Preventing populism

Another day, another thinktank. Tony Blair has announced he is to launch the Institute for Global Change. The project will bring together his existing initiatives under one roof, including work on African governance, fighting religious extremism, and Middle East policy. But piquing the most interest is a new dedicated unit for ‘renewing the centre’. The 25-strong team’s specific remit will be to arm leading western politicians with strategies and policies to combat the populist surge.

German-born Harvard academic Yascha Mounk has been brought in at the helm. The 34-year-old has an almighty challenge on his hands, even with the help of the £10m being funneled into the institute, as his team seeks answers that can help end what Blair describes as a cultural and economic revolt against the effects of globalisation.

Blair has been at pains to emphasise that the project is not a platform for a personal comeback. Instead he says it is motivated by his ‘sense of urgency’ about the shift in politics that has been witnessed over recent years.

In an interview with the Guardian, Labour’s longest serving prime minister expounded his anxiety: ‘An indifference to liberal democracy is starting to form in parts of Europe. There are very worrying trends including as many as a third of young people in France saying they doubt democracy is the best form of government.’

Democratic discontent and the effects of globalisation are issues that IPPR North tackles head-on in its new report: Taking Back Control in the North. Author Ed Cox argues that the ‘Leave’ campaign’s call to ‘take back control’ during the European Union referendum proved particularly effective because of the way ‘large institutions – particularly political institutions – are perceived to have disempowered large segments of the population’.

The report criticises the United Kingdom’s ‘weak subnational institutions’ and says our centralised system of government is ‘hampered by a lack of spatial awareness and an inherent policy bias towards London and the south-east’. According to Cox this in turn has ‘led to a culture of dependency in the regions, which are then dominated by supplicant elites’.

To help rectify this imbalance, the report promotes the idea of a ‘northern super-region’. It sets out a variety of proposals to contribute to the kind of institutional capacity that would be needed, including: ‘developing and improving the pan-northern institutions that already exist, establishing a formal council of the north, [or] breaking the existing pattern of electoral representative democracy … with the development of a more deliberative northern citizens assembly’.

If a dramatic overhaul of our democratic institutions is what is needed to halt the tide of populism, researchers at the Institute for Government might want to head to the pub. They have just launched a major report exposing the heavy ‘human and economic’ costs of frequent government upheaval, including the tendency of governments to casually create and abolish whole departments.

All Change condemns what it calls needless churn: ‘New legislation replaces old; organisations are founded and abolished; policies are launched and relaunched; programmes are created and abandoned – all at an alarming rate. This is not merely a facet of ideological change … in many of the examples there is a certain degree of agreement between parties.’

The report prescribes a series of measures to curtail this waste. They include strengthening institutional memory, improving long-term strategic planning in No 10, and changes to the policy development process.

Finally, it is bad news from the Adam Smith Institute for anyone who thought that the preponderance of lefties in the academic world was down to progressives’ innate superior intelligence. Instead, its new report investigating the ‘left-liberal skew’ in academia argues that this can be explained by such careers typically being pursued by those who score highly on the measure of ‘openness to new experience’. This, they say, drives them to ‘intellectually stimulating’ roles. At least we can take satisfaction that rightwingers are more likely to be stuck in boring jobs.

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Ben Dilks is commissioning editor at Policy Network. He tweets at @BenDilks

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