Revisioning politics today: democracy in crisis in the UK and globally

Political system in crisis

All is not well with the body politic in many countries. Populations are restless and there is a high level of dissatisfaction with politics and politicians. There has been a shift towards “strongmen” leaders in a number of countries, a rise of nationalism and populism, a retreat from liberalism and liberal democracy, human rights protection is on the decline, and there is large-scale migration, fear of climate change, conflict over trade and a rise in protectionism, increased instability in international relations, and continued war and civil war, to just name a few. Revisioning politics is badly needed, to reconnect people with their politicians within a liberal democratic rules-based framework and which is seen to serve people more fully and confidently.

A key focus is a crisis in various countries’ political systems

According to President Putin “Liberalism is obsolete“. There is a sense that liberalism is in crisis, but there is also a view that it is threatened by, among others, Putin’s own style of governing, suppressing the press, imprisoning opponents on false charges, corrupting the rule of law, one-party rule, holding on to power himself, interfering with elections, preventing opponents from standing for office, etc. This corruption of democracy is to be seen in a number of countries, like Turkey, Poland and Hungary, as well as Russia, in Europe. Democracy in some countries is becoming a facade for authoritarianism.

The rise of populist parties and politicians like Trump, Salvini, and Farage, with their attack on Parliament or “Washington”, their belief that politics in being controlled by a self-serving and remote “political class”, their preference for “direct democracy” and “the will of the people”, are helping create a sense that there is something seriously wrong with representative democracy.

In the UK disillusionment with politics is high

  • Disengagement with politicians is high: measures of disengagement are showing worryingly high levels. The Hansard Society’s latest survey suggests that this idengagement could undermine the UK system of government: for example, 54% consider that Britain ‘needs a strong leader who is willing to break the rules’; and four in ten people think that many of the country’s problems could be dealt with more effectively if the government didn’t have to worry so much about votes in Parliament.”
  • Distrust is strong: “they break their promises”; “they don’t tell the truth”; they’re only in it for themselves”
  • People speak of deliberately not voting
  • There is a strong decline in support for major parties, “de-alignment“. There has for long been a perception that there’s no difference between the main parties, and there’s been a swing away from them, as seen in the recent Euroelections where the Brexit Party topped the poll and the Liberal Democrats performed well
  • Rise of populist movements like the Brexit Party under Nigel Farage
  • Nationalism threatens to break up the UK
  • There is a sense that a way of life and a culture is being destroyed, particularly by uncontrolled immigration
  • Communities feel “left behind”, or deprived, by social and economic change, precarious and low paid work, the threat of automation and AI, globalisation, increasing poverty and rising inequality
  • There is a sense that democracy in Britain is in crisis and that, as the Hansard Society say (see above link) “unless something changes, and there is comprehensive reform of the culture and practice of representative politics, we are storing up some of the key ingredients of a potentially toxic recipe for the future of British politics“.

Revisioning politics is needed

There is a sense that a fresh vision for politics is needed, one that is revisioning politics, inspiring people with a new sense of vision and purpose with which they can connect. So far, that space has been captured by populism. In the UK, it is the vote to leave the EU, and that vote in 2016 and the resulting conflict has absorbed and paralysed politics. There is a real danger that democracy itself is in danger, since it could be caught in the cross-fire between the two sides.

One could say there are competing visions for the UK today. One is very clear but the other is confused and ill-expressed since its advocates are themselves divided. What are these competing visions?

Brexit and neo-liberalism

To many pro-Brexit advocates, Britain’s problem would be resolved by leaving the EU. While in the early stages after the 2016 referendum, there were still alternatives as to what form that would take, it has recently boiled down to either the Withdrawal Agreement, now rejected by Parliament, or some other version yet to be put forward but already rejected by the EU, or a No Deal Brexit and trade with the EU on WTO terms, again yet to be clarified.

Behind the Leave the EU agenda are other, neo-liberal policies.

