Labourites reveal their tactics against “populists”
Recently the Labourite support group the “Policy Network” produced a paper on what should be done about the rise of the “Populist Radical Right”. The paper was quite long so I have edited down to its key elements.
This should be required reading for all those who want to know what tactics our Established parties are likely to adopt to combat the populist “threat” to their self-interests.
We know that fighting dirty was likely, now we can see the details of their tactics and can label what we can see them up to!
Here is the edited paper. What do you think of it?
DEMOCRACY UNDER STRESS
The rise of the populist radical right is one of the most significant features of western democracies in the last quarter of a century. As a ‘challenger brand’ within democracy but against liberal democracy, this suggests that the system may be under some ‘stress’.
Populism is a democratic argument that seeks to change the way democracy functions. It is a threat within democracy to the culture and norms of liberal democracy as its functions. In other words, right wing populism does not seek to replace democracy; it seeks to change it.
Real ‘demand’ exists for a populist radical right but the ability to convert that ‘demand’ into political power depends on the interplay of populist and mainstream forces.
Strategies at the disposal of mainstream democratic parties are numerous and are analysed in the report as falling into three main categories: ‘hold’, ‘defuse’ and ‘adopt’. The first involves seeking to avoid the threat of populism, the second aims to minimise the impact of populist anxieties, and the third moves towards the populist position. However, all these strategies have limitations. Instead, three sequential and concurring strategies are recommended: acknowledge the issues that drive potential support for the populist radical right; develop a comprehensive new statecraft involving an expression of national vision, major public policy interventions in jobs, welfare and housing at a local and national level, along with building a new ‘contact democracy’.
‘Contact democracy’ where local needs are met, new voters are mobilised into mainstream democracy, hate and extremism is challenged, support for community life is extended, and social capital is developed within communities is a crucial component of the ‘new statecraft’. This is not simply through political parties – which have to fundamentally change nonetheless – but through community organisations, campaigns and local authorities.
Populism is a democratic argument that seeks to change the way democracy functions. It is a threat within democracy to the culture and norms of liberal democracy as its functions. In other words, right wing populism does not seek to replace democracy; it seeks to change it into a populist, direct, expressive form of democracy instead of an institutionally bounded liberal democracy.
The core characteristics of Populism - Muddle and Kaltwasser defines populism as follows:-
“A thin-centred ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, the ‘pure people’ and the ‘corrupt elite’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonte generale (general will) of the people”.
Taggart points to the importance of a conception of ‘heartland’ in populist politics. Heartland is essentially an ‘idealised’ notion of a morally pure people. The elasticity of this concept is useful as populism itself is extremely elastic. Margaret Canovan distinguishes the ‘redemptive’ and ‘pragmatic’ sides of democracy. The former is expressive and emotive; the latter is about process, balance and institutional interplay. Western democracies are pragmatic; representative and liberal as well as democratic. Populists want a more redemptive politics where the will of the morally pure majority is enacted – without much if any obstacle.
The content of the populist right wing has to be separated from its basis form. Nationalism, immigration concerns, cultural anxiety, and economic protection are attached to populism in different ways in different contexts. These ideas, issues and motivations can also be pursued through the mainstream or even the extreme. For example, nationalism has been seen in the paramilitary form within Basque separatism, in populist form through the Flemish Vlaams Blok or mainstream form through the Scottish National Party’s civic and plural nationalism.
The moral disdain that populists have for the mainstream is reciprocated. In fact, moral segregation has been one of the primary responses of the mainstream to the populist radical right. There is no better political strategy than assigning your threat moral illegitimacy – if it works. The problem is that it has not really worked. There is ‘demand’ for parties that focus on culture, immigration, economic change, nationhood, perceived legal and political favouritism towards minority groups, the perceived threat of Islam to ‘western values’, EU ‘threats to national sovereignty’ and Eurozone impositions, and, as has been seen in the case of the Tea Party in the US, a fear of the intrusive state. The problem that mainstream political actors now face is that moral isolation has not been successful and they are in danger of seeming disdainful of the real concerns to which the populist radical right responds.
