How Labour can beat the populists

Voter disillusionment means it's time to start thinking creatively about what new democratic institutions could look like



The general election defeat leaves Labour in a four-way bind. How can the party appeal to voters who deserted it for the SNP in Scotland, Ukip in northern England, the Conservatives in the south and Midlands, and the Greens in urban and liberal areas?

Various proposals have been floated, most of them implicitly urging the party to ‘give up’ on one or more of these groups. Some suggest a harsher stance on immigration and Europe to appease the Ukippers.

In a similar vein, Labour is urged to embrace social conservatism by those who see the election result as a vote against the ‘metropolitan liberalism of London’.

Still others recommend a swing to the left to rebuild Labour’s Scottish citadel and win back those voters who were wooed by the SNP’s pledge to end austerity.

But these are short-termist, quick-fix solutions to much larger underlying problems. The UK’s electoral system greatly skews perceptions of voter support. In reality, only 24 per cent of the electorate voted Conservative on 7 May, and only 20 per cent voted Labour.

The largest party was, once again, non-voters at 34 per cent. Even with Ukip’s rise, that means less than one in three Britons opted for a right or centre-right party in the general election.

In a new report, The Populist Signal, I argue that to rebuild support among this disparate – and seemingly irreconcilable – former coalition of Scotland, working-class voters and urban liberals, Labour needs to begin by tackling deeply rooted alienation from the political system.

The party needs to recognise that those voters it lost to Ukip, the Greens and SNP were, in part, turning their backs on a political class that they perceive as corrupt, self-serving and out-of-touch.

New polling by Ipsos MORI for the report highlights how only 31 per cent of people feel like their voice counts in the decisions taken by local politicians. A mere 21 per cent feel they are heard by national politicians.

Voters for ‘outsider’ parties feel especially disenfranchised – only 18 per cent of SNP voters, 17 per cent of Ukip voters and 12 per cent of Green voters feel like their voices count in national political decision-making.

The polling also indicates that 68 per cent of voters feel the current system of governing Britain needs improvement. This feeling is once again much stronger among ‘outsider’ party voters – 90 per cent of SNP, 77 per cent of Green and 83 per cent Ukip voters are unhappy with the status quo – compared to 41 per cent of Conservative voters.

In contrast with these feelings of political alienation, there is a desire for active, deliberative forms of political participation that are more reflective of our hyper-connected age.

Over 50 per cent of respondents are willing to participate in a constitutional convention involving ordinary citizens, politicians and experts to develop proposals for how the UK should be governed.

SNP and Green voters are especially enthusiastic, with 70 and 78 per cent willing to take part respectively. This would be a democratic alternative to the current devolution agenda, which is being handled in the traditional, top-down way of powers being handed down from the throne of Westminster.

The majority of people surveyed are also willing to participate in a range of democratic innovations that involve drawing participants by lot and deliberation.

SNP, Green and Ukip voters appear particularly attracted to this new, more open way of doing politics, with support going up to 78 per cent in some cases.

To counter populists who are feeding off of a politics of grievance, Labour needs to let go of power and offer people a real alternative. Not just offering devolution between elites at different levels of government, but more directly to individuals and communities as well.

New institutions are needed that give people a voice which can empower them to collaborate and contribute to the change they want to see.

What would this mean in practice? For example, Labour has been talking about reforming the House of Lords for decades.

Replacing the archaic 19th century institution, swelling with too many members – almost 200 of whom are over 80 years old – with a citizens’ senate more reflective of the 21st century could be one option.

It would retain the purpose of the second chamber as one that scrutinises, approves or delays legislation. Yet a stratified random selection of citizens to take part in this new institution would mean that it would have greater diversity, which research shows leads to better decision-making. With rotating terms and no electoral mandate to fulfil, citizen senators would not fall into party politics.

Looking at democratic experiments in other countries – the G1000 citizens’ assembly in Belgium which arose out of the political crisis in 2010-11 when the country was without a government for 589 days; Ireland and Iceland’s citizen-driven constitutional conventions; or Australia’s citizens’ juries and people’s panels – shows that this new institution-building is possible.

People demand a more engaging, open and interactive society and government. The rise of populists could be a corrective for democracy if parties let go a little and experiment with new ways of reconnecting people with politics.

Claudia Chwalisz is a researcher at Policy Network and a public service fellow at the Crick Centre, University of Sheffield. She is the author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change

15 Responses to “How Labour can beat the populists”

  1. Saleem Shady

    Look, Labour is simply not trusted. Its voter base is hemorrhaging away. You are associated with the failed policies of multiculturalism, viewed as economically incompetent, as colluding with silence over Rotherham and other scandals, viewed as hating Britain, viewed as having contempt for the white working classes, viewed as hypocrites, viewed as dying, viewed as being socialist haters, haters of hope, haters of aspiration. You are viewed as the party of repulsive hysterics like Owen Jones and Mehdi Hasan, of the immigration fundamentalists, sharia law tolerators, of those who detest our culture. Even black and asian voters are leaving you. Hopefully over the next two to three elections the Labour Party will die. You deserve it. You are n the wrong side of history. Your death can be expedited if Corbyn is elected leader. Please God, make it happen.