What does liberal democracy offer?

Liberal democracy is being challenged to respond but so far the response has been weak and half-hearted, which risks handing the initiative to reactionary populism if things get worse.

The classic principles of liberal democracy are that the political, economic and social order is rules-based, founded on the principle of the Rule of Law. There are provisions to recognise and protect human rights. The governmental system is based on representative government, with constitutions, elected parliaments, free and fair elections, freedom of the press and an independent judiciary and a supreme court to arbitrate in constitutional disputes.

If there is a sense amongst the voting population that this system is failing them, democracy is in trouble.

One particular crisis within democracy has been a decline in support for social democracy, both across Europe and in the weakness of Labour in the UK. The Brexit crisis is driving a wedge through Labour as their traditional working class support in the “left behind” regions have in part been turning to the right and pro-Brexit parties.

In a different way this is also seen in the support for Trump from erstwhile Democrat people in “rust belt” states. Hence his emphasis on issues of concern to white Americans and his exploitation of racial issues. The focus on a small number of these states could be crucial to his re-election in 2020.

Responding to the challenges facing politics today

Populism has as its appeal the idea of “the will of the people” and advocates such devices as the referendum and online direct voting on particular issues facing government. This “direct democracy” cuts across traditional representative government. Arguably the contradiction between the mandates claimed from the 2016 referendum and the results of general elections have been at the heart of the crisis in the UK.

Radical alternatives to populism do exist. The popularity of Corbyn’s Labour in the 2017 election showed that a radical alternative was being put forward. Corbyn has proposed a raft of reforms based on traditional socialism with a modern twist, with an emphasis on such things as the green revolution, use of local cooperatives, taking back state control over utilities, an end to austerity, increasing taxes on the wealthy, and workers’ involvement in running businesses. Labour has particularly tapped into the enthusiasm of young people and was able through its campaigning group Momentum to put a large number of activitists on the streets in 2017. In other countries, left populism is seen in the varying fortunes of Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece.

Observers say that such activity isn’t sufficiently addressing certain necessary areas or that the radical reforming spirit is not translating into results in voting. Thus Labour struggles to level-peg with the Tories in opinion polls. The conflict in Labour over its leadership and direction, especially on Brexit, the very low ratings for Corbyn and the crisis over anti-semitism are among the reasons but behind that is perhaps an underlying lack of conviction that Labour offers a genuine, radical alternative to reactionary populism.

Issues not being addressed

Brexit has distracted politicians from addressing increasingly urgent domestic problems.

Necessary reforms that keep being avoided in politics include the social care for the elderly crisis, lack of housing, increasing poverty (4m are now estimated to be in “deep poverty” and 7m in “persistent poverty”), rising homelessness, insecure badly paid work, an NHS verging on collapse, antiquated infrastructure, the relative imbalance of the “left behind” former industrial regions of the UK compared with the affluent South and South-East, and the lack of local democracy and accountability.

A glaring issue in the background which has now become the biggest issue other than Brexit is climate change. Government policies seem focused on far-off dates while the impact of climate change has become a present-day issue. It has inspired popular protest by the Extinction Rebellion.

Re-connecting with and re-engaging voters seems also to be urgent and yet policies seem more focused on traditional policies rather than re-connecting with people turned off politicians and “Westminster” politics. The Brexit crisis has led to a widespread despair with politicians, a vicious circle since arguably the Brexit vote emanated in part from disengagement with politics. This could be dangerous.

An underlying theme is a sense of polarisation and fragmentation, with rising nationalism in the non-English “nations”.

What’s concerning people right now?

Explore the key issues that concern voters and those that preoccupy the “political class”

  • Top ten most important issues for voters: after Brexit, it is currently the environment
  • There is a small majority support for staying in Europe: Europhiles have a 4% lead in the Curtice “poll of polls“, probably too much within the margin of error.
  • Many in the “political class” however want us to leave the EU: are they fiddling while Rome burns?

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