To acknowledge that these issues are real concerns is not to accept the arguments proffered by the populist radical right – far from it. It is rather that the moral condemnation form of politics is inadequate and counter-productive. The mainstream further undermines itself. We are beyond the initial birth stage of the populist radial right. In some cases it has reach puberty.
Populism may be pluralistic democracy’s ugly sibling; extremism is populism’s harmful cousin. To a certain extent, the populist radical right and the extreme right are fishing in the same pond of angst and anxiety as academic surveys of their respective supporters have shown, but they pursue their cause in a different fashion. However, this does not mean that populism is benign. The populist style of dealing with contentious issues is, in fact, highly problematic.
It is no longer sensible simply to demonise populist forces. Mainstream parties need to demonstrate that they can be trusted more than populists in a political environment where there is a lower lever of natural support for any given party.
1. Stress and crisis
Mainstream parties have been the mainstays of liberal democracy since universal suffrage. In fact, they are intrinsically linked to the system – when they struggle to maintain support, it is one signal that there is conflict between the system and voters. It is perhaps even a tautology that mainstream parties are intrinsically bound with the institutions of liberal democracy. They contest policy and ideological positions but they are not seeking to shift from a system of representative, liberal democracy to a more majoritarian, direct, people’s democracy as an alternative.
“LIBERAL DEMOCRACY” is constrained. It is akin to what Robert Dahl describes as ‘polyarchy’. Therefore, it has free, fair, equal and contested elections at its core, but the ability of the majority to constrain the rights of a minority is limited. Constraints are institutional: legally and constitutionally guaranteed basic freedoms – of expression, association, etc. – are underpinned by the rule of law. Protection of minorities also means that an interested minority can get their way against a disinterested majority. Political elites could be seen as one such minority, though only one of many. This ensures a pluralistic quality to liberal democracy. In this sense, it is a case of ‘minorities rule’. This is the system to which the political mainstream is wedded, defined by and definitive of.
If there is a strongly held real or perceived ‘general will’ and that happened to impinge upon the rights of a minority view, then an enterprising political leader might decide to meet that demand. In modern democracies constrained to a varying degree by international treaties, judicial review, coalition formation, separation of powers between branches and levels of government, super-majorities and protections from constitutional principles and human rights, demands for action can become frustrated. This is precisely what we have seen: on immigration; rights for prisoners, migrants and minorities; social values in the case of conservative America in particular; terrorism; access to welfare systems; and national sovereignty. In all of these areas the ‘popular will’ has been frustrated not by policy or ideology but by the institutions of liberal democracy themselves. This is where populist parties have the opportunity to step in – by turning ‘the people’ against the system.
Technology interacts with cultural change in a way that can reinforce fear, hatred and prejudice. The formation of on-line bubbles and tribes reflecting and amplifying anxieties without challenge is becoming a feature across the political spectrum. This is a more interactive and extreme version of what happens when people consume their own prejudices (whether left or right) in the particular news media to which they expose themselves. Echo chambers can be low-level, dip in and out, interest focused or they can be dangerous and corrosive. The dynamic and interactive nature of online and social media can make fears and hatred more toxic – in a political sense in the case of certain modes of populism or in a security sense in the case of extremism.
While populism is not the only plausible response to socio-economic, cultural and political change, it does have certain resources that are to its advantage. Within each of these ‘stresses’ on liberal democracy lies opportunities for a populist political, ideological and rhetorical attack: the ‘general will’ thwarted; ‘elites’ mendacity; the people and their heartland jeopardised; the ‘other’ posing a threat, and ‘arrogant’ and ‘aloof’ liberal democracy either incapable or unwilling to respond adequately.
