All of the anger and frustration with mainstream politicians has created a wave of anti-politics. There are voters who simply do not trust any politicians and feel disenfranchised, so they choose to use their vote as a protest. Douglas Carswell, in his book Rebel: How to Overthrow the Emerging Oligarchy, believes the root problem is the party system.
In a sweeping historical narrative from Antiquity to the Renaissance, Carswell highlights moments in time when oligarchies have benefitted from populist revolts which make them appear to be reasonable and desirable. They rule for their own benefit and deny citizens a direct say in how the country is run. Carswell goes on to say that “parties in most Western states have formed a cartel. They have rigged the system, either by drawing up boundaries or creating an electoral system that minimises competition between them, so keeping out any upstarts.”
As a former UKIP MP, Carswell has some experience of operating in populist politics, though very much in his own style which emphasises libertarianism, technology, and direct democracy. Carswell’s solutions are radical. He proposes the replacement of the party system with independent MPs, and introducing instruments such as citizens’ initiative, as well as the regular use of national and local referenda.
This would represent a severe disruption in Britain’s parliamentary tradition. Parties have been key to ensuring the formation of governments to administer the nation’s affairs. Edmund Burke, the first and greatest of modern conservatives, defended the political party as “a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours, the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed”. They lend coherence to the millions of voices which make up the British electorate.
It is true the party system has not been as responsive as it should be, but it has still allowed the anti-politics vote to be heard. Tony Blair’s decision to join George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq helped the Liberal Democrats surge in popularity as a protest party. After they went into coalition with the Conservatives, the anti-politics vote went to UKIP. Brexit has made UKIP irrelevant, so the anti-politics vote now resides with Jeremy Corbyn, the rebel who railed against the “rigged system” and the media.
Anti-politics sentiment has not been a call for a Swiss-style direct democracy. It is a demand for mainstream politicians to listen. Parties need to find productive ways of reconnecting with their grassroots outside of Westminster. Labour has taken this approach to an extreme with the Momentum movement which has allowed entryism from the hard-left, but it still helped Corbyn win 40% of the popular vote. George Freeman has become a crucial voice in this conversation since election night, and will be launching his “Big Tent Ideas Fest” to turbocharge the conversation about renewing the Conservative grassroots.
The centre-ground does not just exist in Westminster, it also exists in the country at large and it is always in flux. In order to dominate the centre-ground, Conservatives need to be able to respond to the voices of the British people. Reading polling data is not enough. The party has to find new ways of engaging with voters and encouraging new activists. Not only will this promote a healthy democratic culture, it will also help the Conservatives win the next election.
Across Europe and America, populist movements have flourished by exploiting people’s fears over the assimilation of Muslims and the rise of Islamist extremism. It has poisoned an already emotive and sensitive debate, but a valuable and intelligent contribution has been made by Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam.
Murray launches a scathing attack on Europe’s mainstream politicians and accuses them of allowing mass migration, particularly from Islamic countries, to change the cultural fabric of Europe, including Britain, without consulting their electorates. This has left Europe, he argues, with “an existential tiredness and a feeling that perhaps for Europe the story has run out and a new story must be allowed to begin.” The result has been a failure to address people’s concerns regarding the consequences of mass migration.
One of the most appalling examples Murray picks to illustrate his argument is the Rotherham child sex abuse scandal where a gang of men, largely of Pakistani origin, groomed and trafficked at least 1,400 children, mostly white working-class girls, over two decades. For years, the police suppressed stories about the gang for fear of being accused of racism or Islamophobia. There have been similar cases in 11 other areas. Stories such as this have left people disillusioned with the state and its ability to protect the public.
When Sarah Champion attempted to highlight this problem, albeit in clumsy language, she faced a maelstrom of abuse from her fellow Labour members and was forced to resign from the Shadow Cabinet. After defending Champion’s comments on Newsnight, Amina Lone was deselected as a local Labour candidate on spurious grounds. When mainstream politicians shut down debates on these issues, it leaves them open to manipulation by populists.
The three terror attacks committed by home-grown Islamists in Britain earlier this year have increased the relevancy of Murray’s work. Why have people who were born and bred in Britain chosen to murder their fellow citizens, and what can the state do to stop this from happening again? Theresa May has focused on pursuing new anti-terror measures, including a ban on encrypted data, and eliminating ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But this has not be enough to satisfy public anger with the state’s failure to prevent these attacks.
Jeremy Corbyn used this to his advantage during the election. In a speech following the Manchester Bombing, Corbyn chose to make a connection between “wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.” To the media, it was shocking that Corbyn was blaming British foreign policy for acts of terrorists. But for voters who are still angry with the Iraq War and other foreign interventions, this sounded like common sense. In spite of his relations with Hamas and Hezbollah, Corbyn managed to shift people’s anger exclusively towards the Government, and away from the rise of Islamist extremism identified by Murray.
But the changing nature of UKIP might bring British politics closer to the anti-Islam populism of Geert Wilders in Holland and Marine Le Pen in France. In an attempt to shore up its support during the election, UKIP unveiled a manifesto tilted towards various anti-Islam measures. Lisa Duffy, one of last year’s leadership candidates, called for a “total ban” on Muslim schools. This year’s leadership race includes Anne Marie Waters, a far right anti-Islam candidate with connections to Tommy Robinson and the EDL. More and more, UKIP appears to be moving away from its eurosceptic and libertarian roots.
