‘Getting the populists’ message’, Policy Network, 20 February 2014

The power of populism lies principally in its appeal to our emotions, or so we’re often told.  That may be true – but only up to a point.  Focusing on populism’s emotional appeal allows us to forget that much of populism’s popularity rests on the fact that, to coin a phrase, ‘it stands to reason’.  “Not enough council houses, school places or jobs to go round?  Well, what about all those immigrants ‘flooding’ into the country? Coincidence? I don’t think so.” Sure, that logic may be simplistic, flawed, twisted even.  But it is logic nonetheless – and powerful, too.

Likewise, those who worry about populist parties and politicians complain bitterly that they thrive on exaggeration – the big lie, if you like.  But, again, those critics are only half right.  And, again, they are buying into a kind of common wisdom that risks making populism harder rather than easier to combat.  Continually moaning about populists blowing things out of proportion only serves to deflect our attention from an uncomfortable truth, namely that at least some of what those parties and politicians are saying may well contain more than a grain of truth.

Consider the following.  All staples of populist discourse about parliament and government as they currently stand.  All stuff that’s pretty standard if you listen not just to anyone from UKIP for more than a minute or two but to floating voters in focus groups, too.  And all, we should have the courage to admit, actually pretty hard to deny – at least completely.

Westminster is populated by a political class which increasingly looks and sounds, at least to those on average incomes with only a passing interest or acquaintance in its goings-on, pretty much the same irrespective of which parties its members happen to belong to.  Politics has become, if not a rich man’s sport, then a graduate profession that seems to have effectively removed ordinary working people from the picture.

OK, so a few particularly egregious cases of expenses fiddling resulted in politicians facing criminal charges or being forced out of parliament.  But there are a whole bunch of people still there who did things that most people would regard as dodgy and who might well have met the same fate as their more unfortunate counterparts had they not been lucky enough to be well in with their party leaders, their local party, and the print media.

Governments of both parties have, for whatever reason, been unable or unwilling to effectively punish people whose actions, whether they are foreign criminals or risk-taking bankers, have proved seriously harmful.  Whatever happened to fairness?

Now, clearly, there are plenty of people working in and around parliament who don’t fit this description, who’ve never had a single allegation made against them (let alone proved) when it comes to expenses, and who’ve either never served in government or remain as frustrated as anyone else at its seeming inability to turn the justifiable rage of the electorate into concrete sanctions.  It’s hardly surprising, then, that, if you are one of those people, your first reaction is just a little bit defensive.

But that may well be a big mistake.  We spend an awful lot of our time working out how to defeat populists rather than listening to what they’re saying and wondering whether they might, in fact, be telling us something we actually need to hear if we’re to stand any chance whatsoever of re-forging some sort of connection between the public and political system that’s supposed to serve them.  Nigel Farage, like others of his ilk all around continental Europe, should be seen not just as force to be reckoned with, an opponent to defeat, but as a canary in a coal mine.  

We need to think hard, then, about how we get people into parliament who look and sound more like the bulk of the electorate rather than the bulk of those who are already there.  We need to make sure that, should politics in the UK ever take a hit on anything like the scale represented by the expenses scandal, we really do clean out the house rather than hang a few sad souls out to dry while others are allowed simply to pay up quietly and stick around.  And, before the next shit hits the financial fan, or the next foreign criminal escapes deportation on what the public see as spurious human rights grounds, we need to think about legislation that, even if it doesn’t allow us to exact simple vengeance, then at least reflects our values.

Populism, in other words, is sending us a signal, delivering us a message.  Unless we get that message rather than simply thinking up better ways to shoot the messenger, then its appeal – whether it be emotional or rational – will only grow and grow.


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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