Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales. His new book “We Don’t believe you: Why Populists reject the Establishment” is published today.
Parliament has decided to take on the people. Many MPs elected in 2017 on a Labour or Conservative Manifesto to get us out of the EU, with or without a deal, have gone back on their promises. Some of them sneer at Brexit voters, telling us we were too stupid to know what we were voting for. They say we now need to vote again, think again, or accept a such a watered-down version of Brexit that it looks just like staying in, without vote or voice to complain.
The EU project of ever-closer union, deeper integration and more EU Commission government control rolls on. It is killing most political parties that embrace it. On the continent, the Euro austerity scheme swept Pasok and New Democracy out of government in Greece, to be replaced by more radical Syriza. In France, the Republicans and the Socialists, the Conservative and Labour looka ike parties of the last century, have been relegated to also rans. En Marche and National Front fought out the last Presidential election, and they are the front runners for the forthcoming Euro-poll next week. The one is very pro-more integration and now also has a very unpopular leader as a result, whilst the other is Eurosceptic. In Italy, a populist governing coalition of Five Star and Lega has pushed aside the old duo of Christian Democrats (later Forza) and the Democratic party, the Socialists. These two parties used to alternate in office. Everywhere throughout a Eurozone with high youth unemployment, slow growth and weak real incomes, we see political tensions and a search for new ideas and people.
Even in Germany, the huge winner from the Euro scheme, with high employment and a big surplus thanks to an undervalued common currency, the traditional parties tumbled when they adopted high migration policies as part of their EU commitment. Today for the Euro elections, the polls show the Christian Democrats, their sister party CSU in Bavaria, and the Social Democrats with well below half the vote between them. The Eurosceptic AFD challenge them from one side, the Greens from the other. The same pattern of decay and decline of the old centre-left and centre-right governing parties is to be seen in Spain, the Netherlands and elsewhere.
My new book looks at the challenger parties and the movements which are sweeping aside traditional politics and politicians and demanding change from complacent and unpopular establishments. This is most acute in response to poorly judged EU policies, but has also been visible in the USA, Brazil and other democracies. In America, Donald Trump took over the Republicans with a new brand of populist rhetoric. His tax-cutting America First agenda revitalised the Republican vote and kept change within an old party. Meanwhile, the Democrats ripped themselves apart with a major battle between a more socialist alternative in Bernie Sanders seeking to wrestle the nomination from the elite candidate, Hillary Clinton. This battle for the soul of the Democrats and the argument to change the demographic of who they try to attract is likely to continue in the run up to the Presidential contest of 2020.
I show that great parties can collapse quickly if they misjudge the mood. In the UK during the 1990s, the Conservatives plunged into a long period of unpopularity thanks to backing the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. That put the economy through a violent boom and bust cycle which destroyed the party’s reputation for economic competence until Labour made a worse economic mistake at the end of the last decade. In the 2017 general election, the Conservatives and Labour commanded an impressive 82 per cent of the vote between them, detaching themselves from the savage declines of traditional parties in the ill-fitting Eurozone. They both adopted Brexit, which collapsed the UKIP vote and gave them good results.
This year, they were still high in the polls until the Government made the fateful decision to delay our exit beyond the promised date of 29 March. Both parties have now spiralled downwards, hitting around 35 per cent together in the polls for the European election. Labour has torn up its promise to support Brexit and now favours staying in much more of the current EU arrangements. It is also holding out the prospect of a possible second referendum to reverse the decision. The Conservative Government failed to take us out on 29 March with or without a deal as promised, and stopped saying that No deal is better than a bad deal. The Conservatives never honoured their manifesto promise to negotiate the future relationship at the same time as any withdrawal issues, and to keep to their mantra of nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. These failings by Labour and Conservatives led directly to the sharp retreat in the polls.
The clash between peoples and governments is particularly intense because there is little agreement about what the problems are, let alone what the solutions should be. The elite tell the people the issues are climate change, European integration, the integrity of the Euro, political correctness, military interventions in the Middle East and international co-operation through Treaties and global quangos that prevent local decision taking. The voters bellow back that they are fed up with austerity, want less migration, want money spent at home on their priorities and want cheap energy, better-paid jobs and an ability to change things by the pressure of public opinion and by taking action in the ballot box. Many voters think the establishment patronises them and ignores their legitimate complaints. The war is pursued between social media and conventional media, with the elite often using traditional channels to push out their assertions that their way is the only way, and voters and challenger parties battling back through the social media. Each side accuses the other of putting out fake news.
People want to take back control, and to make their democracies work for them. Smart establishments will flex a bit and respond positively. If the establishment just denies and sneers, it will be swept from power by popular movements and landslide voting changes.