Anti-politics: the Lib Dem problem

A very interesting blog-post from two Southampton academics, Will Jennings and Jerry Stoker – Parties and anti-politics – examines the problems each of the four parties has with the current mood of anti-politics (hat-tip John Rentoul). Its introduction summarises its argument:

How and why do political parties struggle to ‘get’ anti-politics? They all nod in speeches and policy statements in the direction of public disenchantment with politics but fail to take tackling its causes seriously. UKIP seek to exploit it, the Tories want to wish it away, Labour under Miliband claim innocence and ineptness in their defence, while the Liberal Democrats misread it and think constitutional change is the answer.

The section on the Lib Dems is especially worth highlighting:

With the Liberal Democrats largely dazed and confused as a political force since their decision into the coalition in May 2010, anti-politics is just another problem for a party that has lost its identity and its electoral appeal. They seem particularly at sea in dealing with anti-politics and find it hard to understand why it appears no one likes them anymore. Getting involved in government at the local level was not such a negative experience but the national engagement has made it impossible for activists to present themselves on the side of the angels; they are firmly part of the political elite and have found that an uncomfortable position.

Because traditionally the Liberal Democrats pursued a more positive/optimistic style of politics than their counterparts, especially locally, anti-politics is something of an anathema to them, and as such it is understandable the have not fully been able to comprehend the alienation felt by some. The traditional focus on constitutional reform has become outdated, as the roots of anti-politics attitudes have become better understood as not simply about the electoral system. When asked in focus groups or surveys citizens do not back the idea of constitutional reform among their top choices for political reform.

There’s been some excitement in party circles at the interest triggered in constitutional reform by today’s Scottish independence referendum – and in particular the co-signed vow by Cameron, Clegg and Miliband to legislate for devo-max for Scotland. (What more than a century of liberal campaigning for home rule may not have achieved, a single YouGov poll in The Sunday Times appears to have delivered.)

That’s all fine and dandy: I’m a federalist, a devolver, a power-to-the-people-er. I’d like to see a written constitution, electoral reform, an elected second chamber in place of the House of Lords, a disestablished church, and a republic as well.

However, two things. First, I’m in a minority on most of these issues. I suspect in a referendum on any one of them, I’d be on the losing side. As a democrat, not just a liberal, that should give me pause for thought.

Secondly, even if all these things happened I think there would still be a problem with anti-politics. All my longed-for constitutional tinkering might (I hope) improve the process of politics. But I suspect public antipathy towards its outcomes would remain. Indeed it’s arguable that such things as an elected second chamber and a republic – wit yet more professional politicians – might exacerbate the mood.

None of which means I’ve changed my mind about those things. But I think it’s a category error to believe that the public’s anti-politics mood is driven by the lack of politics in their lives. It’s the type of politics (and perhaps politicians) that’s the bigger issue.

Jennings’ and Stoker’s conclusion sets a stiff challenge, albeit quite a fuzzy one:

None of the main parties get anti-politics. … The first party leader or group of activists who really show an ability to understand the world from another’s perspective and then show a real capacity to shift the way they do politics might indeed reap a considerable reward in support. … the overwhelming sentiment is for a political leadership that is seen engaged, connected and responsive and not driven by spin, self-aggrandisement and connections with big business. People want a representative democracy that works. If a political party could show them how to get that it would be on to a winner.

Easier said than done, of course.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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29 Comments

  • “When asked in focus groups or surveys citizens do not back the idea of constitutional reform among their top choices for political reform.”

    “People want a representative democracy that works.”

    So voters don’t understand that constitutional reform is necessary to create a representative democracy that works.

    Maybe we need to work harder to make them understand that the two are directly connected. Otherwise, we’re not going to make any progress at all and people are just going to get angrier and angrier.

  • David Evans 18th Sep '14 - 4:39pm

    I don’t like the expression anti politics, because it is an easy term established politicians use to simply disparage and disregard a significant part of the population. What most people want is politicians who will tell them the truth, deliver promises, and be on their side rather than on the side of the bureaucracy. Just as the great Jo Grimond used to say Liberals should be on the side of the Governed and not on the side of the Government.

    Lib Dems in local government have made a success of it, to the extent that people voted them in to take control of local councils. The really successful ones then carried on in that vein and were still the representatives of the people in the council chamber, even though they were in control. I thought Nick was as well when he talked about “A new way of doing politics”, and “An end to broken promises.”

    Sadly as soon as he got into the ministerial Jag, he went native.

