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

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.