Conservatives should fight back against populists with extreme anti-Islam agendas. Bigotry has no place in the Conservative heart. But the problems related to mass migration cannot be allowed to continue. This does not just mean reducing immigration numbers to a sustainable level. It is also about conserving a strong British identity rooted in liberal values and historic traditions which can give everyone a sense of belonging, regardless of their race or religion. Conservatives can achieve this through a “muscular liberalism” which charts a middle way between the extremes.
Since the Brexit vote, the divide between Leavers and Remainers has continued. But it goes beyond the issue of Brexit. It is a reflection of an economic and cultural divide which predated the referendum, and was deepened by the financial crisis. In his book The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, David Goodhart rechristened this divide as being “between the people who see the world from Anywhere and the people who see it from Somewhere.”
Broadly speaking, Goodhart argued that “Anywheres” are the citizens of metropolitan Britain who support global markets and social liberalism. “Somewheres” are the citizens of provincial Britain who have been left behind by globalisation and favour a more socially conservative outlook.
The modern economy mainly benefits the “Anywheres” who are college-educated and middle class, and is focused around London and the South East. Meanwhile, non-graduate jobs for "Somewhere" citizens have declined in quality, and insufficient investment has been given to infrastructure and skills in regions beyond London.
As a social democrat and man of the Left, Goodhart believes that this economic and cultural divide needs to be reconciled in order to stop the rise of populism. Goodhart started voicing his concerns with the consequences of globalisation, specifically mass migration, a few years ago and found himself maligned by his colleagues for it.
When May came to power last year, she acknowledged this divide. May used her first party conference speech to say “too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street. But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” This attack on the “Anywheres” was a bold, if misjudged, attempt to boost the party’s appeal to “Somewhere” voters thinking of leaving Labour.
After the snap election was called, commentators began to frame the contest as being between the “Somewheres” represented by May’s Conservatives and the “Anywheres” in the various progressive parties. May crafted a communitarian conservatism which addressed the economic and cultural divisions created by globalisation, but this was not matched by popular policies to win over the “Somewhere” voters. In fact, some Conservative policies turned off these voters, such as repealing the ban on fox hunting and scrap free school lunches. This failure to make sufficient gains among “Somewheres” was made worse by the loss of “Anywheres” alienated by May’s rhetoric on Brexit.
Defying all expectations, Jeremy Corbyn assembled an alliance of “Somewheres” in the Northern English and Welsh rustbelts, and “Anywheres” in London and Southern England. Labour’s manifesto promised electoral bribes for both groups. Free childcare for working families, scrapping tuition fees for middle-class students, protecting pensioner benefits. All would be funded by borrowing and taxes on the super-rich.
On Brexit, Corbyn appealed to “Somewheres” by pledging to end the free movement of citizens from the EU, but kept “Anywheres” onside by promising to prevent Britain from exiting the EU without a trade deal to secure growth and jobs. It is a difficult coalition of voters to maintain and Labour’s recent U-turn on promising to leave the single market and customs union could prove to be its undoing.
The promises offered by Corbyn were unrealistic, and the policies proposed by May were uninspiring. Neither of the main parties have yet to reach a credible and popular programme for government which could heal the new divide in Britain identified by Goodhart. But whoever succeeds in combining support from both “Anywheres” and “Somewheres” will dominate the post-Brexit landscape.
Capitalism is in crisis and everyone knows it. Populist socialism has come close to power because it has exploited the frustration many feel towards the modern economy. From working-class Leavers to millennial Remainers, there is diminishing trust in capitalism as the best means of creating opportunity for the many.
Systems often lose trust when the link between contribution and reward breaks down. People see themselves play by one set of rules while others play by another set of rules. As people struggle to pay their bills or buy a house, they grow resentful of the abuses committed by capitalists at the top.
It is not just the fact that people feel that the "1%" has too much wealth, but that they have not earned it. This has allowed Jeremy Corbyn to attack capitalism as a “rigged system” in which executives award themselves extravagant pay raises and bonuses while real wages fall, and corporations avoid paying taxes while cuts are made to public services.
This is part of a broader lack of trust in politics which has grown over the past couple of decades. The abuse of expenses by MPs, the incentives against work in the benefits system, and the free entry of EU migrants with low skills. All involve a decline in the link between contribution and reward. It is the rocket fuel for twenty-first century populism.
The Conservatives have already gone some way to restore fairness in these areas by reforming welfare, reducing immigration, and increasing government transparency, but they now face the task of restoring people’s trust in capitalism. That is why Theresa May made it her mission to build an “economy which works for everyone” and inject new economic thinking into the party.
After months of steadying the government, May has revived her plans to crack down on executive pay. These reforms include strengthening the voices of employees through an employee advisory panel or an employee board member for companies, and a public register of listed companies which have faced complaints from their shareholders over pay and bonuses. These corporate governance reforms are intended to encourage greater long-term thinking and fairness in the country's top companies.
With no majority and a discredited manifesto, these reforms face an uncertain future. Opposition from the Tory backbenches could easily derail them. But they should resist the temptation. Allowing businesses to get away with unhealthy behaviour is not just bad for shareholders and customers, but also for the public's trust in capitalism. It gives ammunition to Corbyn's anti-capitalist movement.
Capitalism is clearly in need of reform in order to be conserved, but it poses a challenge for Conservatives. As the party of free enterprise which relies on the business vote as a key constituency, the Conservatives cannot and should not indulge in extreme anti-business rhetoric. No matter how far the Conservatives go in that direction, Corbyn can and always will outmatch them.
This does not mean blindly praising the free market or pretending problems do not exist. It means Conservatives should frame the problems with capitalism within the task of restoring the link between contribution and reward. It is this principle of responsibility which can provide a positive, optimistic vision of a popular, reformed capitalism.