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Category: United Kingdom

Why the UKIP Problem Will Get Worse Before it Gets Better

imagesIt’s official.  The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has arrived as a presence in British local government.  Elections last night saw a dramatic increase in their number of council seats; of the results so far announced, they have successfully defended two seats and gained 155.  Chuka Umunna, the Shadow Business Secretary, conceded that Britain was entering an era of ‘four party politics’.

From a wider European perspective, anti-EU, anti-immigration populism has been relatively slow to make an impact in Britain.  Such parties are already well-established in most western European party systems.  The process has taken longer in the UK because the first-past-the-post electoral system strongly favours established parties at the expense of newcomers.    However, the sociological bases of right-wing populist support have much in common across western Europe.

It is usually well understood that anti-EU, anti-immigration populist parties gain support from ultra-conservative voters, many of whom favour a very tough stance on law and order and immigration, and have strong and traditional views on national identity.  Such voters have always existed in small numbers in the UK.  The more moderate stance of UKIP (compared, for example, to the BNP) casts a wider net around the far right of the political spectrum.

Less well understood, however, is the increasing number of former Labour voters who are turning to UKIP.  This is a product of the interaction between de-industrialisation, which has led to an increasing scarcity of skilled working class jobs across north-western Europe, and immigration, which is perceived to create increased competition for those scarce jobs.

Put simply, globalisation and neo-liberal policies, which have dominated economic and political thinking across western Europe since the 1980s, have created ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.  The ‘winners’ are the most educated and those who already have capital: these groups can take advantage of the increased opportunities to work, travel and conduct business across borders.  At the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum, life has become harder.  Mines close because they are no longer efficient.  Factories move to Romania or China.  Tasks formerly carried out by skilled manual workers are now completed by computers or robots.

For the most part, these problems are not caused by the European Union.  Successive British governments have chosen to embrace neo-liberal reforms.  Globalisation and automation would happen whether or not Britain was a member of the EU.

However, the ‘losers’ of globalisation are a large sociological group, and one that has felt entirely unrepresented since the mid-1990s, when the Labour Party distanced itself from the unions and staked out new territory in the political centre.  During the same period, the European Union has expanded both its powers (particularly post-Maastricht) and size (following the 2004 and 2007 expansions).

In the absence of proper representation, debate, and recognition of their concerns, the ‘losers of globalisation’ have become increasingly disenfranchised, and thus ripe for mobilisation by anti-immigration, anti-European populists.  The economic crisis of 2008-2012 fuelled this already-toxic mix.

Britain’s traditional political parties miss the point when they decry UKIP as ‘racists’ and ‘scare mongerers’.  By huddling in the centre/centre-right, and focussing on media-management at the expense of formulating original policies, or building links with society, Britain’s ‘traditional’ political parties have left both the right and the left of the political spectrum wide open, a situation that is ripe for what the eminent political scientist, Giovanni Sartori, termed ‘centrifugal competition’.   Until mainstream political parties recognise the extent of the sociological change that has occurred in Britain, and the new demands that this creates, support for protest parties and populist parties is likely to continue to grow.

Dr Alison Smith holds a DPhil from St Antony’s College, Oxford.  She teaches Comparative Government, European Politics, Politics of the EU and Russian Politics.  You can follow her on Twitter @AliFionaSmith




Closing the UK’s Democratic Deficit: Is a New Party of Local Notables The Answer?

In these days of financial crisis, austerity and expenses scandals, one doesn’t have to go far to find citizens complaining that our democracy is in decline.  Most people do this from the comfort of their armchairs, shouting at Question Time or changing the TV channel when a particularly annoying politician crosses their screen.  However, the founder of the Independent newspaper, Andreas Whittam Smith, is prepared to go one step further.

Yesterday, Whittam Smith announced a plan for a new British movement to ‘restore democracy’.  He argued that the UK’s current MPs are drawn from a narrow set of backgrounds – law, medicine, journalism and, of course, political hackery.  In this view, we are left with a cohort of politicians more suited to marketing themselves than running the country.

