They don’t even need ideas

William Davies

A necessary principle of representative democracy is that small minorities – parties, politicians, parliaments – stand for the whole. The system works best when there is an element of illusion involved, such that the narrow range of characters and ideas on the public stage is viewed as a decent proxy for society at large. Too much scrutiny – when a dodgy expense claim comes to light, say, or an email indiscretion – and the illusion is liable to be dispelled.

But when the stage is set correctly, the illusion can be very powerful. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair oversaw devastating electoral machines, which delivered four huge parliamentary majorities in the space of twenty years. Both appeared to establish a new consensus as to what constituted good leadership and policy. The fact that neither leader ever won the votes of more than 31 per cent of the electorate was obscured, not only by Britain’s archaic voting system, but by a set of media institutions for which ‘national politics’ meant Westminster. What is taken to have been an epoch-defining national ‘ism’ can, on closer inspection, appear more like a canny handling of newspaper owners and party donors. But that’s the way the illusion works. It generates the mass psychological impression that we have all given our consent. Another term for this is ‘hegemony’.

The tradition of Marxist state theory has grappled with a related question: how do policies that serve a narrow set of economic interests come to be regarded as common sense, as if they benefited the economy as a whole? It’s not just that capitalist states defend the interests of capital, but that they tend to favour one type of capital at the expense of others. Until recently, the consensus on ‘good’ economic policy concealed a mentality that always in effect privileged finance. One economic part was treated as a proxy for the economic whole. If it is to retain credibility, this equivalence requires careful political and cultural management.

British democracy is currently disillusioned. The parties that dominated the past century of national politics are in crisis; an astonishing YouGov poll conducted at the end of May put both Labour and the Conservatives on 19 per cent, behind the Liberal Democrats and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. An Opinium poll subsequently put the Brexit Party out in front on 26 per cent. Farage’s outfit has adopted the model of a platform startup, as pioneered by the Italian Five Star Movement, to disrupt electoral politics at unprecedented speed. Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn now hold the record for the most unpopular leadership duo ever, breaking the record set by Thatcher and Michael Foot in December 1981.

The roots of this disillusionment extend back many years, well before the 2016 referendum. Many have highlighted the role played by the 2009 expenses scandal. Nevertheless, a plebiscite does particular violence to the faith on which parliamentary democracy depends. It takes the complex patchwork of parties, constituencies and coalitions of interest, and in an instant subordinates the lot to a single popular demand. It’s doubtful that David Cameron ever thought this far ahead, but in his passion for referendums (four were held during his premiership) he was testing parliamentary sovereignty to breaking point.

Under these circumstances, political hegemony is impossible. No leader, party or ideology can credibly be presented as serving the common good. There are only factions battling other factions. Meanwhile, the priorities of the national newspapers and broadcasters seem increasingly out of sync with those of the electorate, who can now turn to a plethora of online sources. Business lobbies have rarely been so powerless over the fundamentals of economic policy.

In principle, this sudden awakening of pluralism could be good news, a ‘British Spring’ that breaks through the screen onto which ‘politics’ has long been projected by political and media machines, to reveal how power actually works. That’s a hope worth hanging on to. The danger is that while faith in the overall system may have evaporated, its rusty constitutional mechanics are still in place.

Britain’s next prime minister will be elected by the 160,000 members of the Conservative Party. According to YouGov, 59 per cent of these members voted for the Brexit Party in the recent European elections. The Tories have made numerous bad leadership appointments in the last twenty years (think of Iain Duncan Smith), but have corrected them once the pragmatic question of electoral success entered the equation. That pressure pushes the party towards the swing voter of the centre ground, the ‘Mondeo Man’ or ‘Worcester Woman’ fetishised by party pollsters in the 1990s and early 2000s. Is any of this still relevant? How much do Tory members even care about general elections, compared to their passion for a no deal Brexit? There are plenty of reasons not to elect Boris Johnson as prime minister, but much of the Conservative electorate is focused only on his one perceived virtue: his celebration of no deal.