  • Julian Tisi 18th Sep '14 - 4:48pm

    Jennings’ and Stoker’s article is right on the money IMO. Their conclusions on each of UKIP, Tories, Labour and Lib Dems are fair and uncomfortable for each in equal measure.

    Two things. First, although I completely agree that political reform is not the panacea some in the party might think it is, that doesn’t mean political reform isn’t going to help. One problem for example is the ultra safe seat where the MP just needs to wear the right colour badge to get elected and will often take their electorate for granted once they are elected. The expenses scandal showed one symptom of this but at the time the connection wasn’t made. Labour tried to brush it off saying “all parties are guilty” (i.e. please don’t punish us) and Cameron said “let’s kick this lot out” (i.e. and elect some Tories). We didn’t push the point hard enough that the system itself was broken and that neither of the other two wanted to fix it because it suited them not to.

    Second, it’s interesting that certain politicians escape criticism when it comes to the anti-politics brigade, And they tend to be the ones that come across as the most human, off-message, down to earth and least polished (Boris comes to mind). Two lessons: 1) we need to get better at recruiting political candidates from outside PR land. Basically, we need a more diverse bunch of candidates. 2) We need to unlearn a whole load of known “truths” about how to deliver a speech, answer questions in an interview and stop wrapping our language up in PR speak. Sadly I think we have a very very long way to go on this last point.

  • Stephen Tall
    You conclude with this from Jennings and Stoker —
    “….… the overwhelming sentiment is for a political leadership that is seen engaged, connected and responsive and not driven by spin, self-aggrandisement and connections with big business. People want a representative democracy that works. If a political party could show them how to get that it would be on to a winner.”

    Switch to ‘The Theory and Pratice of Community Poitics’ by Lishman and Greaves and there. you will find the route map to achieve this — ” working with people in their communities to take and use power” .

  • “None of the *main* parties get anti-politics.”
    Well surely, that ought to be self evident by now?. And the last paragraph :
    “The first party leader or group of activists who really show an ability to understand the world from another’s perspective and then show a real capacity to shift the way they do politics might indeed reap a considerable reward in support. … the overwhelming sentiment is for a political leadership that is seen engaged, connected and responsive and not driven by spin, self-aggrandisement and connections with big business. People want a representative democracy that works. If a political party could show them how to get that it would be on to a winner.”
    For me, this new winning party, has Ukip written all over it.?
    “UKIP seek to exploit it…[ anti politics ]”
    Or another way of looking at it, is that Ukip are *listening*, and the three main parties are *ignoring*? Have not the three established parties, crated this backlash (anti politics), by dint of treating with constant derision,… the unheard,… the disenfranchised,… the ‘left behind’.?
    In short, why has it taken so long for you the realise that you are reaping what you have sown, from years of voter contempt ?

  • Stephen Campbell 18th Sep '14 - 5:17pm

    @RC: “Maybe we need to work harder to make them understand that the two are directly connected.”

    Ahh, yes, once again we see Liberal Democrats bad-mouthing the electorate by saying we just “don’t understand”. Maybe people aren’t so interested in constitutional reform because, quite simply, many changes people want to see do not require constitution reform. Maybe people simply think politicians make huge promises when they want our votes (tuition fees, “no top-down reorganisations of the NHS”, “we’ll protect the disabled”) and then break these promises as soon as they get the chance. Politicians need to start listening to the electorate and doing what the electorate wants. These politicians could start by making promises (pledges, shall we say) and actually delivering on these promises. Many politicians seem to always listen to and give the rich and multinational corporations what they want. But when it comes to what WE the electorate want, well, we don’t matter, do we? Tuition fees, the NHS reforms which the electorate (even Tory voters) were against are examples of this.

    Or you could just continue your comforting, if ultimately vote-losing “the electorate are stupid/don’t understand” line.

  • Bill Le Breton 18th Sep '14 - 5:25pm

    What the clu*eless nabo*bs of academia and Westmonster (thanks Flo) will never ‘get’ is that anti-politics is politics.

    When we are political we are successful, because as John T reminds us, being political is helping people take and use power.

    We did relatively so poorly in 2010 because, especially after the Manchester debate, we tried NOT to be political and as ever it turned people off.

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Sep '14 - 5:35pm

    This is a good article. I think the anti-politics feeling would reduce if people embraced real centrism – not the Tony Blair mish mash of left and right ideas. Political activists seem to like ideology, but I think the public just wants competence and honesty. Blair says he is non ideological, but he’s a bit aggressive.

