Rebecca Coulson is a freelance writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
“A complex tranche of work beckons for [us, to] analyse why people in democracies feel let down and find ways to rebuild trust and faith. […] Disadvantaged and working class people can be drawn to the siren song of conservative populism.” Julia Gillard, 5 October 2016, Speech at King’s College, London.
If, on the final day of the Conservative Party conference, the former Australian prime minister had said “popular” rather than “populism”, few would have raised a tired eyebrow. Most party-politics converts get the importance of popularity. If you like a party enough to vote for it, support it, or even represent it, you’ve probably accepted – unless you’re its only member – that its views can’t be identical with yours.
Because (unlike some people) you see that an effective party requires power, you’ve accepted that “your” party has to convince sufficient others that it’s “theirs” in this imperfect, acceptable kind of a way, too. Me, her, that hipster down the street, the angry lady on the tube. The more widely appealing it is, however, the more you also have to accept it will suggest some things you just don’t like. That said – particularly when you’re talking with your centre-left friends – I guess you’re grateful that there’s something that broadly lets you feel politically represented.
If I set up a party that offered my great solutions to make Britain great, that’d seem pretty ideal…to me. You might do the same based on your own ideas. To win voters, we’d need to tone down our manifestos. I’d have to reconsider my hasty combination of using classical music for societal cohesion, scrapping excise duty on wine, introducing compulsory health insurance for non-medically-fixable problems, providing better incentives for flexible working, sending criminals to prison only if they’re a danger to society, testing out Nozick thought experiments, and so on. And you’d have to forsake helicopter money and conscription. We’d have to get real, and listen to people apart from ourselves. But how much?
The obvious next move is for us to discuss referenda, but that’s overdone. So, let’s go straight to the difficult thing: when an accepted need to be popular turns into something different by dint of a few letters. Populism’s implication is that politicians can be tempted into making disastrous choices through influence from the “tyranny of the masses”; that, in order to please the unruly populace, expedient leaders might allow base wants or uninformed ideas to take hold – ending in a majority-rule situation in which minorities fair badly, or even in democracy’s discreditation.
This begins with those things about which we think the country would rise up and vote for or against, if only given the chance. Things about which – if we feel we’re representative of those masses – we might think it unfair that we don’t get to decide. Or, maybe – if we feel we’re smarter than average – we think it’s important we don’t. The classic pub example, of course, is “bringing back hanging”. A quick vox pop found others: deposing the monarchy, de-privatising railways, unlimited funding of the NHS, banning overweight people from wearing swimming costumes, and minimising taxes. (Bonus for the person who said “grammar schools, and an EU referendum’”)
Unsurprisingly, when you attempt to combine these “popular” ideas, their contradictions show there’s no magic mid-ground on which every individual agrees and which covers everything a party needs to cover. In that sense, we don’t even need to prove that populism is insidious: it’s vacuous. Surely most of us quite like the Queen and hate hanging, anyway? Though that’s just me – making up my mind in the same way those I asked did. Ok, we can check out the polling that suggests I’m right, but obvious problems arise even in deciding which ideas are popular enough to be offered for official deliberation. And if the ideas were generally desirable, you’d still have to try to enact them together in a generally desirable fashion.
That brings us to the Liberal Democrats, who were popular until they faced reality. Do I want university tuition to be “free”? Sure! So do you. But we also want sustainable higher education, and oppose sudden tax hikes. And we might want free drinks on Fridays: gins all round. And for everybody to be given copies of Herman Melville novels, and Microsoft Office for Mac. Those are good things, no? But…
Populists, who don’t care about pragmatism, appeal most strongly to those who don’t get compromise, or feel so unrepresented that they don’t see why they should. Those discontented people – and caricatures of their views – are exploitable by authoritarian politicians who knowingly big up impossible solutions, sometimes by hijacking previously well-intentioned parties. Those of us who have felt a connection with politics – who feel represented, rather than ‘let down’ – are protected from this by realism. Sometimes that’s why we don’t want to do politics, ourselves, not least because we want to be free to criticise. But it’s also why we might give a calculated benefit of the doubt to the party that best represents us, when, on occasion, it does seemingly less agreeable stuff. A broadening of appeal – no matter how much it jars – does not necessarily equate to populism.
And neither does this thinking necessitate quietening the masses. If consent justifies political power – on a tacit grand scale, by justifying the power itself; and, in a smaller immediate sense, when we vote for a specific government – then listening to the public is essential. Yet it’s difficult to think of a better way to do that than our representative democracy with its party system. Democracy is about choice, but you can’t choose from unlimited options. And not only is it impractical to ask everyone about every governmental decision, it’s hard to see how that’d be in their best interests.
Defining “best interests” is hard, too, but let’s say they’re represented when people can make as many choices about how they live, as possible. However, if I had to make active informed choices about everything that affected me – from which type of flour is used in the pastry of the dimsum I eat, to which blood thinner I should take if I had a stroke – then I might not only end up making bad choices, I’d also have less time to assess more universal things. So, I’ll select acceptably-pastried dimsum by making a careful restaurant choice, and I’d pick a reputable doctor to choose my medicine – and that’s enough. Similarly, I vote for the party I think will make good choices on my – and your – behalf, knowing they won’t necessarily make all the ones I would. And I’ll keep doing so until the point at which I know I shouldn’t.
There are basic things on which we agree – and therefore must also judge our politicians – solely because we choose to live in this country: some sense of united values, such as tolerance, proportional equality, compassion for those in need, and on. Those are our starting points, and included in them is democracy. We might disagree over how much we should contribute to, or deliberate within that democracy, but we can’t vote against it, because it’s more fundamental than any one party suggesting a policy, or any one government proposing a change.
We have to accept popular; populism, we must be careful to avoid.