation when OKA hoisted its company flag where the Conservative Club’s tattered Union Jack used to fly. For some locals it might just as well have been the skull and crossbones. They will probably be voting Leave. OKA is growing fast, selling its reactionary-chic interior range to the top of the world’s housing bubble. Lady Astor is now worth many millions more than her son-in-law the Prime Minister – and will probably be voting Remain. In a previous, quite recent time, the landed nobility gained allegiance in every strata of British society through their place in the hierarchy of imperial loyalty, their Christianity, their military experience and then their shared war-time effort and sacrifice. Today, Vanity Fair reports  she and her colleagues scour South-East Asia for well-made tables, chairs and textiles to sell to people buying holiday homes in Florida; and few equivalent loyalties are being created to bridge the growing divide.

Risings against the elites 

After the 2008 financial crash it was a cliché among the commentariat to observe that left-wing parties were not gaining from the ‘crisis of capitalism’. But this was because social democracy was fully implicated in it. Not least in the UK where, shortly before he became prime minister, Gordon Brown had celebrated his role in rejecting regulation of the banks and predicting the coming “golden age” of capitalism, just weeks before the first bank run in the UK for 150 years.

Instead, a series of risings in opposition to ‘the system’ started to lay a new basis for political opposition. These anti-systemic movements began in the Arab spring, ironically as an attempt to become like the Western democracies. Cairo’s Tahrir Square inspired the Spanish indignados whose May 15 movement swept Spain’s cities in 2011. Here for the first time a new form of mass opposition to the austerity and facelessness of ‘Brussels’ took to the streets, for example in the striking, vast anti-EU banner draped from one of the buildings in Madrid's Puerta del Sol when it was occupied by the indignados. I have described previously the inspiration of going there. The Spanish example stimulated Occupy Wall Street, which achieved a crucial success from its tiny encampment of Zuccotti Park. Although it was on nothing like the scale of Spain’s 15 May movement, that saw cities occupied across the Iberian peninsular, Occupy’s slogan “we are the 99%” broke the silence that neo-liberalism had woven. It named and politicised the grotesque inequality of the American system, which hitherto had seemed ‘natural’.

It was also a response from the US left to the rise of the populist Tea Party that had began life in 2009 opposing Barack Obama’s modest efforts to help those who lost their homes in the crash and to introduce public health care. Doing so under the banner of hating government, the Tea Party became an outspoken, anti-elitist, anti-systemic movement on the right. Without Occupy Wall Street there would not now be Bernie Sanders and without the Tea Party there would not be Donald Trump. Within five years, the early risings against the system have led to challenges to the US political system all the way to the edge of the presidential nomination. That this could happen so fast has been due to the American version of the corporate hollowing out of the party system that we have witnessed in Britain.

The UK had only a small and isolated simulcrum of the Occupy movement and the indignados. But a range of parties experienced a transformative surge after 2008. UKIP’s came early and was a ‘revolt on the right’ that become an attraction for Labour working class voters with its attack on corporate power, as Damian Hockney predicted. The Greens grew from 10,000 in 2010 to over 60,000 members. The SNP expanded exponentially in Scotland after the referendum; it now has over 100,000 members in a country of 5 million is far and away the largest party in the UK relative to population, and may even equal the Tory party in total active membership fit enough to canvass. Labour then witnessed the extraordinary surge in members that swept Corbyn to the leadership, for an explanation as to why, see What hope for Labour and the Left? by Jeremy Gilbert, written early in the leadership contest. There is also the new Womens Equality Party with over 40,000 members joining in its first year.

There have been previous ‘third party’ experiments in British politics. (For example, the Liberal Democrats, who after growing to over 50 MPs thanks to their leader Charles Kennedy’s opposition the Iraq War then threw it all away with the decision to become a European style neo-liberal, cartel party in the 2010 coalition). The transformative potential of the new wave of  ‘risings’, suggests they will be different. This is signalled by the existence of the referendum.

First, it was directly precipitated by UKIP’s challenge, which began to make significant strides around the same time as the Tea Party. In the context of the financial crash and the MPs expenses scandal of May 2009, UKIP gained over 16% of the vote in the elections to the European parliament in June and gained 13 MEPs. They then garned nearly a million votes in the 2010 elections. As support rose again before the 2013 local elections, Cameron made his pivotal speech promising an EU referendum to stop Conservative support bleeding in their direction. (This fed the beast; in the European elections of 2014 the BBC gave UKIP major party status and with 27% of votes they beat both Tories and Labour).