  2. Torybushhug

    Always tickles me that the left ignores it’s own rampant populism.

    Chris Bryant on QT employed one hollow populist sound bite after another last week, and during every one of them I predicted the audience would applaud, which they duly did.
    Astounding that people can be so gullible as to fall for the cookie cutter lefty populist sound bites so readily.

    Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh (SNP) on the show employed one clone like lefty populist nugget after another.
    Again guaranteed applause generators such as “I’m standing up for hard working teachers and nurses that are suffering under austerity”.
    So predictable, so naïve and out of touch.

    LEFTY SOUNDBITE – ‘I want to trust in the judgement and maturity of 16 year olds’.
    And yet the very next day lefties were arguing the 24 y/o should not have been jailed in Malaysia as she was just ‘young and naive’.

  3. Torybushhug

    People associate the left as being on the side of all those that do not live responsibly, indeed the side that rewards you the more irresponsible you are (I expect the standard retort mention of Bankers, but this misses the point that millions of us know someone personally that is rewarded for their fecklessness, we do not know fat cat Bankers), rewards you the fatter you are and even excuses you into the bargain, I mean you live in a ‘food desert’ you poor dears.
    The whole tone and whiff of the left is essentially toxic, never on the side of the decent quiet majority, always on the side of the mass of spongers and self pitying faux victims.
    Owen Jones is symbolic of these hideously out of touch, pious Puritans.

  4. S TG Sedisraf

    For every GBP we lose in fraudulent benefit claims we lose 3 to tax avoidance. When Labour ruled over the country we experienced 63 consecutive quarters of economic growth. When the conservatives inherited a poor economy they responded with the slowest recovery of any major economy ever, before presiding over the first instance of deflation in the country for almost 3/4 of a century. When Cameron says he seeks to disband the HRA, one of the most important institutions protecting rights in the world (amnesty international) launched a whole campaign to prevent it. When Cameron’s son died (tragic) he responded with cuts to the exact services that were charged with his care. The bedroom tax has left so many of the most vulnerable in society in worse off positions then before. Cameron claimed that he would not be held to ransom by the EU sceptics in the party and we now face the prospect of leaving the EU, which would boost unemployment, leave the country isolated and lead to a real wage difference of around 4000 pounds less for the average household.

    Labour have had a bad 5 years but the Tories have done way worse and will continue to do so. You may think of Labour as the party that sticks up for the free riders and the immigrants. But I, and so many others see it as the party who looks out for the people who weren’t born into money, who couldn’t be career politicians or go and work for who ever they wanted. YOU TWO are out of touch.

    In relation to the article, it is equally as stupid to say that we should move towards direct democracy. All one would need to do is look at the demise of California to know that it is not a viable solution.

  5. Saleem Shady

    Keep it up. Labour is going to be dead within 3 elections. The British people are going to kill it at the ballot box.

  6. JodiTOberg

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  7. Cole

    What is all this rubbish about the Left being on the side of ‘those who do not live responsibly’? It’s all Daily Mail tosh, probably dictated by some child in Conservative Campaign HQ. Can’t you think of something less silly?

  8. Cole

    That’s what they said after 1992 – and about the Tories after 2001. Just because you lose a couple of elections, it doesn’t mean you’re dead.

  9. Chrisso

    We not only get Tory trolls on here but daft job ads …

    What is of greatest concern about the article above is that it suggests reform of the House of Lords yet that it should remain electorally unaccountable: “With rotating terms and no electoral mandate to fulfil, citizen senators would not fall into party politics.” It’s enough to make you weep.

  10. AlmaRBaker

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  11. Steve Larson

    Excellent points from Saleem and Torybushhug.

  12. VictoriaWHerrera

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  13. Window Rooms

    The Tories may be dead in 3 elections time for all you know. They nearly killed them off in 1997. Why makes you think that the people will not turn on them in the future?

  14. marje arnold

    agree with cole. the party needs to go back to its roots and embrace socialism again.
    why do you think the SNP got the votes in scotland because they have the old socialist aims that labour used to have, and how many people said they wished they could vote for Nicola Sturgeon. think that proves the point doesnt it.

  15. marje arnold

    the house of lords needs to go. do any of you realise how much money they are getting daily , just for turning up. that money could be put to better use ie the NHS

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