Populism, Politics and Voting

The following is a speech delivered at Populism, Politics and Voting – a debate organised by Cardiff University and hosted in the Assembly by Jeremy and Elin Jones AM.

“Populism has had a good few years.

Whether it’s the tie-less radicalism of Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain or at the other end of the political spectrum, the rather glossier version of Donald Trump in the US, people have increasingly put their faith in those able to describe their condition in a voice which is both loud and angry and the solutions to it in simple, technicolour images.

In this very Assembly, populism in Wales has found a home, shocking to many of us, in the election last year of 7 UKIP members.

The task for those of us who are not populists is to try to grapple with and understand its appeal but also if – as I do – you believe that the good society is not one in which populism flourishes but rather one in which engaged, informed citizens participate in debate and the democratic process, then we need to take steps to make that kind of society a reality. But also to tackle the failures in the way we behave as politicians – how we communicate and more importantly, what we choose to care about.

Now there is a school of thought that says that the solution to populism at least in terms of political behaviour is in authenticity. That the growth of populism is a manifestation of a search for reality, for connectedness in an increasingly professionalised political world.

That a politician without a tie is somehow more real than the other type.

The truth is much more complex – and in many ways, even less palatable, than that. Take for example the rise of Donald Trump.

Many of us choose to interpret his rise to a sense of resentment on the part of working class Americans. A sense that globalisation has hollowed out a jobs market that millions of Americans could depend on for a decent living.

And that a political class, increasingly driven by financial concerns and speaking only to the concerns of the already wealthy led to a huge backlash and an electorate increasingly susceptible and taken in by exhortations to “Make America Great Again”.

But can you imagine a candidate who better embodies the globalisation and financialisation of the American economy and politics than Donald Trump.

One analysis is that American voters were duped. We should be very, very careful about making that assumption, even if we dress it up in political theory as a kind of false consciousness. One of the main fuelling the growth of populism is the sense that the electorate are not treated with respect.

The other view is that they get that Donald Trump isn’t a working class hero. They’ve watched The Apprentice and the footage of his gilded life in Trump Tower and they back him anyway.
They back him because he has given them someone to blame – someone to blame by the way instead of the globalised, financialised class that he himself embodies – in short he has given them Mexicans and a wall.

And this scapegoating is why populism is so corrosive. In the simple, home truth that someone else – by the way someone identifiable and often pretty specific – is to blame for all that ails you.
Now those of us who campaigned in the European Union referendum last year got a pretty clear taste of this.

Where Europe or immigrants became the scapegoat and the arguments we had, which were rooted we felt in fact, in reality, just did not address people’s lived experience and their perception of the world they lived in.

And I think there are some lessons here for us.

Notwithstanding my point about authenticity the appeal of the populist message worldwide has undoubtedly grown as a result of a kind of politics which has too often been managerialist and bland. Where politicians have too often given the impression of governing by algorithm with scripted politicians delivering “I speak your weight” messages.

People are going to be left cold by a “what works” type of politics, if in their own lives, it is manifestly not working.

I would argue for politics where moral judgments and passionately articulated values are at its heart. Too often we are keen to tell you how complex delivery is — and we forget to tell you why we believe something is right and something else is wrong.

I would argue as well for a kind of politics which is more diffident as to its claims to change the world.

Yes, people are drawn to the simple messages of populism, but we will only undermine our credibility as non-populist politicians by fostering the idea that government has a magic wand. The dissonance between the declamatory statements we like to make about change and the fact that — necessarily — only some of it works and some of it sadly fails, is jarring to the electorate.
And when you disbelieve mainstream politicians, the cost of backing a populist alternative doesn’t seem so high.

There is also a lesson here too about the behaviour of political parties. I think the rise of populism requires root and branch change in how political parties organise – so that they are once again fully a part of their communities, see themselves as partners in change, not remote pullers of policy levers.

And this brings us to the fundamental issue here about what we as politicians choose to care about. It is absolutely not just about tone and language. It is much more crucial than that.
Mainstream parties of both left and right the world over have not paid sufficient heed to the real concerns of most working people, despite what we like to think.

Whether it is vocational education, affordable housing, unpaid care and social care, the changing workplace, intergenerational justice – it is no surprise to me that these areas, ones the mainstream parties have done least to address over years, are the ones where the populist message gains most traction.

The relevance of what we have to say to people’s lives is at the heart of this discussion.

And finally, I want to turn now to how we build that good society I spoke about with informed, engaged citizens debating and engaging in the democratic process.

Today Mark Drakeford has published a consultation on local government elections – voting at 16, electronic voting, voting systems. All of which I think we should be debating this evening — and no doubt we will.

But I want to make the case as well for building a culture which sees voting as an indispensable civic obligation. We have regarded voting as a right and so we should, it has been fought over and died for.

But we should also see participation in the democratic process – whether by voting or active abstention – as a duty, and a duty enshrined in law.

Any progressive, communitarian idea of a good society would consider it indispensable for us each to make a financial, care or other contribution (paying taxes), participate in the system but which society judges us when we break the laws (the jury system) and contributing to how those laws are made (voting) as the irreducible core of the obligation we owe – not to the state – but to one another.

Now in a discussion about populism it may seem risky to argue for an increase in the cohort of voters who have to date excluded themselves for reasons of disengagement, disinterest or just simple disdain – from the electoral system

But I don’t believe this is an alternative to the engagement, education and ease of voting we are debating tonight – but it is, for me, alongside those, one of the vital components of a good Society.
And ultimately, in that way, an antidote to populism.”