6. MAINSTREAM PARTY STRATEGIES TO COPE WITH DEMOCRATIC STRESS
What follows are eight potential strategic responses that mainstream parties can deploy in response to the populist radical right. They are not exhaustive, but are illustrative. Bale et al. break down strategic responses into three categories: hold; adopt, and defuse. A hold strategy involves staying the course and avoiding a substantive strategic response to the populist radical right: cordon sanitaire, tentative engagement and ‘return to the roots’ broadly fall into this category. Defuse involves attempts to decrease the salience of populist radical right issues. Triangulation, re-framing and left populism fall into this category. The third category is adopt: absorption is an example of this strategic response. Statecraft and contact democracy are the substantive approaches that have yet to be tried. They do not seem to fall easily within the hold-defuse-adopt typology. Nor have they been comprehensively attempted.
What follows is an analysis of the merits of eight (or so) mainstream strategic responses to the rise of the populist radical right in Western European democracies and the US.
A. Cordon Sanitaire
The Cordon Sanitaire strategy is described by Sarah de Lange and Tjitske Akkerman in the context of the Flemish party system as follows:-
“[Established parties] have agreed not to cooperate with the [Vlaams Block (VB)] in the electoral arena (no electoral cartels, no joint press conferences or declarations towards the press), in the parliamentary arena (no joint legislative activities or voting agreements, no support for resolutions introduced by the VB), or the executive arena (no governmental coalitions).
In the case of the populist nationalist anti-immigrant, francophone and elite VB, this strategy worked. A competitor, but more moderate nationalist party, the N-VA (New Flemish Alliance), has overtaken the party in popularity. In the recent Antwerp elections, VB fell from 33.5 per cent to 10.2 per cent of the vote; its stronghold was breeched. Cordon sanitaire clearly has its uses when it comes to marginalising parties and bears some resemblance to the ‘no shared platform’ approach adopted by mainstream parties towards the BNP in the UK.
Therefore, this strategy in one of the containment and does have its uses – particularly where extremist parties are the target. It has several drawbacks, however:
1. Despite its successful deployment in Belgium, it often does not work. A similar approach has been attempted towards the Front National in France, yet they still remain a significant minority party.
2. While a cordon sanitaire may quarantine parties, it does not quarantine issues. Flemish nationalism is, if anything, stronger than ever. The Front National’s agenda on immigration, minority communities and Islam has been flirted with by the UMP in France.
3. In the context of a moralisation of politics, which is one feature of populism, the very act of quarantine can justify the pariah party’s narrative. It can leave the mainstream exposed as incapable of dealing with real concerns, playing to the notion of a distant, self-interested elite.
4. It can backfire. The minister-presidents of the German federal states are seeking a ban on the far-right NPD. In so doing, they could end up amplifying the party and its cause as Kai Arzheimer has argued.
5. No shared platform does not mean ‘no platform’. Once a party has reached a certain level of strength and has elected representatives, it is impossible to deny it a public platform. Moreover, as Nick Lowles, Director of Hope not Hate, has argued, while some barriers to a platform can and should still be enforced, social media, community and street campaigns provide an alternative platform that cannot be denied. Cordon sanitaire has an aspect of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ that is unrealistic and harmful – potentially leaving extreme arguments and parties unanswered.
Absorption works in two ways: either a populist party is co-opted to a cause or their issues are co-opted. Tim Bale has described the OVP (People’s Party) led Schussel Cabinet 1 of 2000-03 as ‘unceremonious cannibalism’. The OVP co-opted 50 per cent of the populist right Freedom Party’s (FPO) 1999 support in the 2002 election. Immigration policy was toughened up and the tensions of office – including responsibility for a tough fiscal policy – weighed heavily on the FPO’s internal unity. After a new coalition was formed following weeks of protracted negotiation in 2003, the FPO split in two with leader Jorg Haider forming a new right party – the BZO. Absorption was a seemingly successful strategy.