Second, there was the indirect impact of the SNP. In the 2015 election it became clear to English voters that the SNP could determine whether or not Labour formed the government. The outstanding performance of the SNP’s leader, Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, in the leaders debates, filled a significant number of English voters with fear that a foreigner would hold Labour’s less decisive leader in her grip. The Tories discovered this on doorsteps and cashed in with gratitude. While UKIP voters ate into Labour seats thanks to Labour’s refusal to offer them a referendum on EU membership, many of its supporters voted Conservatives tactically to keep out a Labour government ‘in hock to Sturgeon’. Thus the SNP was critical to Cameron’s narrow outright win.

Finally, after the election, Labour had to select a new leader. A rush of old Labour members keen to exorcise the New Labour era inspired young people to join as well. Instead of a dedicated pro-EU leader it got a long-time Left Euro-sceptic who united most of the Labour party behind Remain in such a low key fashion that it could prove fatal for the government.

This triple impact suggests the referendum and its politics straddle the old political system and today’s search for a replacement. Through UKIP and disappointment with what the Conservative party has become, it is rooted in the pre-corporate world of the mass party and its representation. At the same time it was instigated by Cameron, a corporate politician, as a device to squelch discontent through a classic caste operation, from above . Finally, it is taking place at a time of rebellion and influential risings against a failing neo-liberal system. The Blairite corporate view of opposition to the EU was that it represented the voices of those dispossessed by globalisation and 'the future' who would have to give way to progress. But since there have been only pockets of progress since the crash, mainly in the form of unstable bubbles, and considerable flatlining and frustration, the call for Brexit takes on a modern form as well. 

How will the political risings that spell the end of the era of disenchantment with politics impact on the referendum itself? The first thing to note is the shallowness of Conservative support. When David Cameron won the election with an outright majority of 17 MPs in the Commons, after five years of a hung parliament and coalition, the dominant commentary hailed the return of stable government. But his support was built on just 37% of voters and declining party membership. A good way to measure the Tory problem is by looking at a second graph of recent party affiliations.

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It seems that the Tory line went down not up after 2013, or stayed flat. It is difficult to make out the light yellow line of the SNP rising steeply and now neck and neck with the Conservatives. Before looking at the rise in support for other parties consider how can it be that the Conservatives managed to win at the ballot box with such a weakened membership.

The answer is that they won by deploying corporate techniques. One in particular: UK electoral law has very strict controls over how much can be spent per constituency to ensure candidates can’t buy their election. But there is a loophole around expenditure on party propaganda that does not use any of the candidates’ names. This allows for national billboards, for example, to be used without their costs being registered as part of the expenditure of the constituency they are in. The Tories exploited the loophole with a vengeance using millions donated to them by hedge funds. They mapped and market-researched 80 or so marginal constituencies street-by-street and then house-by-house. They identified each household that was likely to swing and categorised it by the kind of concerns its occupants were likely to have. The constituencies were then “blitzed” to use the word of a government minister with seemingly generic but actually highly focussed messages. Blitzed, that is, with laser-guided, political smart bombs. Or to put it another way, the Conservative party compensated for the decomposition of its membership base through buying the election by means of capital-intensive, focussed marketing. Ed Miliband's team thought Labour would win 'the ground war' thanks to its more numerous, youthful membership. They didn't realise the Tories had modernised aerial warfare so profoundly it had become a form of canvessing.  

This helps explain the shallowness of support for the Tory leadership in its political battle over Europe; it does not have a motivated political party behind it. A danger for Cameron is that the referendum campaign cannot be influenced by the same targetted aerial techniques as the election. But he does not have ground forces and Labour are not about to lend him theirs. The desperate use of government money to send a booklet to every household advocating Remain seems to have been an attempt to compensate. I say desperate, as the publication is so feeble, almost all meaningless pictures accompanied by weasel wording.

So the first thing to note is that while the Tory leadership and the Remain campaign have a coherent, corporate message opposition to which seems 'mad' from their point of view, they are lacking two things. First, the economic growth that should be accruing if they knew how to govern, from which to draw popularity and momentum, especially in the EU itself that they wish to remain part of. Second, the pick up and energy that comes from the internet insurgencies and networked politics that are marking out the future of politics.