    I used to like economic liberalism, but to be honest, I’m afraid of it. Not so much the cuts, but the pro war arguments I’ve heard. I don’t want politicians to get elected and take control. I just want them to be competent so I can focus on my work.

  • A relevant quote from North America which may add to this discussion —
    “. The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in a progressive direction is to become strong enough so that they can’t be ignored by the centers of power.
    Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its foundations include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels everyday not just once very four years.’.
    NOAM CHOMSKY

  • Tony Dawson 18th Sep '14 - 6:12pm

    “They seem particularly at sea in dealing with anti-politics and find it hard to understand why it appears no one likes them anymore”

    This is precisely the criticism which grass roots Liberals have of the centrist establishment elite who have hijacked our Party. Thankfully, it is not a valid criticism of proper Liberal Democrats.

  • In answer to this: 1: A true representative voting system 2:End to the secrecy / cover ups 3: Keep promise’s 4: Stop just serving the rich and the bankers 5: Stop the excessive immigration from Europe mainly now 6: Big government don’t work so get OUT of Europe I could give more but that a start

  • Excuse my cynicism, Stephen Campbell, but how far are you actually “a member of the electorate”? Well, I am sure you are, as I am, as I am sure most of us on here are. I am quite prepared to admit to being a”politician”, are you? What, in any case, do people mean when they talk about “politicians” (and indeed politics). My wife and I have known various “Independent”, and independent local councillors who will not admit to the title. No, they say, you have to not only belong to a political party, as many of them do, but also represent that party in Council to be taking part in “politics” Any activist is a politician, indeed, anyone who seeks to take part in influencing or managing decision making processes is a politician of sorts.

    I am in sympathy with your plea for decisions to be rebalanced in favour of ordinary people and away from corporate lobbying outcomes, but there are many anti-politics people who wouldn’t take that view. Jennings and Stoker do not discuss fascism in this context, but there is a strong strand of “blame the other” and plead to divert resources from perceived others to oneself and one’s mates in all this. Yes, I am anti- antipolitics – it is far too simplistic, and often, yes, selfish.

  • paul barker 18th Sep '14 - 7:43pm

    But its simply not true that “Nobody likes us”. According to Ipsos-Mori yesterday between 33% & 41% do Like Us. Thats well behind Labour & Tories but not fantastically behind as we are in VI Polls.

  • Stephen Donnelly 18th Sep '14 - 7:54pm

    People believe that constitutional reform would result in more government and give more power to the politicians. We could engage people in the process by offering less government and fewer politicians.

    The loss of identity is a serious issue for the party, not just for this election, but for our survival in the future. Many people who I would consider to be liberals would not consider joining, or even supporting the party. I have to admit that when a Liberal Democrat spokesperson appears on TV or Radio to comment on a new issue, I find it very hard to predict which side of the argument they will be on.

    I agree with John Tilley that it would also be interesting for us all to re-read (and perhaps re-evaluate) ‘The Theory and Pratice of Community Politics’.

  • I don’t think people are Anti-politics. It.s more about the business of politics and mistrust. There’s a sense that politicians are more concerned with Westminster , the press and lobbyists than representing the electorate. The expenses scandal added the idea that they are on the make into the mix and the recent Rotherham scandal compounded the idea that some would even rather let abuse continue than risk rocking the boat. It’s a drip, drip, drip of broken promises, scandal and suspected cover ups. The Brit version of the post-Watergate American cynicism. The Lib Dems problem is that they saw protest voters instead of people placing their trust in a them.

  • In a way it is easy a political party needs to stand back from government, make critical comments about those in power, stoke up unpopularity with the government of the day and then capitalise on negative sentiment. The trouble is that while achieving short term gain, the overall negativity towards politics is increased and confirms distrust with all aspects of the political process, including even change.

    Suppose Labour squeak in at the next election and that in government it faces a stream of tough decisions, some of which have dimply been deferred by the present government, we could expect Labour to suffer severe unpopularity and Miliband getting a particularly rough ride. In such circumstances Lib Dems would benefit, however the overall outlook for the political process would become more negative.

    In brief, negative campaigning is effective, but it comes at the cost of increasing overall negativity. We saw this in the AV vote, we have seen it throughout the coalition government and have seen fear and menace deployed as the main strategy of the independence NO campaign. Negative campaigning delivers the result in the short term, but this success comes at a cost.

  • @Paul Barker

    “between 33% & 41% do Like Us”

    Yes, and the same poll found “Nick Clegg’s party is also least trusted to keep its promises ” – 13%.

    Liked, not trusted: probably not liked greatly, then.

