Ukippers and Jeremy Corbyn supporters have often been steadfast in their political views for years, and as a result have languished in the political wilderness while those willing to bend, flatter and shapeshift their way toward sanitised focus group approval have been richly rewarded with power and success
Are you a populist simpleton?
I am, according to the Telegraph’s Janet Daley, because I am guilty of expecting more from politics than two shades of the same old drab consensus.
It’s a shame – I thought I had an ally in Daley, who is absolutely right in identifying the dull managerialism that now defines British politics, where dull technocrats reign supreme and general elections are fought over which party leader would make the best Comptroller of Public Services.
From Daley’s Telegraph piece, in which she attempts to compare the rise of Jeremy Corbyn with Donald Trump’s temporary ascendancy in the Republican Party’s presidential primary race:
There is no doubt that the politics of Western governing has become consensual and centrist. It is now a cliché – but no less important for that – to say that the arguments on which democratic choice revolve are puny and marginal. Parties and their leaders are reduced to debating the detail: a bit more of that, a bit less of this. No basic principles are at stake because they are all pretty much settled. The slogans are quite deliberately boring: recession is to be tackled with a “long-term economic plan”. It doesn’t quite have the ring of “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.” It often seems as if party strategists are having to thrash around desperately for some semblance of a compelling vision to distinguish themselves from their opponents.
Daley’s analysis of the problem is spot on, echoing what this blog has been saying for over a year. And yet Daley seems to hold in contempt those of us who have also identified the problem, but seek to redress it by supporting politicians who do not conform to the centrist mould.
In her piece, Daley appears to excuse the rise of the managerial political class – the SpAdocracy – by suggesting that we need our current generation of passionless, humourless identikit politicians because these superlative conformists are the only ones capable of navigating our modern, globalised and interconnected world. And it’s certainly true that these people are able to navigate this world very successfully, especially when it comes to insulating themselves from the need to respond to public opinion, or by creating lucrative career opportunities for themselves and others like them.
But why should the rest of us continue to abide the building – without our input or consent – of a new world order based on antidemocratic international institutions, insulated from public control, run by and for the benefit of our political elites and their favoured power bases in the electorate?
More pressingly, why is Daley so quick to belittle those of us who are pushing back against this centrist putsch, as she proceeds to do:
Here we have the perfect opening for simplistic populist messages: politicians are all talking deliberately incomprehensible jargon. They are all involved in the same conspiracy to ignore the interests of ordinary people whose lives they know nothing about. All they want is power and wealth. The most common criticism of politicians is that “they are all in it for themselves”, in spite of the fact that political life is a peculiarly inefficient way of becoming rich. And simple, uncompromising formulae must have simple, identifiable enemies (evil bankers, criminal immigrants) as well as simple solutions (wealth redistribution, border walls).
It is quite easy to exploit the vague, inchoate frustration that most people feel with everyday life, then combine it with a sense that there must be an easy, straightforward answer to these things that the governing class are deliberately ignoring, and whip the whole thing into an incoherent rage. For Trump, the message is: “Take your country back!” For Corbyn, it is: “Your wealth is being stolen from you.” But there is a common thread: democratic politics is something you should be able to understand and influence. It belongs to you – not them.
If Daley agrees with the main thrust of our criticisms – and she certainly seems to do so – why does she smear every proposed remedy, from left or right, as evidence of cheap populism?
Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn have their rough edges, to put it mildly, but they also provide a voice to millions of people whose fairly unremarkable political views were firmly and high-handedly shut out of the political debate by a small elite who shrank the acceptable terms of British political debate to the point where there is almost nothing substantive to choose between the major political parties.
Janet Daley may see the UKIP and Corbyn surges as proof that a skilled political operator is ‘exploiting’ popular frustration with the centrist political status quo, but as a long-time member of the Westminster political/media village she can hardly be said to be neutral on the subject.
To accept that Nigel Farage or Jeremy Corbyn might have point would be to admit that she, and many of her friends and colleagues, have been part of a political system which has conferred great comfort and benefits on others like herself, but has deliberately ignored the welfare and concerns of millions of her fellow countrymen. Most people, preferring to see themselves as the hero in their life story, would do almost anything other than admit that they might ever have been complicit in helping the wrong side.
If centrist political managerialism is bad – but the remedies proposed by the likes of UKIP or Jeremy Corbyn are bad too – it is incumbent upon Janet Daley to offer her own path to follow out of our current political malaise. If all of our proffered solutions can be dismissed as superficial, intellectually lazy or otherwise un-serious, she should share her abundant wisdom with the British people.
It is very easy to sit smugly on the sidelines, throwing the occasional rock and taunting those who risk hostility, ridicule and contempt as they struggle to find a way to make our politics relevant to the people. Anyone can be a stone-thrower, as Janet Daley has proved. But it’s another thing entirely to roll up your sleeves, join the fray, pick a side or – if none of the available options appeal – propose new political solutions of your own.
Ukippers and Jeremy Corbyn supporters have often been steadfast in their political views for years, and as a result have languished in the political wilderness while those willing to bend, flatter and shapeshift their way toward focus group approval have been richly rewarded with power and success. They deserve better than an ill-considered comparison with Donald Trump, a know-nothing blowhard who is guided only by his own ego and who has held every political belief and party affiliation in existence, at one time or another.
I say again: if the status quo is unsatisfactory and neither UKIP nor a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party are the answer, Janet Daley should share some of her own bright ideas for rescuing British democracy.