Populist vs. Populist

The Brexit crisis suits both Labour and the Conservatives, but all of us are paying the price.

13 September 2019
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"How did you go bankrupt?" Bill asked. "Two ways," Mike said. "Gradually and then suddenly."

Hemingway’s characters were talking about money troubles, but much the same might be said of Britain’s two biggest political parties and their seemingly inexorable slide into populism.

For the Labour party the process has been gradual, for the Conservative party somewhat more sudden. But be in no doubt: both the Leader of the Government and the Leader of the Opposition have taken up the populist mantle.

Populist movements come in many different forms, but are ultimately united by two fundamental claims:

  1. Elites and ‘outsiders’ are working against the interests of the ‘true people’.
  2. Populists are the voice of the ‘true people’ of a country and nothing should stand in their way.

The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn

  1. The people are in a battle against the ‘born-to-rule establishment’ and ‘self-serving elite’.
  2. Labour is on the side of the people, and its agenda overrides concerns about the public finances or private property rights.

The Conservative Party under Boris Johnson

  1. The people are being thwarted by MPs and peers ‘torpedoing’ Brexit and ‘surrendering’ to Brussels.
  2. The Conservatives are on the side of the people, and their agenda overrides Parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law.

A grim symbiosis

With the country now on an election footing, a toxic combination of circumstance and our first-past-the-post electoral system has the two sides locked in a sort of grim symbiosis.

The Conservatives know that a hard Brexit will be deeply damaging. But they can leverage Labour’s equivocation on Brexit, and calculate that enough people will ultimately prefer not to risk a Corbyn-led government.

Labour know the public has serious reservations about Corbyn entering No. 10. But they can leverage the Conservatives’ hardline stance on Brexit, and calculate that enough people will ultimately prefer not to risk it.

Breaking the deadlock

Although this madness is like catnip in Westminster, it represents a severe political failure in the face of our biggest crisis since the second world war.

For things to change, both parties need a stronger incentive to moderate their offer to voters. Breaking the deadlock has two parts.

In the short term, a second referendum on Brexit must be concluded before any General Election. The entire Brexit proposition was first put on the table as a specific question, and you cannot solve the specific with the general (ask Theresa May if you don’t believe me).

Once the Brexit question is resolved, the public can weigh the parties as they should, on the merits of their respective policy agendas.

In the longer term, some form of proportional representation must replace our current electoral system. This would reduce the pressure for big parties to be driven toward the extremes, and give more voters a stake in the outcome of elections.

The question, of course, is how we get there from here.

For me, if the present crisis has any form of silver lining, it’s that it has emboldened moderates to set aside some of the traditional party divides in favour of putting the country first.

Maybe - just maybe - that might be the start of something.

26 Sep 2019 →

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