Yet, by 2008, the FPO had gained 13 seats and increased its vote by 6.5% (the BZO similarly increased its support and representation). Ahead of the 2013 legislative elections, opinion polls show the FPO still in a strong third place. Like non-populist third parties, coalition can be toxic as the smallest party for populists. In addition their ‘moral’ purity of vision quickly crashes into governing reality. However, once on the outside they can recover more critical and uncompromising positions – a moral car wash. Absorption can therefore only work in the medium term where the populist party is metaphorically strangled to death in office.
C. Triangulation and re-framing
Triangulation is a strategy that involves taking traditional solutions to solve an opponent’s ‘owned’ concerns – social democratic ends through conservative means or vice versa. It involves adopting a new, synthesised and transcendent policy approach in order to please both existing supporters and those of the opponent. One example of the centre-left achieving this goal in the debate over identity and cultural anxiety, for example, is to re-cast the problem as one of economic policy and social investment instead of one of cultural relations. Additionally, a centre-left party may agree to some tightening of immigration rules. The centre-right, as seen in the cases of the Dutch VVD and Austrian OVP, have tried triangulation alongside absorption as strategies. They can fit comfortably together: it is no coincidence that triangulation strategy often goes alongside a ‘big tent’ approach.
Re-framing as outlined by the psychologist George Lakoff is in many ways less substantive in policy terms than triangulation. It is more concerned with presenting an argument in a way that has cognitive appeal. The human mind is conditioned to respond to narrative, metaphor, and empathy. ‘Liberals’ (in the American context) should try to rely on facts and evidence and instead condition voters to think in their way. In this mode, the way to marginalise populist radical right parties could be to dramatise the harm they do to minorities and perhaps the wider consequences to human life of more restrictive policies.
There are drawbacks to both triangulation (meeting voters where they are) and re-framing (bringing voters to your positions). The major issue with triangulation is that on these populist issues, it is very difficult to find a bridging policy between two mutually-exclusive positions. The following is the UK Labour party’s supporters’ attitudes on two populist attitude statements:-
It is very difficult to see how Labour can triangulate either to a more populist right or mainstream liberal position given this split in its own supporters. More widely, it is hoping to win voters who are more concerned about immigration, welfare, and culture, but it is difficult to know how this can be achieved without alienating many of its current supporters – and they have become more rather than less liberal since the last General Election. Moreover, the very act of being seen to triangulate in this way would play into the moral accusations of a populist radical right party. The Conservatives face a similar dilemma between their current support, which is fairly hardline on questions of immigration and culture, and the younger/black and minority ethnic voters who it wants to attract, but who are more pragmatic.
Re-framing is an unconvincing way around this tricky dilemma. Firstly, the ‘framing space’ of politics is competitive so the challenges to your ‘frame’ will be considerable. Secondly, no matter how talented a communicator a mainstream party may have at their disposal, if they do not address anxieties head-on by talking about cultural as well as social and economic matters, they risk irrelevance. Having said this, there are ‘economic’ elections and ‘cultural’ elections. At certain times, such as the current context, economic questions can ‘crowd-out’ cultural questions. Much of this is exogenous and depends on people’s most pressing concern given economic and political circumstances at the time. Therefore, it might be a case of ensuring relevance and sequencing the economic and cultural arguments to coincide with the political movement. The problem comes when trying to fight with an economic frame in a cultural moment. That is the risk of over-ambitious re-framing.
Re-framing sometimes offers a good communication manual for politicians, but as an antidote to populism, with its own powerful imagery and story, it will fall short. Indeed, a combination of triangulation and/or re-framing could fall between two stools and play into populist hands: ‘unprincipled politics’ mixed with a misdiagnosis of the political challenge.
D. Return to roots and Left Populism
For the centre-left, there is the alternative strategy of adopting a class-based populism instead of the more cultural populist narratives of the populist radical right. In a sense, this is fighting fire with fire. In some respects, in the context of economic crisis and austerity, it is quite surprising that a stronger left-wing populism has not yet emerged.
