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.