The populists: threat or corrective to the political establishment?

The rise of populism across Europe is a symptom of the contemporary crisis of governance and democracy. Political parties find it increasingly difficult to represent the constituencies that elect them and govern responsibly in an era of increasing complexity. So how can modern political parties be more representative, beat populists, win elections and govern in a populist climate? What potential does the devolution of power and innovative political party reform hold?

Traditional solutions to stem the rise of populism have largely focused on understanding economic and socio-cultural drivers. These remain central; however, the rise of populism needs to be investigated more widely as being a product of political dissatisfaction and establishment fatigue. The crisis of representative democracy runs deep.

In this sense, it is important to look at the growth of populism – in its many forms – as both a threat and a corrective to liberal democracy. The threat comes through the proliferation of corrosive political debates on issues such as immigration, Europe and welfare, putting pressure on mainstream political parties to react and move in line with their discourse. The corrective comes in seeing the rise of populism as a warning signal to parties and governments to revisit their approaches to governance and representation – as well as reconsidering their political and economic offers along the left-right axis.i

As is widely reported, the image of politicians as competent, venerable and decent public servants – to be trusted and respected – is hitting new lows. To be sure, public trust in politicians and government has historically fluctuated. Nevertheless, the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey highlights that the proportion of people saying they trust the government ‘just about always’ or ‘most of the time’ dropped from 40 per cent in 1986 to a mere 16 per cent in 2009. Those saying they ‘almost never’ trust the government, on the other hand, rose from 12 per cent to 40. Likewise, a Hansard Society report suggests that only 23 per cent of UK citizens are satisfied with the way that MPs are doing their job and only 41 per cent say they are certain to vote in the event of a general election (only 12 per cent among 18-24 year olds).

Populists have been quick to capitalise on these trends. They successfully claim that power should not be held in the hands of the ‘unrepresentative and corrupt elite,’ but in those of the ‘ordinary people’ who practice ‘common sense’. In the words of Nigel Farage: ‘One thing [UKIP voters] have in common: they are fed up to the back teeth with the cardboard cut-out careerists in Westminster. The spot-the-difference politicians. Focus groupies. The triangulators… UKIP is the most independent-minded body of men and women who have ever come together in the name of British politics.”

This puts mainstream parties in a difficult position in an era increasingly defined by complex governing structures. The processes of globalisation and European integration have blurred the boundaries between national and international problems. Governance takes place simultaneously on multiple levels running through global, regional, local and national fora. Linked to this, there has been a shift towards depoliticisation and giving responsibility to arms-length technocratic agencies in overseeing key policy decisions, whilst the growing complexity of the state makes it increasingly difficult to work out who is in charge of what.

The late political scientist Peter Mair documented this dilemma as that of an acutely growing gap between ‘representative’ and ‘responsible’ government, predicting that it would be one of the principal sources of democratic malaise that confronts western democracies. Traditional political parties were once more representative, forged within communities through mass membership collectivist organisations such as trades unions. This gave them the legitimacy to govern responsibly on behalf of a given electoral constituency. However, structural changes and growing complexity in western democracies, as mentioned above, have moved parties on from their representative role, enhancing, or forcing them to enhance, their responsible governing role. This refers to the process of being prudent and consistent in government, as well as being accountable and conforming to external constraints and legacies.

Mair’s key point is that demands for ‘responsiveness’ and ‘responsibility’ are increasingly at odds with one another, and parties’ capacity to reconcile this tension has been undermined by their ‘professionalisation’ and resulting decline as representative organisations. It is here that we find the ‘contemporary crisis of governance and democracy’.ii

So how do mainstream parties square this need for complex governing structures and the simultaneous demand for a sense of simplicity, belonging and engagement – the need for cold technocratic speak and emotive ‘popular’ story telling? The challenge for different western democracies, whatever their starting position and idiosyncratic circumstances, is how to address this growing gap between representative and responsible governance – and in the process put some brakes on the drivers of populism and anti-politics. This essay explores territory for bridging this gap and improving representative politics in the UK context. It considers the potential for decentralisation and city-led growth, and innovative reform of party politics.