E. Acknowledgement/tentative engagement
Essentially, this strategy is a holding position and can only work in the short term. It involves more than just talking about the issues of the populist radical right. It requires acknowledgement that the concerns and angst of voters in more anxious and even hostile parts of the electorate are real. It does not, however mean following the policy, rhetoric or approaches of the populist radical right – that would be contagion. It is simply a tentative engagement with these voters and their concerns which are not necessarily the natural territory of the mainstream party.
This strategy has been adopted by UK Labour leader Ed Miliband as he has sought in a series of speeches to engage with Englishness, the EU, immigration, and cultural anxieties and conflict without offering strong solutions or policies in response. Given the see-saw effect we saw in the analysis on triangulation, it is an entirely sensible holding position. However, something more comprehensive will ultimately be required if it is not to be seen as merely paying lip-service. Here statecraft comes in to the picture.
Jim Bulpitt defined statecraft as:-
“The art of winning elections and, above all, achieving a necessary degree of competence in office”.
This is achieved across four dimensions: party management; developing a winning electoral strategy; political argument hegemony and governing competence. Jim Buller and Toby James add a further dimension to statecraft: bending the rules of the game. It is an elite level theory and places party leadership in the critical democratic position. In the context of democratic stress, the response to new cultural, economic and political challenges becomes critical. The statecraft strategy requires a fundamental approach on political, electoral and governance levels. Ultimately, as the mainstream’s ability to govern and meet democratic expectations is questioned, the best medium-term strategy requires a demonstration that the mainstream can still answer the demands and needs of people in the context of democratic stress.
In response to democratic stress, a mainstream centre-left or right statecraft could have a number of facets:
1. Accept that people’s anxieties are cultural as well as economic. Do not leave thorny issues – such as on-street grooming to populists or extremists. Ensure they are dealt with in the democratic mainstream.
2. Present a national vision that can transcend these cultural anxieties; do not accept the inevitability of cultural conflict and the potential harm that implies. For example, when Nicholas Sarkozy launched a debate on national identity, the French left refused to respond. Not only should they have participated, they should have been ahead of this debate.
3. Be honest about what can and cannot be managed in terms of immigration without causing harm to people’s incomes, future growth, public services and particular industries. Manage what can be managed; be honest about what is less manageable.
4. Rapid local change can be disconcerting without active management. Ensure that communities facing such change are able to adapt public services, housing and local employment to the changes.
5. Engage with concerns about contribution and access to welfare – this perhaps more than anything else is corrosive of trust in public institutions.
6. Appreciate how a lack of market power can accentuate anxieties and address them through training, advice and guidance, job brokerage and support for wages.
7. Play to mainstream democratic strengths: persuasively articulate the importance of pragmatic governance in defence of individual and national interest.
8. Appreciate the sources of distrust in representative politics – professionalization, nepotism, corruption, lack of real diversity, insiderdom. Take real steps to demonstrate that mainstream democracy is opening up and confronting its weaknesses. Centralised, closed and ‘guild-like’ parties are a disaster in this regard – which is exactly what many mainstream parties have become.
9. Insist that political institutions should be more accessible – where democracy, policy action and services can be localised, they should be.
10. Embrace contact democracy – in contradiction to a groupist multiculturalist approach – on a local level, even if the benefits are not easily quantified. Meaningful contact between the mainstream party and those it represents is critical for building trust. Moreover, community mobilisation that creates one-to-one contact will reduce tensions over time. Support should be given to groups and campaigns that enable this.
The statecraft approach relies on a blend of party change, transparent and fearless engagement, practical institution building, supporting groups and campaigns that create more meaningful local contact within communities and democratic change. It is an elitist approach with democratic ends. It combines organisation, governance, ideology, policy and electoral competition. It is comprehensive and difficult, though not impossible to pull off. It requires engaging directly with the sources and tensions of ‘democratic stress’.
