In the wake of Rochester, the rise of United Kingdom Independence party and the appeal of populism across Europe, it is crucial for believers in reformism to understand and tackle populism. The hard part is how. I propose one way forward in a pamphlet from Policy Network published today called ‘The popular centre’.
I argue the populism of the right and left prospers in moments like ours because it recognises the disquiet and distrust people feel about a politics which does not seem to work in delivering what voters need. Populists offer straightforward, apparently simple solutions attacking those at fault for the failure of politics.
For centrists to chase after this approach is self-defeating, because we can only offer a pale imitation of populist reform, are compromised with the existing system, so do not have superior credibility on being able to deliver change. Worse, the policies that chasing after populists involves alienates our own supporters by appearing extreme or unworkable.
However, the traditional approach of gradual reformism has stopped working as a political argument. The centre can neither claim the credit for gradual forward progress, nor speak with greater authority about making the system better.
By aping populism without populisms comfortable certainties, we manage to appear both timid and risky, boastful and craven.
So what can you do?
I argue the key is to use populisms own strongest insight against it. Politics has failed, but instead of using this as an argument for pursuing radical, risky change, this is a case for recognising the real, significant limits of political power.
Ultimately, politics is a secondary, not a primary force. The real changes around us, whether economic, technological, social, are happening elsewhere, and politics is not able to simple halt or remake those changes by sheer force of will.
Put it this way: if Gordon Brown struggled to see emerging risks outwith his control, how likely is it that Nigel Farage’s desire to call a halt to social change or Podemos’s desire to radically extend the economic presence of the state in people’s lives is going to work smoothly?
Are these people of strong beliefs really able to manage the pressures of a fast changing, technologically and economically complex world when they, and other politicians, barely seem to understand what those future shifts might be?
Of course not. It might be tough for those of us who love politics to face, but politics is primarily a secondary function in society.
Real change is being created and developed elsewhere, and politics seeks to manage, regulate, anticipate and ameliorate those changes in the interests of the people.
This does not mean politics is insignificant, or irrelevant, but it does mean that it is weak and needs to recognise this weakness, especially in times of crisis.
This insight helps the centrist beat the populist in two important ways:
First, recognising the weakness of politics highlights the need to focus on those steps that can credibly be achieved.
Given the low esteem in which politics is held, it is likely that the change you can believe in, to borrow a phrase, will be limited, rather than extensive.
Think of a politician as an unfaithful spouse trying to convince their partner they have changed. What is more likely to convince: the grandiose gesture and a promise of total fidelity, or the simple act of being where you are supposed to be, doing what you are supposed to do?
Seen in this light, what the populist is offering the electorate is simply ‘more politics’ in a world where such politics is unlikely to function well.
Second, this understanding of the failure of politics makes the case for a reform of the state and democratic processes itself.
Here, the popular centre can put the blame on politics itself for not functioning.
This cannot be merely a disguised wrestling for party advantage, as political reform programmes often are. It has to offer every party and actor a recognition that they have legitimate concerns. This is because the popular centre needs to show that politics can work. Only by delivering broadly agreed change can it do so.
The populist answer to crisis is more politics, more boldly asserted. Given the view of politics as having failed, this is their crucial weakness, a weakness that can be used against them.
The reformists’ path to the popular centre is to recognise the weakness of politics, operate with that insight and both offer believable, practical improvements and significant, meaningful, non-partisan reform of democracy itself. The key to rebuilding the popular centre is to rebuild trust, trust that we can do what we say, and trust that politics can work.
Hopi Sen is a contributing editor to Progress
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