Whittam Smith has a big idea to solve this problem.  He hopes to recruit a set of local notables – people who have have ‘done something with their lives, and have established themselves in their communities’.  This group of candidates would announce ‘easy-to-understand policies for the problems people worry most about, such as unemployment, crime, immigration, care of old people, NHS, welfare reform, Europe.’  These policies would be made by ‘participative policy making, lasting a year, and using the digital media to ensure openness and legitimacy.’  Candidates would stand for one parliamentary term, a limit that would encourage the participation of talented people with experience outside politics, and also shut the door on ‘career politicians’.

Few would disagree with Wittam Smith’s concern about ‘career politicians’ being drawn from a narrow range of backgrounds.  Since Greek and Roman times, people wished to be represented by the brightest, best and most honest.  Unfortunately, the reality has been consistently less appealing.  Any initiative that encourages good people to enter politics, and provides them with the necessary organisational support, has to be applauded.

That said, Whittam Smith’s proposal is startlingly naive in places.  He argues that policy-making will be easy because ‘ideological differences are small these days, even between the established parties, which often magnify what are in effect small distinctions to make themselves stand out.’  Of course, Whittam Smith’s local notables would agree a set of policies on areas as uncontroversial as immigration, Europe, and how to balance the UK’s wayward budget.  No problem there, then.

Whittam Smith underestimates how hard most politicians and parliamentary candidates actually work.   In his view, local notables can participate in policy-making on-line, give a small donation (maximum £50), put their name on a ballot paper, then serve in Parliament for a maximum period of five years.  Not for them, years of organising volunteers, tramping the pavements of their constituency and spending every last penny of their spare cash on petrol, refreshments for volunteers and raffle tickets at the local fete.  Perhaps Whittam Smith believes that the public will be so grateful to see a good honest local notable entering the fray that these demands will be waived.  This is unlikely.

Although the idea for new apolitical movement is novel in the UK, it is not uncommon on the continent, particularly in the new democracies of central and east Europe, where ‘traditional parties’ constantly compete against ephemeral movements of local notables.  Such movements were initially greeted with enthusiasm by voters, but in every single case they collapse within two terms or develop traditional party structures.  Rather than being immune from ego conflicts, parties of local notables are particularly prone to such problems because they have no dispute resolution or policy making structures. And voters make no allowances for local notables’ lack of political experience, passing harsh judgement on those who stumble over their words in the media, fall out with their colleagues in public or have to pick their drunken teenage son out of a gutter on a Sunday morning.

Whittam Smith’s ideas are a helpful addition to the debate on revitalising our democracy.  He is quite right that we need to draw a wider range of people into public life, not just at the parliamentary level but also in local democracy.  But Whittam Smith would also do well to acknowledge that being a politician isn’t as easy as it looks, and divisions over policy are more stark than ever in these times of crisis.

If Cash for Cameron is a problem, is state funding the solution?

Revelations that David Cameron courted donors over dinner at Chequers have given British journalists an alliterative field day, with this week’s headlines including ‘Supper for Supporters’, ‘Dinner for Donors’ and, least plausibly, ‘Dave’s Dodgy Diner’.

Of course, this is not the first time that governing parties in Britain have been accused of trading influence for money; one of the most notorious examples was the Cash for Peerages scandal of 2006/2007.  And every time a case like this arises, somebody (usually the Liberal Democrats) always suggests that it is time to consider introducing state funding of political parties.

Most other European democracies have some level of state funding of political parties.  Decisions to provide such subsidies are usually the ‘carrot’ accompanying the legislative ‘stick’ of lower donation limits and increased reporting requirements.  Unfortunately experience on the continent suggests that state funding is no panacea for cleaning up politics.  Just ask the French.

Parties (and sometimes individual politicians) will always seek to maximise their income in order to out-compete their rivals.  Therefore, alternative fundraising doesn’t cease and funding scandals are still a problem.  Indeed, when funding scandals break, they are met with even more public frustration because taxpayers have made significant contributions without seeing the promised improvements in democratic quality.

Moreover, state funding does not necessarily level the playing field in quite the way that smaller parties like the Liberal Democrats might hope.  Funds are usually allocated in one of three ways: per vote received, according to the percentage of votes won, or according to the number of seats won.  Whichever method is chosen, the most electorally successful parties receive the most money, locking in their advantage.

