3 ways to revive our politics

by Hugo Dixon | 27.06.2016

The referendum campaign shows voters don’t trust mainstream politicians. This left the door wide open to populists such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.

To fight back, it won’t be enough to replace Jeremy Corbyn or find a new Tory leader, if and when Johnson fails. We need a new type of politics that reconnects with the voters. It will have at least three elements.

First, it must be principled. The way to beat the populists is not to try to beat them on their own turf with an arms race of false promises and misinformation. Nor is it to revert to the spin and policy by focus group perfected by Tony Blair and David Cameron.

Trying to find out what to tell the voters by asking them what they want to hear is an abdication of leadership. The people have seen through it and know it is phoney. One of the striking features of the referendum was that the electorate trusted Johnson and his allies more than they did Cameron, despite the latter’s untruths being far less egregious. Johnson had the advantage of being perceived as authentic.

The new type of politics needs to be both authentic and truthful. It must try to be honest to the voters about the problems we face and explain clearly the possible solutions.

Second, it needs to show how the fruits of globalisation and new technology can be shared with those who currently feel left behind. Progressive politicians have struggled to come up with solutions that don’t also undermine the economy’s dynamism.

Part of the answer must be to crack down on tax cheating and corruption, ensure financiers don’t enjoy free rides at the public’s expense, and enable people to train and retrain with up-to-date skills. Without an agenda for fairness, “pull up the drawbridge” and “keep out the foreigner” solutions, which attracted many Leave voters, will continue to appeal to a large segment of the population.

Third, the new politics needs to celebrate unity in diversity. The referendum campaign has exacerbated divisions in our society: young versus old; London, Scotland and Northern Ireland versus the rest; university graduates versus those who didn’t go on to higher education. It has also unleashed xenophobic emotions.

We need to work hard in the years ahead to keep our country together. Part of the answer has to be ensuring migrants are well integrated into our society and providing resources to those communities most impacted by migration so that there aren’t crowded classrooms and long GP surgery queues. But it has to go further than this and show how the exchange of ideas can make us all culturally richer.

The referendum has unleashed a period of political turmoil. We need a new type of politics to ensure the country finally emerges from the maelstrom healthy and united, not bitter and resentful.

Edited by Jack Schickler

4 Responses to “3 ways to revive our politics”

  • A good article which very much rhymes with my own observations. I believe that particularly in the context of the E.U., but also often at national levels, many political debates have become clearly paradoxical. While numerous issues and challenges require urgent and large-scale decisions to be taken, many people, particularly those increasingly opposed to former mainstream political parties, lament the rapid speed and existence of supposedly “undemocratic” decision-making.

    Whether it is responses to the Eurozone crises through repeated bailouts and ECB policies, the handling of the migration crisis, or preventing recurring terrorist attacks, in all instances the extreme urgency of these events demands almost instantaneous or at least swift political reactions. Yet ironically, the nature of the appropriate solutions needed are so far-reaching and complex that all efforts to quickly push through “big bazooka” style policies and initiatives are bound to end up irritating and frustrating those who find the increasingly fast paced nature of the 21st century unsettling enough. Coupled with the necessity of closely involving experts, think tanks and other non-elected entities this appears to lead to the growing belief among a substantial number of citizens that decisions are being made without their immediate consultation and agreement. In such an environment, “anti-everything” politicians exploit these conditions with populist and nationalist arguments by rejecting rational thought, mainstream media and pluralistic perspectives.

    Less dramatic, but equally controversial, and likewise often opposed and exploited by politicians following a comparable anti-ideology, infrastructure planning and investments suffer from similar paradoxes surrounding political decision making. Whether HS2, London airport expansion, new energy infrastructure, housing developments, etc., in almost all instances the need and urgency of these proposals require clear and timely responses, yet again debates tend to be largely about opposing “top-down” imposition of such projects and targets.

    All this leads me to conclude that in an age of 24 hour on-demand news and information availability, the future of our democracies will depend significantly on the way in which our debates are structured and enabled. More crucially, I would suggest the speed and depth of debate and decision-making will need to be adapted in order to regenerate trust and essentially carry disenfranchised citizens along. Of course, none of this will guarantee less divisive and more effective decision making, but my concern is that without a significant rethinking of the way in which our democracies operate we are likely to witness continuing discontent and hollowing out of moderate political thought and parties.

    Somewhere I read about the long-term decision-making advantages of democracies over autocratic regimes (the latter again frequently favoured by many of those “generally opposed”). For this advantage to remain, however, we need to ensure wider and deeper engagement in debates by all citizens. Even if this process initially takes a longer.

