Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics.
For many commentators the 2015 General Election was the first genuinely ‘anti-political’ election but at the same time it was one in which the existence of a major debate about the nature of British democracy served to politicize huge sections of society. The surge in party membership for the Scottish National Party, for example, with over 100,000 members at the time of the election (i.e. far more members than soldiers in the whole British Army) deserves some explanation in a context dominated by the rhetoric of disenchantment and decline. The subsequent election of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party with over a quarter of a million votes (59.5% of those cast) raises further questions about ‘anti-politics being all the rage’.
The simple fact is that ‘anti-politics’ is a myth. It is also a dangerous myth due to the manner in which it seeks to perpetuate cynicism when the evidence is arguably far more positive. The truth is that the results of the 2015 General Election and the Labour leadership contest were actually more anti-establishment than anti-political. Take, for example, the influential writing and public interventions of Owen Jones [The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It, 2014] or Russell Brand’s raw anti-elite, anti-establishment, anti-elections nihilism that was captured in his book Revolution (2014). I’m not for one moment suggesting that Jones or Brand were (or are) personally responsible for the dramatic shifts in the nature of British democracy but I am saying they – like Jeremy Corbyn – were able to somehow codify the moral sentiment of the age.
But that sentiment is not anti-political. It is tied to a search for a different form of politics, a ‘new’ politics.
It was this sense of a desire for difference that forged a deep fault-line through the 2015 General Election as ‘insurgent’ parties such as UKIP and the SNP sought to expose and exploit this gap between ‘old’ or traditional politics and a widespread public desire for change, while the mainstream parties sought to close and downplay this gap through a mixture of promising limited reforms and focusing on other issues. Like similar parties and movements in the USA, Austria, Denmark, France, Italy and many other countries, such parties offer a critique of what has gone before and promise new ways of ‘doing politics’. They assert a fundamental divide between the political establishment and ‘the people’ and positioned themselves as a ‘challenger brand’ that promises to deliver a quite different way of ‘doing democracy’. This approach dovetails with major international studies that reveal not so much a crisis of democracy but – as Pippa Norris has written – that ‘like a swollen river flowing through different tributaries, democratic engagement may have adapted and evolved in accordance with the new structure of opportunities, rather than simply atrophying’. The ‘new’ politics is therefore a world of boycotting, buy-cotting, squatting, pinging, hacking, flashmobs, twitter-led mobilisations, and a general broadening –rather than narrowing – of the ways in which people express themselves politically. ‘Think Politics, Think Vote’ is just so passé.
What’s arguably happening ‘out there’ is therefore not ‘anti-politics’ but “pro-‘doing politics differently’”.
Three issues flow from this argument.
First and foremost, at the General Election neither the Conservatives nor Labour seemed able to cope with the nature and strength of those public frustrations that became entwined in the ‘anti-politics’ debate in terms of offering a response or vision of what ‘doing politics’ might look like. The Labour Party now finds itself at the heart of a period of radical experimentation; the Conservative Party needs to be very careful not to look either smug or dependent on those ‘old’ forms of aggressive ‘attack politics’ that have alienated large sections of the public. Secondly, the ‘insurgent parties’ must tread a careful line between, on the one hand, rejecting the existing model of politics while, on the other hand, promoting a deeper conviction that democratic politics is not futile, i.e., to nurture support while decrying the existing model. This has arguably been more problematic for the SNP who were at one-and-the-same-time a governing party (in Scotland) and challenger party (in Westminster) at the recent General Election.
And finally, we come to Jeremy Corbyn (forgive me) two little thoughts. The simple fact is that is politics is judged in terms of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ then Jezza has already won. Whatever happens next the Labour Party will undoubtedly have to not so much ‘shift to the left’ but to fundamentally re-evaluate its social role and position. Irrespective of whether he ever becomes Prime Minister, or is even in office at the time of the next General Election, he has ‘won’ in the sense that he has acted as a powerful lightning rod for broader social frustrations and he has put a set of very real and meaningful policy choices back on the agenda. But standing back from Jeremy Corbyn, the ‘mainstreamers’ and the ‘insurgents’ there is a far bigger questions for the UK (and internationally) about the specific form, values and structures that might make up this ‘new politics’. What does ‘doing politics differently’ actually mean?
Answers (please) on a postcard to the Crick Centre, University of Sheffield, S10 2TY.