  • It’s ‘Gerry’ Stoker, not ‘Jerry’.

    This is a really interesting debate, but is rather ill-timed because it is going to get completely swamped in an hour or so by comment on the referendum. I see this as a multi-factorial problem where globalisation is intersecting with the economic collapse of 2008 which is intersecting with migration/immigration which is intersecting with the fact that the standard of living in this country has been kept artificially high by political expedients like selling North Sea oil and inflation in the housing market which is intersecting with the friends of the political elite being immune from the consequences of their actions which caused the economic crisis and coming out of it more powerful and wealthy than ever which intersects with Mandelsonian and Blairite philosophy and presentational skills. Since the collapse of communism politics has been in a state of mutation. UKIP has been well positioned to benefit from the consequences of the situation outlined above, but serious political parties need to be doing some deep thinking about their responses to these problems, and I see very little evidence that any of them are doing so. As I have said before on here, the Liberal Democrats have been too fixated with community politics for the past four decades to rethink their ideas. Mao talked about the need for permanent revolution: one of the essences of liberalism is the need to re-evaluate ideas in the light of changing circumstances. We have not been doing that, and we are paying the price.

  • Jenny Barnes 19th Sep '14 - 9:02am

    In 1997 there was a large majority Labour government elected – I believe in the hope that there would be a change from Thatcherite neo-liberal policies. That didn’t work out too well, and then in 2010 a surge of LD support, probably with similar hopes as both Tory and Labour were Thatcherite neo-liberals. So when it turns out that the LDs are – guess what – yet another Thatcherite neo-liberal party when in power, a certain disdain for party-politics sets in. People are political, they just don’t like the way our politics is mediated by the Westminster parties.

  • Well said Jenny Barnes.
    — “.. People are political, they just don’t like the way our politics is mediated by the Westminster parties.”

    The establishment are patting themselves on the back this morning in the knowledge that they have got away with it again.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Sep '14 - 10:34am

    David Evans

    What most people want is politicians who will tell them the truth, deliver promises, and be on their side rather than on the side of the bureaucracy.

    Unfortunately, while that’s what they SAY they want, it’s not what they would vote for. Most people want politicians who will deliver the impossible, and think politicians are bad people because they can’t do. But try to talk about reality, and they don’t like it, believe me, I’ve tried. If you say “We need massive tax rises if we are to have a decent NHS” or “We need to penalise people who hold on to housing they don;t need if we are really to deal with the housing crisis” people turn against you and go to the snake oil salesmen who suppose there are easy-peasy solutions to these problems i.e. the likes of UKIP and the SNP.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Sep '14 - 10:40am

    Jenny Barnes

    So when it turns out that the LDs are – guess what – yet another Thatcherite neo-liberal party when in power, a certain disdain for party-politics sets in.

    Well, actually, the LibDems are one sixth of a coalition of which the other five-sixths is a party which wants to push Thatcherism much further than Thatcher let it go. Just because the result is inevitably pretty Thatcherite does not mean the LibDems are keen Thatcherites. We needed from the start of the coalition to be much more clear about this. Instead, Clegg and the Cleggies chose the disastrous approach of making out we were almost in joint control of the coalition, and of making out that the compromise policies that came out of it were supper-duper wonderful, rather than just compromises which reflect the balance of the two parties. That is why the lot of them must be thrown out, and decent proper liberals put in their place.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Sep '14 - 11:03am

    Jennings and Stoker

    Because traditionally the Liberal Democrats pursued a more positive/optimistic style of politics than their counterparts, especially locally, anti-politics is something of an anathema to them, and as such it is understandable the have not fully been able to comprehend the alienation felt by some.

    I don’t think this is at all true.

    My motivation for getting involved in the Liberal Party in the first place, and I know it is the same for many others, was PRECISELY that feeling of alienation from how politics works in this country and the feel it needed to be shaken up dramatically. I’m afraid what Jennings and Stoker are saying here is just more Westminster Bubble thinking – they suppose the Liberal Democrats are just Clegg and the Cleggies, the establishment and right-wing types who have taken over the party at the top. We underneath need to show them otherwise, and we need to sack Clegg and throw out the Cleggies to demonstrate that.

    Sorry, but what is written here makes me SO angry. I have spent 35 years of my life in the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats because of my strong feelings of concern over the political alienation of ordinary people, it has been my prime motivation for all I have done for the party, so to be told now that I am someone who from my membership of this party must be someone who can’t even comprehend this alienation is, well, polite words fail me.

