What is the solution to political alienation? A profound moment of democratic renewal not populism - RSA

What is the solution to political alienation? A profound moment of democratic renewal not populism


  • Economics and Finance
  • Institutional reform

Deep political alienation is a breeding ground for extremism and populism. Research released today by YouGov and Southampton University proves the point.

The work has two key findings. Firstly, contrary to the opinion of some supposedly wise old political hands, people genuinely are much more alienated from politics today than they once were. Over the last seventy years, the proportion of the population thinking politicians put their country above their own interests and those of their party has fallen from 36% to just 10%.

The other finding is that these declining levels of trust are driving support for UKIP. Those voting for Nigel Farage’s party are much more likely to believe politicians only look after themselves (74% for UKIP voters compared to 48% for the wider electorate). In fact, the research showed that holding such a view is as good a predictor of a voter backing UKIP as the social characteristics associated with UKIP supporters: male, older and working class.

As the researchers conclude:

Arguably political disaffection unifies UKIP supporters at least as much as either opposition to the EU or concern about immigration … UKIP voters are not necessarily the ‘left behind’, but are people holding unambiguously and intensely negative views of politics and politicians.

Unreliable Allies of the Alienated

The tragedy of this situation is that populism, in reality, offers no solution to the deep alienation now felt by millions. Far from challenging the self-interest and egotism which characterises mainstream politics, populist parties are often even more reliant on the personal drive and ambition of one leading figure: Farage in the UK, Wilders in Holland, Berlusconi in Italy.

More importantly, populist politics simply replicates the ideological and party tribalism of the mainstream that actively undermines popular voice. Populists may often use lofty rhetoric to present themselves as the voice of the silent majority but the truth is that, just like mainstream parties, they are wedded to their own  very strong ideology whether that commands popular support or not. We can imagine the response to a candidate for UKIP in the UK or the Party for Freedom in The Netherlands who told their leader that having consulted fully with their constituents they were going to stand on a platform of continued membership of the EU in order to reflect the majority wishes of their constituency.

Therein lies the paradox of populism. Populist parties are actually highly conventional parties entirely replicating or even exacerbating the very characteristics of mainstream parties that have proved so alienating to voters.

So this raises a supremely significant question: if populists do not offer a reliable voice for the politically alienated, who or what does?

The mainstream parties believe that it will ultimately be them as long as they simultaneously  condemn and copy the populists’ policies. They are wrong. As the new research out today and previous research shows, support for populists is mostly driven by disaffection from the political establishment not particular views on the EU or immigration. The distrust of the mainstream parties results from profound shifts like the decline of deference, the fragmentation of class identities and the loss of faith in old ideologies. Such shifts sit uneasily in the hierarchical, tribal and exclusive world of parliamentary politics. Indeed, before anyone thinks that the mainstream can somehow win back popular affection they should consider this cold statistic: in the 1950s, the two main UK parties had four million members and the allegiance of around 95% of the electorate. Today the figures are 320,000 and 65%. It is a big enough challenge for the main parties to simply halt the very long term decline in their grassroots and popular support let alone reverse it.

A Moment of Democratic Renewal

In the final reckoning, the only reliable and meaningful response to deepening alienation is a moment of profound democratic renewal which convinces people that they will have a real say over what gets done in their name. That does not mean insisting that a certain ideological outlook represents the voice of the people as populists do. A trait as common amongst those trying to launch a left wing populism as those on the right.

Nor does it mean wringing hands about declining support and participation in the institutions of representative democracy as the mainstream parties have been doing for years now. It means simply and straightforwardly handing decision-making power over to the people themselves. As previous research shows, this is what people themselves say they want: more powers to hold their representatives to account for their delivery, more say over what those representatives do and more honesty and transparency from politicians about what they have delivered.

Put bluntly, this means the introduction of much greater direct democracy into our currently highly representative system.  I’ve suggested elsewhere that a starting point - and it is only a starting point - for such a shift would be to enshrine in law that an MP’s primary responsibility is to represent the views of their constituents not those of their party leader, party donors or media moguls. Although, to be clear, that is only a starting point.

The problem is MPs cannot be trusted to launch such a shift. It would work against their own interests and values as evidenced by the inability of Parliament to agree something as simple as a recall law with any teeth.

Far better and far more realistic is to hope for such demands to arise from the people themselves through a movement for democratic renewal. Until such a movement is launched, alienation will continue to find its voice through the unreliable allies it finds on the populist extremes.


These themes amongst others will be explored in my book, Small is Powerful: Why the era of big government, big business and big culture is over (and why it’s a good thing). I’m crowd-funding for the book, so you can pre-order and help make sure it gets published here.

I’m on Twitter here.



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