The Conservative leadership contest is already turning into a competition to make the most autocratic statement on Brexit. Esther McVey has said that, as prime minister, she would sack every Remainer from the cabinet. Candidates idly toss around the prospect of proroguing Parliament, so as to ensure Britain’s timely exit. This unlikely prospect is coming to perform the moral function that torture plays in American Republican primary debates: it’s something candidates are obliged to clarify their position on, being wary of looking soft. It was no surprise that, in the recent leadership hustings, both Dominic Raab and Andrea Leadsom took the bait, declaring themselves in favour of Parliament being suspended by the queen. As an indication of what’s happening to the Tory Party, the more disturbing sight was of Jeremy Hunt – ostensibly a pragmatist – refusing to rule it out. And so the party’s long descent into ideological madness reaches a new nadir, where a sitting foreign secretary toys with declaring a state of exception, purely to exorcise some imagined European demon.

Take Nigel Farage. His achievement in winning the European elections with a four-month-old party is remarkable. But in comparison with the hapless Change UK, established a month later and now surely about to fold, his job was straightforward. The Brexit Party’s branding and social media tactics were state of the art, but the messaging wrote itself: when Britain failed to leave the EU on 29 March it was because Westminster politicians had betrayed the 52 per cent who had voted Leave. What’s more, where speedy selection of nationwide candidates is a task fraught with risk for a liberal startup such as Change UK (two of its candidates had to be replaced after ‘inappropriate’ and ‘offensive’ tweets came to light), the Brexit Party draws energy and gains attention from its collection of cranks and firebrands.

The Brexit Party is a mixture of business startup and social movement; it serves as a pressure valve, releasing pent-up frustration with traditional politics into the electoral system. Farage is in full control of the valve. He now possesses exceptional autonomy, quite free of the constraints that the media, party machines and constitutions have imposed on ambitious leaders in the past. Rival parties can neither ignore nor negotiate with this new presence. It makes the political weather.

No deal will always be a niche minority position, within the electorate and even more so in Parliament. And yet this is now where all the momentum in British politics lies. This is a freakish and frightening situation. It isn’t just that no deal is unrepresentative of mainstream public opinion (by which one might mean the preferences of the risk-averse swing voter of yesterday), but that the forces behind it make no real claim to be representative either. No dealers are the most disillusioned of all: many believe they have seen through the con of parliamentary democracy and perceive themselves as freedom fighters against a mendacious and oppressive majority. This is an anti-hegemonic project. Little wonder that the Brexit Party fielded two former members of the Revolutionary Communist Party – Claire Fox and James Heartfield – among its MEP candidates. Support for no deal correlates directly with age, to the point where the majority of over-sixties now express support for Farage. It is also most entrenched among the financially secure. The typical no dealer is a hybrid of Che Guevara and a Telegraph-reading retiree from Sevenoaks.

Where does this momentum come from? The bitter irony is that it is partly the consequence of the legalistic nature of the EU itself. In such a dysfunctional political situation as the UK’s, no deal has the immense advantage of being the default outcome if nothing else can be agreed on. The most authoritarian force in British politics just now is Article 50 itself, with its two-year (since extended by seven months) window of opportunity to draft and ratify a withdrawal agreement. As it turns out, two years is more than enough time to initiate a national existential crisis, but not nearly enough time to sort one out. The flowering of any ‘British Spring’ will be cruelly curtailed before very long.

For both Thatcher and Blair, converting 30 per cent of the nation’s support into a transformative governing paradigm took considerable time, effort and political nous. In order to create a new common sense, ‘Thatcherism’ or ‘Blairism’ had to build up delicate alliances with key business interests, dominant media players, intellectuals and centres of expertise, all the while keeping in mind the median voter, with his or her everyday middle-class concerns about economic security. By contrast, come November this year, Farage, Johnson and their allies may well have achieved a far greater disruption of the political and economic status quo than Thatcher or Blair ever managed, with a smaller popular mandate and far less effort. They don’t need think tanks, policy breakfasts, the CBI or party discipline. They don’t even need ideas. All they have to do, in pursuit of their goal, is to carry on being themselves, undermining trust, contaminating the grounds of agreement.