Populism and central power

Britain – most particularly England – is one of the most centralised western democracies, with power overwhelmingly wielded in a top-down ‘mandarin-like’ form. Growing momentum is falling behind an agenda to loosen this over-centralised system of government and tendency for ‘one-size fits all’ policymaking, giving more power to Britain’s cities and regions to shape their own futures.

Currently this agenda takes the form of the Coalition Government’s ‘City Deals,’ whereby cities and city regions in England negotiate with Whitehall for packages of devolved powers and funding. In the opposition Labour party, and elsewhere, there appears to be a growing appreciation of economic geography and the benefits of integrated and ‘place-based’ strategic planning in areas such as housing, skills and transport, as well as in collaborative partnerships with industry, universities and civic leaders to attract jobs and investment.

The scope for a city-led growth agenda is ambitious, with evidence from across Europe showcasing how second-tier cities drive prosperity and how collaborative urban planning can lead economic regeneration, especially in post-industrial cities and regions where populists tend to do well.iii In Germany, for example, between 2000 and 2007 all eight of the largest cities outside Berlin outperformed the national average in terms of GDP per capita. All 14 second tier cities had productivity growth rates above Berlin. However, in the UK, seven of the eight core cities were below the national average in terms of GDP per capita.iv

The US is dense with positive examples of the power of cities in driving broad-based prosperity in the wake of the financial crisis. As Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution have reported, the lockdown of the Federal Government has compelled cities and metropolitan areas to grab the reigns: ‘cities and metropolitan areas, and the networks of individuals and institutions that lead them are running an affirmative campaign for national [economic] renewal.’v The strength of these ‘metropolitan networks’ is that putting public, private, university and civic actors around one table results in much less partisan brinksmanship than national level politics – a sense of place and realisation that they can shape their home communities pays significant dividends.

These developments are important for tackling regional and sectoral imbalances in the UK economy and driving growth, but they are also interesting when applied to the populist phenomenon, especially given consideration of the economic, political and cultural benefits which might accrue from a considered approach to localism and devolution.

Firstly, there is scope for the alleviation of socio-economic drivers of populism if an ambitious devolution agenda successfully propels local investment and jobs. It is noteworthy that the cities of Belfast and Cardiff come first and second in a league table of successful city regions in the recession. Devolution deals with the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies appear to have incentivised dynamic collaboration between businesses, universities and devolved government. Scotland is also moving in this direction, along with England’s core cities and key cities.

Furthermore, surveys consistently show that anti-immigrant sentiment is driven by jobs and housing shortages for those in the lower earning brackets, and stretched public services for those in the higher earning brackets. It can be argued that greater financial powers for local authorities and councils offer the potential of shaping services to local needs and better prioritisation of resources.

Secondly, reenergised local and regional politics may go some way to tackling politics’ representational crisis. As mentioned above, a key driver of populism is the perception of a London-centric political and cultural elite, who are unrepresentative and ‘disconnected from the real world.’ Local and regional politicians and civic leaders tend to be trusted more, and, despite the rejection of mayoral powers in many UK cities, elected mayors in places like Bristol are making a Innovative councils are also reenergising local politics in places like Oldham and Newham, whilst in European cities like Amsterdam and Charleroi ‘municipalism’ versus ‘populism’ is an emerging battlefront that can bring lessons to UK cities.

New and revamped institutional arrangements alive to a sense of place are also emerging in this space such as the Greater Birmingham Project, the London Finance Commission, Future City Glasgow, the Liverpool City Region and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. The big society is a much maligned idea, but encouraging new forms of social enterprise, co-operatives and collaborative social networks and bottom-up institutions can also play a big part in reenergising local politics and countering drivers of populism.

Thirdly, there is the potential of socio-cultural benefits to granting more powers to cities and regions. As Mike Kenny has outlined in his work on Englishness, ‘it is vital to engage with rising resentment about the absence of a political voice and economic levers for many different English communities.’ This too speaks to giving more power to the Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish governments (the latter depending on the referendum result of Sept 2014).