    Throughout my involvement with the party, and before that, ever since it disappeared as just part of the establishment but was revived by radicals, the prime division in the party has been between those who want it to be something different, the opposition to the political establishment not just a “centre party”, and those who suppose we what we need to do to succeed is to become more like “normal politicians”, more slick and professional and top-down. This was the ACTUAL big division between the Liberal Party and the SDP, not as some would have it now, free market economics against social democratic economics. Most of the SDP were pro-establishment sort, but the Liberal Party divided equally, with the right-wing pro-establishment half being keenest on the SDP (some would say they encouraged the SDP to be formed in the first place to bolster their side in the party division).

    Unfortunately, Clegg and the Cleggies have very heavily pushed the line “We must look like proper politicians, just like the rest”. Again and again they have used the fact of the coalition to argue that all is wonderful now we are “proper politicians” standing at the despatch box, and we must throw away all that old beards and sandals anti-establishment stuff and votes will tumble our way. Despite the fact this hasn’t happened, they are STILL pushing this line, still supposing there are millions of people out there who want the sort of right-wing economics with a bit of social liberalism but thoroughly Westminster Bubble party they are trying to turn the Liberal Democrats into.

  • Jayne Mansfield 19th Sep '14 - 6:43pm

    @Matthew Huntbach.
    Who allowed this to happen? How many have fought as hard as you to prevent the current surreal situation where people like Nigel Farage, Neal Hamilton and Co. are seen by large numbers as the anti-establishment party, the party of the politically alienated, the ‘left behinds’?

    Nick Clegg and the ‘Cleggies’ as you call them must have had a great deal of support from within the party.

  • @tonyhill: “Mao talked about the need for permanent revolution”
    That was Trotsky.

  • Paul In Wokingham 19th Sep '14 - 11:15pm

    As Martin Kettle in The Guardian writes this evening (although not in quite these words) our system is wonderful at normalizing and neutralizing dissent through platitude and process : http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/19/scotland-glorious-revolution-westminster-anoraks-debate.

    The world was going to change after the TBTF banks were bailed out. But nothing happened. Vickers will never see the light of day. It’s back to business as usual and George Osborne’s friends made millions in the knock-down sale of a state asset to the well-connected. We were going to have a “glorious revolution” in the peoples’ relationship with their elected representatives after the expenses scandal, but it was all my eye and nothing has changed at all.

    So pardon me if I am incredulous about the commitment of the party leaders to any meaningful response to events in Scotland, except where it can confer narrow party-political advantage. It’s a weekend wonder. By Monday we’ll be talking about Clacton and the UKIP challenge, and the response to the fact that 45% of the Scottish people just actively voted to secede from the UK will be left to a sub-committee of the department for admininstrative affairs.

    As Bill Le Breton notes, anti-politics is politics. Mr, Clegg likes to tell us to grow up. But the electorate is grown-up and they know a pig in a poke when someone tries to sell it to them.

    It’s not “the people” who have become anti-politics.

  • The people will vote for an anti austerity party who will only put up taxes for those who are richer than they could possibly expect to be. They do not realise that our standard of living depends on Chinese workers producing goods for little benefit for themselves.

  • Most of the UKIP voters I’ve spoken to are not disenfranchised and left behind. They’re not poor and they have the same power and access to services as other people; but they find the world confusing, they dislike diversity and want to kick something hard. I’m sure John Dunn will find that remark patronising, just as I find his dismissal of hardworking, listening local Liberal Democrat councillors who’ve repeatedly been re-elected patronising also: but actually being confused by the world is reasonable as the pace of change quickens and local certainties dissolve. It’s the hostility I reject.

    It sounds as if those academics have analysed the problem very well and them come up with waffle as a solution. They’ve also missed the subtle difference between the ineffectiveness of constitutional reform as a vote-winner from anti-political people and its effectiveness (done properly) as a solution to the underlying problems. For example, local authorities with extremely limited powers, forced by central government into deep cuts and with confusing boundaries with higher or lower local authorities are certainly one reason for people turning off local elections. They don’t often cite this as a reason, but putting it right would help engage more people.

    There is also the distinction, particularly important among young people, between rejection of party politics and engagement in other forms of politics. I don’t think anyone who was like me on the climate change march on Sunday could believe young people have abandoned politics.

    Finally, I agree that a mood of rejection of traditional politics is not helpful to an agenda of reform. But the mood generated by the Scottish referendum, south as well as north of that border (being part Welsh I won’t talk about THE Border) gives political reform an opportunity.

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