Populism and the party of the future

Policy Network deputy director, Michael McTernan, examines how we should respond to the rise of populism across Europe.

Populism is a new force in European politics. Tearing up the ideological contours of the 20th Century, its exponents vary from the grievance politics of the radical right and the far left through to dangerous forms of extremism and nationalism, values-and issue-based campaigning and the virulent currents of anti-politics and distrust of elite political projects which are sweeping across Europe.

As the Policy Network and Barrow Cadbury Trust project into the relationship between populism, extremism and mainstream politics shows, underlying the growth of all these populist movements is a series of deep-seated stresses that come to bear on liberal democracy and its mainstream party systems. They are socio-economic, cultural and political in nature.

The conclusions of this extensive cross-European study into how the mainstream parties have responded, and where they have failed to date, underlined the importance of 3 related strategic responses:

Firstly, acknowledge the rise of populism as both a threat and a corrective to democracy. The rise of anti-immigrant and anti-EU populism, for example, should be taken as a signal that mainstream parties have not correctly acknowledged past mistakes or the levels of concern which surround these issues. Progressive political parties cannot simply evade or dismiss the perceived, imagined or real grievances related to identity, cultural dislocation and immigration. Acknowledgement is a precondition to countering myths, getting back in touch with voters and responding to the root causes of discontent. Reframing, ignoring the problem, or simply labelling “reluctant radicals” as ugly racists, fans the flames of populism.

Secondly, work extensively on a governing agenda driven by the acknowledgement of past failings. In essence, getting on with the difficult policy work of formulating strategies in relation to education; housing; social mobility; labour markets; skills and training; sectoral intervention; regulation, i.e. predistribution; community building; policing; public interest regulatory bodies; dispersal of power i.e mutual and co-operative councils; and tackling the EU legitimacy crisis.

Thirdly, ‘contact democracy’ as a strategic response to political distrust. This means championing initiatives, tools and organisations that engage citizens in political dialogue and participation.

The emphasis on acknowledging the problem and ‘improving government’ is nothing particularly new. Moreover, progressive governance has become even more difficult and complex in these times of crisis, with national governments holding less power due to the forces of globalisation and the constraints of the debt crisis on public finances. At the same-time, the digital revolution and technological innovation have left many mainstream political parties hollowed-out and lagging in the past. As The Financial Times commentator Philip Stephens points out, “the political mega-trend of recent decades has been the diffusion of power – from states to other actors and from old elites to citizens.”

The focus on contact democracy and new forms of voter engagement is therefore a crucial supplementary step to building new coalitions which can carry a popular and credible governing progamme. Politics needs to regain legitimacy and this means people feeling more ownership and engagement.

Amidst the cult reportage of the maverick figure-head Beppe Grillo, the often-missed point about the rise of the Five Star Movement in Italy has been their successful use of the internet to encourage grassroots co-ordination among activists at the local level. As Anthony Painter, the author of the final project report, puts it, they have “mastered a viral form of contact democracy”. Italian-based political scientist Duncan McDonnell has documented the use of new tools such as meetup.com, which have been very successfully used by the movement to mobilise and empower supporters. The Five Star Movement has many faults, but their internet and activist engagement success cannot be ridiculed.

To be sure, micro-democratic solutions and deliberative democracy forums do not offer the answers to the complex governing questions around growth and economic rebalancing. But the point is that political elites will soon lose their mandates to take on these difficult challenges with-out opening-up old clientele power structures and dispersing power more widely, embracing the digital revolution and new forms of campaigning and contact democracy. Progressive politics has to focus on the party of the future, not the party of the past.

Michael McTernan is deputy director of Policy Network @mmcternan

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