National identity, while important, does not have to be the fulcrum in the 21st century, where local, national and regional and identities overlap. City and regional identities tend to be strong and can be fostered and strengthened to progressive and inclusive ends. An example might be the success of Liverpool as European city of culture in 2008. The injection of economic and cultural dynamism inspired ministers to create a City of Culture award. It went to the Northern Irish city of Derry in 2013, encouraging economic growth and regeneration, local pride and community togetherness in a part of the world with a deep-seated culture of populism and sectarianism. The City of Culture accolade will next go to the Northern English city of Hull in 2017, while similarly socio-economically deprived cities such as Paisley in Scotland are in the running for 2021. Furthermore, those cities that have lost out in the bidding process – such as Dundee, Swansea, and Leicester – have vowed to drive forward with their prepared ideas.

These developments are by no means a panacea to the economic degradation and problems related to identity and community that prevail, particularly at the bottom end of society. But, in sum, alongside national-level agendas on Europe, welfare and immigration, devolution can represent interesting and pragmatic territory in terms of alleviating the drivers of populism. Policymakers have to be wary that unchecked devolution and localism might well lead to some cities, towns or rural regions falling further behind, entrenching geographical inequality and thus becoming prey for far-right populists. This is a legitimate but not insurmountable concern.

Furthermore, other European countries with much more developed forms of decentralised government are not immune to populist actors (see Switzerland). For example, in France, where mayors are much more popular than national level politicians – and the governing Socialist party has historically been trusted more as a competent governor at local level – the Front National (FN) is one of Europe’s most successful populist parties. Nonetheless, it might be argued that they might be a lot more successful if not for the strength of French mayors. A similar argument can be made in the case of the Netherlands, where the populist Freedom Party (PVV) of Geert Wilders takes part in very few municipal elections vii, arguably due to the greater civic engagement stirred up by city leaders who have a great deal of devolved power and the capacity to effectuate targeted local change. Indeed, understanding this divergence between local and national politics – borne out by different debates and opinions on immigration for example – is key territory for progressive politicians.

Politics needs reform

Beyond the pursuit of decentralisation and a regional agenda as counterforces to the drivers of populist sentiment, mainstream political parties need to contemplate new ways of opening up and engaging with people. The traditional political party is dying – literally. As older members pass away, they are no longer being replaced by new recruits. In the 1950s, estimated peaks in party membership for Labour and the Conservatives were 1.1 million and 2.8 million respectively. Today, they are a meagre 190,000 and 170,000.

As party membership shrinks into a small circle of the super dedicated, most people feel that the political class has become more and more unrepresentative of ordinary individuals. YouGov polling for the Fabian Review found that two of the biggest criticisms people make about politics and politicians in Britain are that “most MPs have too little experience of the real world before they go into politics” and that “politics is a game played by an out of touch elite who live on another planet.”viii

This goes to the heart of Mair’s dilemma about how to make politics more representative in an era when government has become incredibly complex. Indeed, much of the unease expressed by populism is linked to a frustration with the complexities of the political process. As outlined by Paul Webb, there are two distinctive types of political disaffection – ‘dissatisfied democratic’ and ‘stealth democratic’ – the former being ‘politically interested, efficacious and desiring greater political participation;’ the latter being the opposite, favouring instead more direct democracy.ix In this way, stealth democrats can be seen as inherently populist. Their demand for greater direct participation is more likely related to their frustration with complexity rather than a genuine yearning for a greater say in the decision-making process. Webb finds that 61.4 per cent of respondents in his UK study can be characterised as highly dissatisfied democrats, while only 38.6 per cent are stealth democrats. These figures indicate that most people do genuinely want to have a greater involvement in the political process; there is scope for party reform to help ease citizens’ dissatisfaction with the current state of democracy.

There are a number of areas that can be explored in the goal of achieving a better balance between representativeness and responsibility. One option is opening up leadership primaries beyond party members. Another is changing the way prospective candidates are financed and the process of getting on lists. Such proposals aim to diversify the relatively homogeneous pool of ‘insider’ candidates. As Sir Humphrey Appleby says in Yes Minister, “MPs are not chosen by ‘the people’ – they are chosen by their local constituency parties: thirty-five men in grubby raincoats or thirty-five women in silly hats.”x

Regarding the first point, evidence from other countries suggests that extending participation to the public engages a wider audience and offers the chosen candidate greater legitimacy and a stronger mandate. It also means greater pressure to remain accountable to the electorate. In Italy, 3 million voters took part in the latest open ballot Partito Democratico (PD) primary, with 68% voting for Matteo Renzi. In France, the Parti Socialist (PS) held an open primary for the first time before the last election, prompting almost 2.8 million voters out the door to cast a ballot. Outside Europe, the Australian Labor Party’s recent electoral downfall has awoken its members, bringing forth experiments with primary-style selection processes to strengthen the party’s ties to the community.