An important element of statecraft is public policy. It should be said that while the anger, sense of betrayal, feeling of unfairness, frustration at the lack of transparency and apparent lack of strong management competence on border control in response to cultural and economic change is significant, the policy levers can at first glance seem weak. For example, complete border management requires withdrawal from the EU. The notion that one nation can control not only its comparative economic advantage, but also its distribution within the nation, is fanciful to say the least. Equally, control of the internal movement and settlement of people takes the state in an authoritarian direction. Modern statecraft is clear and transparent about its limitations as well as its potentially impactful interventions. These caveats are important. If they are not acknowledged, then trust is undermined and statecraft is fatally wounded early in its lifespan. The commitment of David Cameron’s Conservatives to reducing net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ without the significant ability to control that flow is one example of how trust can be hampered from the outset. As a consequence, the Conservative lead on immigration has already declined from 28 per cent when the party came into office, to 13 per cent by the end of January 2013.
However three potential areas of note do present opportunities to ‘pull levers’ both in a local and national context in ways that address some of the underlying concerns about change, fairness and opportunity.
1. Jobs. The rules of access here are critical: enforcement of minimum wages; introduction of living wages; and support both in and out of work for individuals to help them develop and transition skills whilst also helping smooth the move from one job to another.
2. Welfare. The contributory principle is one which accords with a reciprocal moral sense. Linking access to key welfare resources to work or wider social contribution is one means of responding to this sense. In the context of immigration, including intra-EU migration, there is further scope for looking at the rules of access to benefits and housing on the basis of time-based contribution.
3. Housing. Lack of access to affordable, high quality housing in good communities is one of the issues likely to tip beneficial contact into a situation of conflict. Supply is a fundamental issue but so is distribution and access to a greater extent on contribution. Regulation of the private housing market is also important to give people a greater sense of stability, improve quality and increase transparency over costs. Public intervention may be necessary not only to enhance supply of affordable housing, but to allow people to accumulate equity in their home over time to further reinforce the asset security of those in marginal situations.
Despite the elite characteristic of this strategy, it relies on grassroots action and organisation to succeed. Just as the Obama ’08 campaign was top-down and bottom-up, Europe’s mainstream parties need to pursue a similar strategic approach and extend it into a governing ethos. Many of the groups that support this strategy lie outside of formal party politics. Many already exist and are flourishing. It is worth reviewing a number of successful examples of groups that have provoked positive change in a wide variety of contexts.
7. Contact democracy as a strategic response
1. Hope Not Hate, United Kingdom – mobilising anti-hate forces, education and creating community resilience and unity
The aforementioned Lennox study on racial integration, ethnic diversity and prejudice is based on empirical evidence from the British National Party (BNP). One of its conclusions is that whites were more likely to sign up to the far right party when living in areas sparsely populated by non-white, leading to the argument that as a result of less interaction with individuals of diverse ethnic backgrounds, whites living in these areas are less informed about ethnic minorities. The study also found evidence that the BNP has fewer members in communities where the non-white population is equally dispersed between numerous ethnic groups, where there is a higher incidence of mixed-race relationships, and where levels of education tend to be higher. There is therefore an argument that BNP support is based upon stereotyping and misunderstanding, as its members believe the BNP’s hate-creating stories due to lack of information about or direct contact with, other ethnic groups.
Hope Not Hate is a campaigning organisation fighting against the racism and fascism espoused by the BNP and the English Defence League (EDL) amongst others. The non-partisan group works on a local level to campaign against these and other far-right groups. They focus their efforts in neighbourhoods where these far-right parties are gaining support, challenging their claims, as well as positively mobilising individuals opposed to racism to provide a positive alternative. In these constituencies, Hope Not Hate produces and distributes informative leaflets and community newspapers, opposing the BNP ‘on the doorstep’ and building local networks of activists. They often target their materials at particular groups such as women voters who have a greater aversion to hate literature. Given that many BNP supporters tend to have little direct contact with individuals of different ethnic backgrounds and little knowledge about ethnic minorities, Hope Not Hate’s focus on education has been effective at directly lowering the party’s level of support.