A generational change is underway that is the opposite of high cost personalised mailing shots. A good description of what this is like is Adam Ramsay’s account in Precarious Europe. He describes how his generation of political activists now turning 30 have, after ten years of not joining parties, started to do so. Indeed, some have become serial members of more than one. This is part of an international shift, that will grow as ways of sharing experience are developed, especially from the Bernie Sanders movement in America. In their recent book Inventing the Future, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams criticise the anti-systemic Occupy movement for being too focussed on the emancipatory experience of the ‘struggle’, creating a “folk-politics” unable to escape its limitations and challenge the system it opposes. They call for a much more ambitious left that can take on the modern world and its technological opportunities. This is already happening in Spain and now in the United States.

In 1980 Raymond Williams recognised the energy and self-confidence of what was not yet called neo-liberalism and observed that the left had "lost the future". For the first time since then, the right may be losing hope in the future while the left is gaining a forward-looking self-belief. A crucial way of understanding this is in terms of Mair’s typology of what has happened to political parties. The cartel party is clearly failing as it has lost its capacity to manipulate populist support since the financial crash and subsequent economic stasis. The young people flocking to join parties are not seeking to participate in a top-down cartel run as part of the state. This must mean that a new type of party is being created; certainly being attempted. I’ll call it the “networked party”. It has leadership but is not hierarchical in the old way. More important the internet allows a wide variety of variable participation and does not entail the same loss of voice to discipline or collectivism that the mass party once did, while it does enable accountable representation. The boundaries of its membership are porous, with people flowing in and out at different times. It picks up the experience of Avaaz and 38 Degrees and other online campaigns now honing focussing and messaging around specific issues with considerable effect, and combines this ongoing organisation and particpation in elections with all the tactical issues that follow. They are the organisations of Castell's Networks of Outrage and Hopes, seeking to achieve gains within capitalist society without being reformist in the old, pre-utopian way, pitting, as Paul Mason has advocated, network against heirarchy. In the UK the development of networked parties of the left should be able to look to a highly feminised trade union movement for support. This will prove the major challenge that both the Cornbyn and the Blairite anti-Corbyn wings of the Labour will face and which at present neither seem capable of rising to.  

A networked politics will not carry the same deadening predictability or sense of fate as the old two-party system and is likely to thrive off the marked rise of swingers, switching parties from election to election, as Jon Mellon of the British Election Study reports (hat tip Andrew Sparrow) and you can see from his graph:

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“swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters.”

In the UK’s general election last year, nearly 40% of voters switched their choice.

This graph too is a measure of the multiple revolt against the system that is the backdrop the referendum. Perhaps it suggests why leading politicians in power anbd at the pinnacle of a traditional party of government feel obliged to put themselves at the head of a form of anti-system sentiment. Gove and Johnson may have made their decision thanks to Cameron’s failure to achieve the deal they all desired. But in addition they are feeling consent slipping away. By ‘consent’, I don’t just mean support, as in public support for their party. The ups and down of such popularity are part of the everyday life of electoral politics. Nor do I mean systemic disenchantment of the kind, which I have tried to show, the system they are part of benefited from, as it secured it through passivity. I mean they felt positive consent ebbing from the system, their system: from parliament itself, from the Tory party as such, from the House of Lords where they fancy retiring. They sensed the rise of a new tide and decided they would be stranded unless they picked up their surfboards and waded in.

I have heard Gove and Johnson being dismissed as “hacks”. It maybe that we should see being a journalist as comparable to having been in the army in earlier times (think of both Churchill and Attlee). It was not so much that the military was a way of getting to know the Empire but that you internalised the spirit and judgment of fellow officers. Today, newspapers may be dreadful but they are also a profession and a way of getting to know ‘the country’. It's a business necessity to train journalists to have a sense of what the public wants and how it moves. Without this a paper loses touch and will go under. Professional politicians without such a hinterland mostly towed the government line. But Gove and Johnson were formed in the experience of a more lively reality than parliamentary routine. There is a single media-political caste. But with it they are exceptional in that they straddle both as leading practioners: columnists and editors as well as ministers and mayor. They decided to stay closer to the way the public is moving, against ‘systemic power’.

It may look incongruous to think of Gove and Boris Johnson as anti-elitists. It won’t be if they win the referendum. Should they lose, as expected, the arguments they are making will live on refreshed even after a Brexit defeat. This will then pose a challenge for the left, and certainly the Labour party, if it finds that the most colourful and articulate figures on the right have parked themselves all over the issues of democracy, voice, accountability and self-government, while a fading Cameron government that carries on remaining in the EU, in the words of its Business Secretary, “with a heavy heart and no enthusiasm”.


Read Anthony Barnett's book as he writes it, along with the rest of openDemocracy's Brexit coverage, on our Brexit2016 page.

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