Given that any ‘soft Brexit’ is now seen as ‘betrayal’ by the Brexit Party and its sympathisers in the Conservative Party, it’s impossible to imagine any consensual compromise. Say what you like about Theresa May’s deal, but it was at least a viable route out of the European Union – just not an authentic one, as far as Farage et al are concerned. No one appears to relish the prospect of a second referendum, though Farage would certainly build yet more political capital out of it if there were one. But what’s the alternative? While it might sound implausible, given the current depth of anti-government feeling, the most reasonable solution would be to revoke Article 50 and call a general election, with the parties – four or five mid-sized ones, as things stand – all laying out their visions for Britain’s relationship with Europe in their manifestos.

The question for the longer term is the one that has been repeatedly asked since Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in 2015: is this type of politics a blip, or is this the new normal? Can we become re-illusioned with representative democracy? Or is all politics now a form of anti-politics? The circumstances of Brexit are unique, as is the sense of emergency cultivated by the time limit imposed by Article 50. It is possible that the most recent elections and polls exaggerate the influence that Brexit will play over future voting behaviour. But there are good reasons to believe that we are witnessing a new type of democracy.

Chief among these reasons is the rise of what the sociologist Paolo Gerbaudo has called the ‘digital party’ or ‘platform party’, of which Farage’s Brexit Party is arguably the most impressive example to date.[*] According to Gerbaudo, such a party ‘is to the current informational era of ubiquitous networks, social media and smartphone apps what the mass party was to the industrial era or the cynically professionalised “television party” was during the post-Cold War era of high neoliberalism’. It is like a tech startup, aimed at rapid growth, with email sign-ups and PayPal donations replacing formal membership. And, in accordance with the creed of Silicon Valley, its purpose is to disrupt.

Digital logic is also transforming the broader public sphere in which parties operate. Print and broadcast media have always depended on editorial judgment regarding what ‘the public’ is or should be interested in. To prosper in such a media system, politicians need to be ordinary and inoffensive to the mainstream. The ‘cynically professionalised’ politics to which Gerbaudo refers include carefully staged displays of normality by figures such as Blair and Bill Clinton. The bland sight of the 2010 Cameron-Clegg identikit double act was perhaps the UK’s final sighting of this type of leadership.

By contrast, in an age of limitless bandwidth and ubiquitous data capture, the challenge for politicians (or anyone else) is to get noticed and exert influence. This calls for a very different set of political and personal talents: confrontation, wit, defiance, spontaneity and rule-breaking. The politician who wants to target the swing voter via television tries to seem as normal as possible. The politician who seeks to mobilise support online will do precisely the opposite. While it’s true that Farage has made mileage out of his ‘ordinary’ cultural habits (‘a fag and a pint’), a Trumpian refusal to play by the rules is his more potent quality.

The internet is an anti-hegemonic technology. It grants far more power to the consensus-breaker than to the consensus-maker. As the data analytics industry understands, it is a brilliant machine for mapping unusual clusters of feeling and behaviour, but far less suited to establishing averages and generalities. The internet fragments the ‘middle ground’ as a space of political argument, and grants a disproportionately loud voice to the niche and the crank. There are illusions galore here, but no sanctuary for the crucial synecdochal one on which representative democracy depends. Notions of ‘common sense’ and ‘the average voter’ lose their sway.

These trends may be good for the vitality of democracy in various ways, but not necessarily for parliamentary democracy, and less still for effective government in the traditional sense. It could be that the UK faces a long future of minority governments and coalitions, in which every party is defined as a vessel for the particular discontents of its supporters. This would be bad news for Britain’s ‘natural party of government’, the Conservatives. It also poses a new challenge for capital, which has to try to present its interests as coinciding with those of the public. No doubt a solid majority of people out there are supportive of the basic foundations of parliamentary democracy, fervently opposed to no deal and appalled by the demagogic posturing of Johnson and Farage. The question is whether they can find a vehicle to represent their position, and find it fast.

[*] The Digital Party: Political Organisations and Online Democracy by Paolo Gerbaudo (Pluto, 240 pp., £18.99, December 2018, 978 0 7453 3579 7).