In the current financial climate, it is unlikely that the idea of introducing state subsidies for political parties will catch on in the UK.  If it does, however, the Liberal Democrats must insist that funding is allocated on a ‘per vote’ basis in order to avoid receiving a double blow at the hands of Britain’s majoritarian electoral system.

Mythbusters: three things Cameron’s EU veto didn’t achieve

David Cameron’s EU veto has, according to opinion polls, given a warm fuzzy feeling to 60% of the British population.  Sticking two fingers up at Brussels might feel good, but what has it actually achieved?

Cameron has not saved the City of London from EU regulation:  Indeed, EU regulation was never even on the agenda at Thursday’s EU summit.  Britain has genuine concerns in this area, particularly over the proposed ‘financial services tax’.  These are issues for another day, and Britain had better find some allies fast if it wants to achieve aims like locating the new European Banking Authority in London.

As a non euro-zone country, Britain had no vital national interest in Thursday’s treaty anyway: The treaty was flawed because the austerity it imposes on euro-zone states will probably be unworkable.   However, Britain was not being asked to adopt these regulations itself, merely to agree to euro-zone countries adopting new fiscal rules.  Under these circumstances, a veto is the diplomatic equivalent of using an industrial crushing machine to squash a tonka toy.

Britain has lost sight of its real vital national interest i.e. helping to stabilise the euro-zone:   Even the most ardent pro-European would accept that the euro is in mortal danger.  Even the most ardent anti-European would accept that this poses grave risks for the British economy.  There are no easy answers to averting the looming economic catastrophe.  But if we haven’t got any better ideas, it would at least be polite to get the hell out of the way and make supportive noises while others try to sort the problem.

What’s going on with the Lib Dems and Europe?

In the small hours of the morning, David Cameron’s negotiating team crashed out of talks aimed at finding a co-ordinated EU-27 response to the euro-zone’s problems.  The discussions ended in rancour, with the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, accusing the British of behaving like a “man who wants to go to a wife-swapping party without taking his own wife.”

That Cameron’s Conservatives’ have taken an isolationist stance in Europe is not surprising: the party’s ever-present euro-sceptic wing has gained strength in recent months, feasting on the euro-zone’s misfortunes.  But more of a fight might have been expected from the British government’s junior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. Led by a former MEP, Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems have long been the most-consistently pro-European party in Westminster.

Yet the Liberal Democrats’ response today has been muted.  Nick Clegg stated that Cameron’s demands at the summit were ‘modest and reasonable’, and that the coalition was ‘united on the issue‘.  Senior colleagues publicly supported this view, with former leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, telling the Today programme that the development was ‘inevitable’.

So what is driving the Lib Dems to abandon their traditional pro-European stance?  It is clear that senior Lib Dems now share the moderate Conservatives’ view that, while the fire in the euro-zone rages, the safest place to stand is next to the emergency exit.  Although this disloyalty (in the eyes of other Europeans)  will leave Britain isolated if the euro-zone successfully douses the fire, there is a growing consensus amongst Britain’s leaders that the euro is doomed.

There is good basis for their fears.  The euro-zone still faces daunting debt-mountains and the dilemma of how to make the peripheral countries competitive.  Can the Greek government really deliver on its undertaking to keep its structural deficit below 0.5% of GDP?  When leaders return to their own countries and face electorates exhausted by austerity and frustrated with low economic growth, will these latest plans prove unworkable?  And the European Central Bank still resists taking the role as lender of last resort, which many think is the only guaranteed way to fix the euro.  In short, the Lib Dems are no longer willing to risk any of their considerably diminished political capital defending the EU or the euro-zone.

However, even if the result of last night’s meeting was inevitable, the negotiations were carried out with a shocking lack of tact and diplomacy.  The Tory euro-sceptics’ appetite is unsatiated, since now they want a referendum on whether the UK should be a member of the EU at all.  They would do well to tone down their gloating, for the Liberal Democrats’ acceptance of Friday night’s developments is an indication of just how serious the euro-zone crisis has become.