By Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here and more posts by Gerry Stoker here.
How and why do political parties struggle to ‘get’ anti-politics? They all nod in speeches and policy statements in the direction of public disenchantment with politics but fail to take tackling its causes seriously. UKIP seek to exploit it, the Tories want to wish it away, Labour under Miliband claim innocence and ineptness in their defence, while the Liberal Democrats misread it and think constitutional change is the answer.
Let us admit immediately anti-politics is not easy to respond to or understand. It is now some five years since the expenses scandal broke unleashing an already building undercurrent of dissatisfaction to become a storm of contempt for the political class. Some of the confusion of the political class likely stems from the difficulty of pinpointing a single or direct cause of growing political disengagement and disenchantment. Instead, each of the political parties tends to see anti-politics in its own image, and through the lens of what it would like to believe rather than what it is. But the evidence we have suggests that from the perspective of citizens none of them has the solution to anti-politics in their grasp.
In many respects, UKIP have the most straightforward relationship with anti-politics. The party has an intuitive grasp of the scale and intensity of public discontentment with the political class and the appeal of populist policies. This makes it highly effective in presenting itself as political outsiders disconnected from the Westminster bubble – and pulling off the tightrope act of appealing to right-wing Eurosceptic former Conservatives and traditional economically disadvantaged Labour supporters at the same time. It also helps them deflect criticism and media scrutiny, such as on the ill-discipline by local councillors and candidates, as snobbish and elitist bullying from the political establishment. UKIP’s empathy for anti-politics is superficial, however. While effective in channelling the sentiment of protest into votes at the ballot box, their style of politics and policy do not address the problems of political discontentment at its roots, and are likely to disappoint in the long-term. The UKIP project itself stems from a carefully media managed outsider image and populist rhetoric, dominated by the charismatic Nigel Farage, that has learned much from the spin operations of the Blair and Cameron teams. For UKIP, anti-politics is something to be exploited: they are more the symptom of anti-politics rather than offering a thick understanding or treatment for its causes.
The Conservatives hope that anti-politics will just go away when the good times return. A recent blog by Dominic Cummings, former special advisor to the Secretary of State for Education, recounts the tale of a wargame organised in Westminster during the autumn of 2010 “to consider the likely dynamics of the next five years”. His contemporaneous notes of the exercise make for interesting reading in the likely scenarios identified for anti-politics sentiment among citizens. These reveal a troubling complacency, with the ideal future scenario identified by the ‘Cameroons’ in the room (as Cummings calls them) as being simply “anti-politics dies away”; as if this widespread sentiment was a passing fad rather than a more entrenched mood requiring serious reflection and solutions. Part of this misplaced optimism might be put down to the ‘too-clever-by-half’ tendencies of their professionalised brand of politics, as well as cultural disconnect that gives limited understanding of the day-to-day lives of ordinary people (unhelped by toxic stories that suggest a financial existence beyond the imagination of most voters; such as the recent retirement of a Conservative minister complaining his family was unable to manage on a six-figure income). This disconnect is fuelled through recruitment of a modern professional political class that looks and thinks little like its voters. The modern politician, and their army of special advisors, has been taught a number of ‘iron laws’ of politics that must be followed for electoral victory.
In some respects the teaching of politics must take some of the blame here, in its role in socialising aspiring politicians in the rational choice view of the world that individuals favour economic self-interest above all else. Subscription to aphorisms like ‘it’s the economy stupid’ has led to over-simplistic diagnoses of the problem, as well as a more general subscription to gimmick politics – giveaways to groups of target voters (a political art put as much to use by George Osborne as Gordon Brown). The recent Coastal Communities fund is one such example, with government subsidies targeted at prime UKIP territory without addressing the underlying causes of economic decline. The Conservative stance on immigration typifies the downward spiral created by strategic and presentational politics. Although a fruitful issue for hammering the Blair and Brown governments when it was in opposition, immigration is an issue that most voters will never trust the government to deliver on, but it keeps on trying. To keep ramping up the anti-migration rhetoric simply feeds anti-politics sentiment and cynicism (it is no coincidence that the only prominent figures to recently make the case for immigration are retired politicians – Tony Blair and Sir John Major – with no need to play the populist card to the tabloid audience). The Conservatives’ liking for news management is also evidenced in the short-term attention span of their responses to foreign policy issues – such as Russia and EU reform – where there is a rush to take rhetorical positions without much thought to the long-term consequences of symbolic politics. Cameron’s infamous EU veto in 2011 did nothing to undercut the rise of UKIP, and much like immigration arguably served to embolden them and feed a cynical public.
