19 September 2013

Populism: have the politicians got the message?

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The populist challenge comes in response to a political elite that is seen as out of touch and refuses to do what common sense demands. It is an argument about “them and us”. And it demands a response which neither changes nor concedes the argument. That was the message of the Populism: have the politicians got the message? fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat conference earlier this week, writes Steve Ballinger.

Liberal Democrat Party Conference
Liberal Democrat Party Conference

The panellists took the event’s title to heart, stressing the need to acknowledge some validity in this charge. To address this sense of disconnection and mistrust, they agreed, politicians must restore people’s faith in politics as a solution to their anxieties.

“The loss of trust in political elites is understandable. Probably, the elite has behaved as it always has behaved – but you cannot get away with it anymore,” argued Liberal Democrat health minister and Norfolk MP Norman Lamb. The decline of social deference and a more assertive Parliament are disruptive forces that liberals should celebrate, he noted.

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy, warmly received at his first ever LibDem fringe meeting, said:

“In 2001, people on the doorstep would say ‘I’m bathing the kids’. I’m sure some of them were, but it was often a proxy for saying ‘I’m not voting’. By 2010, that had changed. People would come to the door to say ‘I’m not voting and I want to tell you why.”

Their concern reflected a sense of powerlessness about rapid changes and globalisation “that were never on the ballot paper” said Murphy, positing in response that “we have got to craft our own responses to this sense of anger which is emotionally literate.”

Sunder Katwala, Director of British Future, observed that mainstream parties could often oscillate between two instincts. The first was to “change the subject” – hearing concerns about immigration as really about jobs and housing or democratic disconnection – and the other being finally forced to engage, but only by “conceding the argument”.

Changing the subject was, he argued, the worst way to address anxiety. Both Gordon Brown’s ‘British jobs for British workers’ and the Conservative attempt to out-Ukip Nigel Farage’s party in Eastleigh suggested that emulating populism failed the authenticity test.

“Changing the subject is something that we as a party have tended to do. That fails people,” said Norman Lamb. “We should never be dismissive of people’s concerns and seek to understand, not to lecture,” he added.

Lamb argued that a liberal defence of the benefits of immigration should be combined with acknowledgment that there are different impacts of immigration, especially in the short-term. Practical answers to these pressures are needed in order to challenge those seeking scapegoats.

The panel and audience members at the event, co-hosted by CentreForum, British Future and the Fabian Society, highlighted the need to give away more power locally to overcome public cynicism about ever being given a voice. Shirley Williams argued that approaches like open primaries could be attractive, as long as there were serious efforts to limit the impact of big money in politics.

The politicians also stressed the limits of what should be conceded to a populist challenge. “In hard times, it becomes quite seductive to come up with easy solutions,” said Lamb. Murphy said that it was necessary to engage real and reasonable concerns, but also to defend the benefits of managed migration.

“We should never be complicit in a lie to meet the populist argument. We should never say that immigration has been bad for this country. It hasn’t and it isn’t,” he said.

A central theme of the meeting was that the challenge to those with liberal instincts is to make their case to a majority of the public, not just preach to those already converted to their cause.

“One big question which liberals should ask themselves is ‘Do you want to be the liberal opponents which populists would design for themselves?’,” said Katwala.

Steve Ballinger is the director of communications at British Future.

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