On top of engaging a larger number of people in the process, leadership primaries may offer some potential to move past the ‘professionalisation of politics,’ a phenomenon first noted by Anthony King in 1981, who concluded that the rise of the career politician has resulted in a certain loss of experience, detachment, moderation and balance in the British political system.xi As quoted by Tony Wright in a recent Political Quarterly essay, much more recently, Lord Turnbull, a former cabinet secretary, has expressed concern about the same “growing trend for people to come into politics more or less straight from university. They lick envelopes in Central Office, become a Special Adviser, and on and on it goes, and by the time they are in their mid-thirties they are Cabinet ministers, barely touching the sides of real life.”xii

We will see how the public reacts when it comes to Labour’s open primary to select its next candidate for Mayor of London. A Labour Uncut poll in September 2013 found that 50 per cent of Labour members and 53 per cent of Union members said they would like to participate in open primaries. In a sense this should be higher for a democratic movement, reflecting how it will take political courage to take on vested interests in the party to dismantle old internal power structures. This is not a dilemma unique to Britain, with the German SPD and Swedish Social Democrats most recently electing their leaders in processes that were labelled in some quarters as ‘backroom deals.’

In the UK, the Conservatives have already begun to experiment with altering candidate selection processes. The Institute for Government study on candidate selection concluded that the ‘postal primaries’ in Totnes and Gosport seemed to be the best model, attracting the most media attention and the highest turnout rates in comparison to the caucus-style ‘primary meetings’ held in other constituencies. Perhaps an experiment with online primaries is what is still missing – a tool to engage with young people, arguably the group most disillusioned with traditional politics. If Twitter can be any indication of the importance of online engagement, both Labour and the Conservatives have more followers than formal party members.

Secondly, there is another element of candidate selection that is posing a threat to the democratic process. The increasing difficulty for prospective candidates to finance themselves inevitably reduces the variety of candidates and perpetuates the trend of unrepresentative career politicians filling Westminster’s corridors. In all UK parties, candidates report spending tens of thousands of pounds campaigning for election – a clear restraint on poor candidates. The costs of time also need to be considered, as candidates who need to work full-time to support themselves cannot afford to take a few months off work to run a campaign. Means-tested public funding provision alongside the right to statutory time off for participating in an election campaign and caps on campaign contributions and spending could help create a more equal process, broadening the scope of backgrounds, experience and visions being brought to the table.

Although the academic literature on public funding programmes and competition has produced mixed conclusions, there is nonetheless substantial evidence that public funding for prospective candidates has changed the electoral landscape in places where it has been implemented.xiii Of course it equally needs to be recognised that no perfect candidate selection system exists; there will always be trade-offs depending on the objectives that the selection process is designed to deliver. Given the growing public disdain for the professionalisation of politics and the rather homogeneous nature of MPs, candidate selection reform is worth considering as a way of alleviating political distrust, despite the possibility of causing internal party discord.

Yet structural reform alone cannot tackle the public’s deep mistrust of politicians. Tony Wright makes a compelling argument here. Alongside people’s antipathy to being governed by a class of ‘out of touch’ career politicians lacking real world experience, their dissatisfaction is equally due to how politicians behave. The way politics is conducted as a ‘political game’ has the inevitable consequence of eroding the electorate’s trust. Peter Kellner’s call for a ‘campaign of civility’ echoes this idea. We are already seeing steps in the right direction with Ed Miliband’s appeals for a new era of more serious PMQs.

Giving people greater say in choosing their democratic representatives, rebalancing the scale of career versus non-career politicians, and opening the door to more civilised and consensual politics can together be a pragmatic approach for mainstream parties to counter the drivers of populism.