  • Hi Hugo,

    A 2013 survey I found today says 61% of Tory members are aged 60+ and the average age in the party is 59 (https://www.psa.ac.uk/insight-plus/members-only-views-conservative-party%E2%80%99s-rank-and-file). I believe a point needs to be made about this (which I have tried bleating to the void on Twitter!), and people encouraged to join parties even as fairly passive members to help bring them into the 21st century – none of them cost much.

    Great that you are continuing the site post-referendum – such a useful resource.



  • Hi Jack,

    Interesting article. I do feel it’s fanciful to expect politicians to grow scruples from nowhere. Let’s take the Corbyn issue as a case in point.

    Ok, granted that he abandoned his anti-EU position to run the Labour Leave campaign, but when asked on immigration he gave his honest answer. For that, he has been quite rightly rounded on by his own MPs. A savvier politician, or one that actually cared about his cause, would have fervently attacked the gaping holes in the immigration proposals set out by Leave.

    The Houses of Parliament are pits of vipers and asps. Only the strongest of principled men can make it through, but they almost never make it to the top. It’s why we never saw Ken Clarke become leader of the Conservatives, nor Tony Benn of Labour. It’s a system that promotes back stabbing and people that are smart enough to keep quiet and bide their time until the have their chance to strike for power.

    When they strike, they have to be utterly ruthless, something that clearly does not go hand in hand with principles.

  • I agree with your summation, and would add that we also need to find more moderation in the way complex issues are presented to the public. Much of this campaign (and other political debates) has been blighted by the ‘clever soundbite’ syndrome. This morning’s headline in the Express, proclaiming that a ‘secret’ plan for a US of E has been tabled by France and Germany is just such an eye-catching and misinforming example. Most will not read on to learn, right near the end, that the majority of European nations have already said ‘No’. Even Germany’s Mrs Merkel and a majority of her Ministers have said ‘No’, but that is not reported. NOr is it reported in any UK Media, that a majority of politicians within the EU are saying that there has to be a major change in the way the EU operates, and the direction it is taking.

    In my view, if we are to change the way we are governed, we have to do several things. First is change the manner in which our democracy currently works. FPTP/WTA has to go, so must ‘safe’ seats, and the Whips. As long as an MP can be ‘whipped’ into voting for a policy or action that is manifestly against the interests of the constituency they represent, it cannot be called ‘democratic’. There needs to be a ‘recall’ procedure by which an MP can be booted out by their constituents for misrepresentation, or actions for which their constituents could face criminal prosecution. There are too many ‘get outs’ in that field for MPs.

    Truth in politics is something that has been lacking for some time. As you rightly say, there needs to be a great deal more of it, but it is a rare commodity for many reasons. No politician wants to admit that the impact of the policy in the Party Manifesto is likely to bring some very negative effect to some part of their constituency, so, in Parliamentary language, they are ‘economical with the truth’ about it. This has shown itself to be a major part of the disinformation spread by the ‘out’ campaign in the recent referendum. It needs to be called out, and to have some serious penalties for ‘misleading the voter’.

    The ‘Westminster Bubble’ needs to be broken. In my own career I have seen on many occasions that the politicians and the Civil Service Manadarins see ‘Westminster/London’ as the ‘nation’. Indeed many give the impression that, to them, the ‘nation’ is the Home Counties. That has to be changed. Frequently what has been ‘good for London’ has meant disaster for everyone else. This, possibly more than any other single factor, goes some distance to explaining why the ‘rest of the country’ so often either refuses to take part in the ‘democratic process’ (low voter turnout) or, when it does, gives the ‘establishment’ a kicking. A large part of this is the Civil Service which has become a barrier between Parliament and the voters.

    The role of the Civil Service needs to be examined carefully. For many people this IS the face of government, and the civil service has become a huge, expensive and very opaque barrier between the electorate and the people. The Minister is always blamed (The ‘Minister’ made these rules …) when something causes hardship, but the truth is that the Whitehall Mandarins, most of whom have NO ‘technical’ expertise in the fields they purport to manage, actually ‘make’ the rules and guides the ‘coalface’ workers have to operate under, often without any regard for the impracticality of what they are asking staff to do, or ignoring clear conflicts with other ‘rules’ which make comliance all but impossible. Mandarins need to be made responsible for the consequences of their part in the implementation of policy as well.

    Education needs to be focused on raising awareness of what your vote actually means, and how it affects you and everyone else once cast. Much is said in the UK about how the EU is ‘undemocratic’, most of it totally incorrect, and most of it completely ignoring the right of other voters in other members to take a different view to the voter in the UK. This needs to be better explained to the voting public, but will be an uphill task in a society as polarised as ours is now.