In the recent 2012 Manchester Central, Corby, and Rotherham parliamentary by-elections, Hope Not Hate was the leading anti-far right campaign group. They distributed 16,800 leaflets in Manchester Central, where the BNP ended up polling only 2.7 per cent. The by-election campaign was also a chance for the group to activate their network in preparation for the 2014 European elections – 76 individuals indicated that they wanted to join the Hope Not Hate campaign. In Corby the group distributed 5,000 leaflets, concentrating their efforts in a ward where the BNP has been particularly active. The BNP polled a mere 2.7 per cent in Corby as well. In Rotherham, the far-right had their best chances of doing well – the BNP recently had two councillors in the constituency, polled 10.3 per cent in the 2012 General Election. Hope Not Hate printed and distributed 20,000 copies of a tabloid newspaper that confronted the issues of the far right and offered a positive alternative to them. The BNP ended up polling 8.5 per cent – higher than in other constituencies but still lower than their result at the last General Election. The Hope Not Hate campaigns in all three areas undoubtedly had an impact on the BNP’s election results. Additionally, the group has also helped establish local activist networks that can campaign at future elections and ensure that these sorts of results remain the norm.
Although the BNP has been in decline in recent years, Hope Not Hate emphasises the importance of not becoming complacent, as the factors underlying the party’s rise (high level of immigration, increasing perceptions of identity conflict, and the declining strength of cultural and institutional bonds between citizens and mainstream parties) are still present. Additionally, based upon the evidence put forth by Sturgis et al. and Lennox’s respective studies, a continued focus on education and disseminating information remains essential. Hope not Hate have also begun to organise events to bring communities closer together such as street parties catered with cuisines from a range of ethnic groups. On the electoral, educational and community contact levels, Hope not Hate has secured a considerable impact on lessening the demand for and impact of extremism.
2. Newham Borough Council, London – Local ‘statecraft’ – using local powers to build community ‘resilience’
In its strategy paper, Quid pro Quo not status quo, Newham Borough Council , the second most deprived local authority in the UK, has presented a bold new agenda to build what it terms ‘community resilience’. This has a number of substantive strands. It involves direct interventions in the housing and jobs markets by the local authority. It has established welfare to work programmes, strong enforcement of the minimum wage and a partnership with the local further education college to establish a skills centre to provide local residents with market-ready capabilities. In the housing market, it is investing in new high-quality housing, it regulates private landlords to enforce standards, and has introduced the contributory principle into housing allocations. It expresses this latter policy as follows:
“We will now give priority for social housing to those in work or contributing through activity like foster caring, creating the right incentives for people to improve their personal situation.”
These policies help address fairness concerns with the borough. It supports the integration of the local community through the promotion of an ‘English language first’ policy. It supported scores of street parties to coincide with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 with one condition: they had to be parties organised for the whole community and not for particular groups. In order to facilitate better democracy, power has been devolved to local councillors and community hubs – in an echo of Amsterdam West.
The outcome of this approach – one that could be replicated elsewhere – is to align local services and housing with reciprocal notions of welfare and to facilitate community resilience and responsiveness. In many ways, Newham serves not simply as a model for other local authorities but for a national party soon. When considering statecraft, it is about aligning public policy with improving real outcomes in housing, jobs, integration and democratic responsiveness as well meeting people’s expectations and contributory notions of fairness and justice. It is a comprehensive approach that is making a difference to people’s lives but also hints on how the political mainstream can deploy statecraft and contact democracy to buttress mainstream resilience against populism and even extremism.