Anti-politics predate the economic crisis of the last few years and as such to imagine it will go away when the good times roll is naive.
Labour’s relationship with anti-politics is somewhat different. They have struggled to understand it when in government – perhaps focusing more on their own policy achievements in office than the emergence of political discontentment. Now in opposition Labour likes to pretend they are not part of it, such as Miliband’s recent speech lambasting presentational politics. “I’m not from central casting; I’m the one with bold ideas and deep thinking” is the plea from Labour’s leader. But does that get to the heart of the issue or represent a form of post-spin spin?
Labour are imprisoned by the necessities of political warfare and news management. Their response to anti-politics is muddled again because of the instinct for safe professional strategic politics that won’t scare voters off. There is good reason for this, with a media environment that is unsympathetic to the party or its leader. In many respects, Labour is the biggest puzzle of anti-politics, as this should be something it can deliver on better than anyone (and arguably should benefit the party most electorally given the demographic of the anti-politickers). However, it has struggled to offer a narrative that links anti-politics to a positive message that might offset the alienation that many voters feel due both to their experience of the democratic process and an economic existence which is increasingly precarious – with falling real wages, less secure employment, longer hours and immobility for those who can’t get on the employment or housing ladder early on in life. Labour’s failing on anti-politics is thus more about its inability to come up with imaginative and convincing solutions that address these problems.
Collectively, Labour want to get anti-politics, but have been unable to join the dots between aspects of their own modernisation project, which intentionally distanced them from the ‘left-behind’ (their traditional base, the shrinking working class part of the electorate whose experience is increasingly economically and culturally distant from the political class in Westminster), and the reason why many people feel disenfranchised from political representation. The Blairite project was hugely successful as an electoral strategy, but left many communities with few economic or political prospects – as the economic and political gravity of Britain shifted towards London under its watch (and has continued to move in that direction ever since).
4) Liberal Democrats
With the Liberal Democrats largely dazed and confused as a political force since their decision into the coalition in May 2010, anti-politics is just another problem for a party that has lost its identity and its electoral appeal. They seem particularly at sea in dealing with anti-politics and find it hard to understand why it appears no one likes them anymore. Getting involved in government at the local level was not such a negative experience but the national engagement has made it impossible for activists to present themselves on the side of the angels; they are firmly part of the political elite and have found that an uncomfortable position.
Because traditionally the Liberal Democrats pursued a more positive/optimistic style of politics than their counterparts, especially locally, anti-politics is something of an anathema to them, and as such it is understandable the have not fully been able to comprehend the alienation felt by some. The traditional focus on constitutional reform has become outdated, as the roots of anti-politics attitudes have become better understood as not simply about the electoral system. When asked in focus groups or surveys citizens do not back the idea of constitutional reform among their top choices for political reform.
None of the main parties get anti-politics. Perhaps some of the truths of anti-politics remain too hard for those working at the coalface of politics to hear. In certain respects this is understandable, party activists and leaders have committed their lives to participating in politics and must find it hard to empathise with those who see no benefit or virtue in politics. The first party leader or group of activists who really show an ability to understand the world from another’s perspective and then show a real capacity to shift the way they do politics might indeed reap a considerable reward in support. Each false dawn risks alienating the public further. There is little sense from the evidence about anti-politics that most citizens see the solution as them becoming more active, taking more decisions, sitting on more committees or taking part in referenda. There is some push for having more of say but the overwhelming sentiment is for a political leadership that is seen engaged, connected and responsive and not driven by spin, self-aggrandisement and connections with big business. People want a representative democracy that works. If a political party could show them how to get that it would be on to a winner.