Populism as a corrective

At the beginning of this essay, we outlined that populism can be seen as a corrective if political parties see it as a signal to address the representative gap that has developed between citizens, public institutions and mainstream politics. However, it was acknowledged that this effort is hampered by the extremely difficult task of bridging ‘representative’ and ‘responsible’ government in a more complex era.

In response, we have opened-up questions – to be investigated in a new project – around the potential of letting go of power through decentralisation, and innovative party political reform to improve representation. An important question which goes to the heart of this dilemma is whether indeed such reforms to strengthen the responsiveness of policymaking would actually lead to a healthier and better democracy in a more complex era for government.

These questions are further complicated by the extremely low standing of elites and the bankruptcy of economic orthodoxy which prevailed over the last three decades. Recognising the profound socio-economic drivers of populism and anti-politics, parties are compelled to revisit their political economy offers on a left-right axis. As Tim Bale writes alongside this essay, centre-left parties like Labour have the difficult task of finding a ‘penchant for populism’ on the economy to win elections. This needs to be balanced with the rebuilding of credibility and reputation for economic competence, keeping business on side. No easy task given the limited space for policymaking in debt-stricken Europe.

What’s more, the traditional party model as we know it may be beyond repair. Individualism, consumerism and immigration have all eroded solidaristic models of the past. As Matthew Taylor argues, the starting point must not be on applying emergency treatment to a broken model, but on “supporting a new set of institutions from the bottom-up to tap into the emergent individualism of Europe’s people, particularly the young…This individualism largely rejects hierarchical paternalism and mass solidarity in favour of a philosophy of self-help and social enterprise underpinned by fast forming and reforming networks of interest. The role of the state from this perspective is not to meet people’s needs but to enable people to meet their own.”xiv

There also needs to be a concerted recognition of the non-monetary or political drivers of populism: with politicians developing responses to popular concerns over culture, identity and community in an age of increasing insecurity.

These dilemmas all takes place against the backdrop of movements for Scottish independence, for the UK to leave the European Union and the steady rise of UKIP. If the economic and political status quo is maintained, populists look set to continue to prosper from the growing gap between representative and responsible government, presenting a clear and present danger to the established order.


i Kaltwasser, C.R. and C. Mudde. 2012. Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

ii Mair, P. 2009. “Representative versus Responsible Government.” Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies Working Paper.

iii Hall, P. 2013. Good Cities, Better Lives: How Europe Discovered the Lost Art of Urbanism, Routledge.

iv Parkinson, M. 2013. “Second Tier Cities in Europe: In An Age of Austerity Why Invest Beyond the Capitals?” European Institute for Urban Affairs paper, Liverpool John Moore University

v Katz, B. & Bradley, J. 2013, The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy, Brookings Focus Book.

vi Barber, B. 2013. If Mayors Ruled the World: Dsyfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. Yale University Press.

vii Lucardie, P. and G. Voerman. “Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands.” In Exposing the Demagogues: Right-wing and National Populist Parties in Europe. Eds. Grabow, K. and F. Hartleb. Brussels: Centre for European Studies and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

viii Wallis, E. “Another Planet.” Fabian Review 124(3): 8-13.

ix Webb, P. 2013. “Who is willing to participate? Dissatisfied democrats, stealth democrats and populists in the United Kigndom.” European Journal of Political Research 52: 747-772.

x “Economy Drive.” Yes Minister. BBC. First transmitted: 10 March 1980.

xi King, A. 1981. “The rise of the career politician in Britain – and its consequences.” British Journal of Political Science 11: 249-285.

xii Quoted in Public Administration Select Committee. 2010. Goats and Tsars. HC 330. p.11.

xiii Mayer, K.R., T. Werner, A. Williams. 2006. “Do Public Funding Programs Enhance Electoral Competition?” The Marketplace of Democracy: Electoral Competition and American Politics. Ed. M. McDonald, J. Samples. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press. 245-267.

xiv Taylor, M. “Responding to the rise of populism: a provocation”, Forthcoming Feb 2014, Policy Network

This essay was co-authored with Michael McTernan and originally published on the Policy Network website on 16 January 2014.

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