These case studies highlight the necessity of mainstream parties incorporating contact democracy into their agendas. Their objectives of education, political mobilisation/activism, improving services and policy outcomes, and building social cohesion should be the shared goals of mainstream parties. The strategies used to achieve these goals should also overlap: informative magazines and publications; active campaigns (both directly in the political sphere such as Hope not Hate’s campaign against the BNP, as well as educational campaigns targeting youth such as Expo’s “Stop racism in schools”), and events including lectures, workshops and community gatherings that bridge ethnic and cultural divisions and create inclusive bonds between groups. Finally the positive outcomes of the grassroots groups, movements and campaigns discussed should encourage mainstream parties to follow or encourage similar pursuits. They include the development of activist networks, the involvement of new groups in political dialogue and participatory politics, as well as the rebuilding of trust in politicians, public institutions and representative liberal democracy more generally. Overall, they also work at establishing a unifying politics to counteract the antagonism of the populist radical or extreme right; responsible for creating divides, breeding hate, and leaving open the potential for violence if exploited by extremists.
In addition to acknowledging the issues articulated by the populist radical right parties, tentatively engaging with them, and developing a comprehensive policy, governance and political response for the long-term, mainstream parties need to also organise and engage at the local community level. By doing so, they will be able to combat some of the underlying causes of support for the populist radical right and extremist forces and help relieve some of the tensions causing stress on liberal democracy.
Conclusion – a renewed mainstream statecraft and ‘contact democracy’
Europe’s mainstream parties have adopted a proprietorial towards democracy for too long. Fissures are now opening up out of which populists and extremists have emerged. At the time of going to press, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement – with its Grillismo – had just secured a quarter of the vote in the Italian election and now leads in the polls. The ruling Danish social democrats had fallen behind the populist radical right People’s Party in an opinion poll for the first time ever. UKIP had just come from nowhere to beat the Conservatives into third place in a parliamentary by-election in the Eastleigh constituency. And yet populists are routinely dismissed as ‘protest’ parties, clowns, buffoons, flash in the pan. In fact, Europe’s populists – of different kings – are challenger brands that the established party brands ignore at their peril.
Mainstream parties have yet to find a convincing response to the populist radical right either in Europe or in the US. And now new technology and organisation are instigating more political innovation. Pluralistic, fragmented and frustrated electorates create many openings. Some will thrive and some will nose-dive. The biggest mistake that the mainstream is making is dismissal of what is now an established part of modern, liberal democracy. Populism is a rejection of functioning democracy and its mainstream parties – it is not simply superficial ‘protest’.
Hitherto, new forms of political contact have simply been grafted onto the old, closed, tired way of doing things. Paint has been applied over a rusting chassis with an unreliable engine. The result is closed, elite driven parties that push out core activist-focussed messages through social media while sharing the spoils of policy influence and status for a close and political nepotistic group.
Deep organisational and cultural transformation is necessary for Europe’s old political guard. It will not be sufficient. They will have to show that they are also up to the task of governance in complicated times. This is where statecraft comes in. The challenges are immense: manage economic threat; respond to fiscal unsustainability; reform welfare; provide for an aging society; maintain global competitiveness; secure energy and manage climate change; improve the education and skills base; and manage migration flows while providing for a vibrant yet coherent society.
Britain’s majoritarian democracy perhaps protects the mainstream to a greater extent than elsewhere. There we can expect disengagement instead of defection if there is no change. It is not improbable that the next election could be won with a party securing only 35 per cent of the vote or so. That will be a very unstable situation indeed as the mandate to govern will be weak and anger is likely to swell. Different political systems create different incentives and impacts, but the underlying forces of political change recur.
A rethink is necessary, and soon. The risk is that deeply damaging political parties and movements can gain traction in a situation of democratic stress. A complacent response could mean that stress becomes intensified. That is a wholly irresponsible response. The populist signal is clear. The extremist threat is mostly contained for now. An yet, democratic stress is evident. The problem is that if this situation persists, or indeed worsens, then the social, cultural and economic consequences could be severe. Mainstream parties face a huge burden of responsibility to change.