The UK Parliament and instrumental populism

Jonathan Hearn

In Jan-Werner Müller’s recent short study What is Populism? (2017, Penguin) he defines it as a form of politics characterised by anti-elitism, the imagined oneness of ‘the people’ and their representatives (regardless of the mechanisms of representation), and the categorisation of political opponents as ‘enemies’ outside the body of ‘the people’.  Müller calls populism ‘the permanent shadow of representative politics’, in which the necessary pluralism and compromise of modern democratic politics is rejected.  It offers a dream of untainted ‘rule by the people’, attempting to bypass the frustrating process of real democracy.

Reading this book during the week of defections first from Labour and then the Conservatives, to form the new cross-party-quasi-party The Independent Group, got me pondering the populist dimension of current UK politics.  While the closest thing to a genuine populist party, UKIP, has been in disarray since the 2016 referendum exhausted its purpose, a strange, garbled ‘tone’ of populism has haunted the language of government at Westminster since that fateful vote.  What is this ‘tone’?

The bold move of The Independent Group clearly reflects their deep frustration with a parliamentary politics in which the majority inclinations of parliamentarians, ranging across parties, toward a more moderate form of Brexit (or none at all), has been effectively shut out of the discussion by the strategies of the governing party.  A better national leader than Theresa May would have seen a need to forge some kind of cross-parliament compromise position, at least in draft, from which to negotiate with the EU, in order to avoid the deadlock now disabling the parliament.  Moreover, such a politician would have appreciated the need to engage many constituencies in the country at large, both leavers and remainers of various stripes, and the uncertainty-shy business community.  Instead Theresa May has acted as though the only worthwhile political objective has been to formulate a plan to leave that offers as much as possible to hard-line Brexiters, while still being satisfactory to EU negotiators.  She has negotiated with the hard-line leavers in her own party on the one side, and the EU on the other, largely excluding the rest of the UK Parliament, but also much of the UK voting public, 48.1% of which voted to remain. 

My guess is that this actually, strangely, is ‘politics as usual’ for recent generations of Westminster political strategists.  During recent decades, as both the major parties became less firmly based in their traditional constituencies of the waning industrial era, the habit developed of assuming that these were ‘in the bag’ (if they voted), instead focussing the political contest on various versions of the middle, average, ‘swing-voters’, who it turns out exhibit many of the traits that the leavers were growing to distrust—urbanites, somewhat educated, with a decent income, and so on.  This was always a modest but strategically crucial fraction of the whole.  They mattered, even came to symbolise ‘the people’ for the political class, meanwhile the rest of the political preference spectrum could be taken for granted. 

With the shock of the Brexit referendum, it is as if this focus of attention has suddenly been redirected.  Now, it is only satisfying the rather amorphous category of those who voted to leave that matters, and all others can be taken for granted.  One senses that May reasons that if she can capture this constituency for the Conservative Party, they will achieve electoral dominance for the foreseeable future.  And that seems to be her primary allegiance, not to the Parliament, or the nation, but to her party.  To be fair, Corbyn and much of his support in the parliamentary Labour Party seem to have a similar fixation on satisfying the leavers, despite strong support for the remain position in the Party and Momentum.  But at least Corbyn is being true his old left Euroscepticism, whereas May has been converted to the Leave position by the prospect of party power in Westminster.  This accounts for the constant and implausible refrain, given the narrow margin of less than 2% between Leave and Remain, that Parliament must respect the democratic will of the people, which can only be located in the 51.9% that voted to leave.  

This is what I mean by ‘instrumental populism’.  Rather than being cultivated outside of Parliament, in the street and on the campaign trail, as a strategy to occupy the institutions of government, this populism is an artefact of narrow electoral strategy by a party that is ‘in with the bricks’.  Not heartfelt, but coldly calculated, as a way to maintain parliamentary dominance for a party, and factions within it.  It is tactically shrewd, but strangely vacuous, in that this ‘people’, in the language of parliamentarians, seems to have only one defining trait—that it wants to leave.  The usual, more warm-blooded populist language, with its troubling themes of tradition, nativism, anti-immigration, ethnicity and race, has been largely left to others to articulate.  

Into this debacle the ‘TIGs’ have entered.   Former Conservative Anna Soubry has said that she recognises that they come from different political positions and policy preferences, but that the important thing is that they have ‘shared values’, something that has supposedly been lost by the two major parties.  But the shared values she refers to are not those that properly bring together a political party; those do need to be about interests and policies.  The values that the TIGs seek to rejuvenate are those that belong to a properly functioning democratic legislature—willingness to communicate, negotiate, do deals, and reach workable compromise.  These basic and necessary organisational values have been doubly displaced, by the overriding instrumentalism of party strategy around Brexit that will not countenance compromise, and by the marginalisation of normal parliamentary business concerned with more mundane matters around which negotiations routinely take place.

All of this, I think, helps explain the pervasive populist tone of the current government and parliamentary debates, despite the fact that there is no strong presence of populist parties in that parliament.  The institutional structures and political habits cultivated by a first-past-the-post system, combined with a party system in which parties have become relatively detached from traditional bases, has induced a kind ‘instrumental populism’ within the parliamentary process, as these parties struggle to find their bearings.  

Jonathan Hearn is Head of Sociology and Professor of Political and Historical Sociology at the University of Edinburgh.