Friday, 10 May 2013

A six-point plan for a Liberal populism

Years ago, I happened to come across a set of statistics that related to self-employment, broken down by parliamentary constituency.  I had always believed there was some correlation between independence and Liberal-mindedness, and here it was in black and white: most of the top ten constituencies for self-employment were bastions of political Liberalism too.

I thought this was rather important and happened to come across the Lib Dem leader a few days later (I won't say who in case this seems like a criticism, which it isn't) and told him about it.  He wasn't nearly as enthusiastic about this revelation as I was.

"We don't want to be Poujadist about it," he said.

Now Pierre Poujade, for those who weren't politically aware in the 1950s (I certainly wasn't), led a populist revolt in France by small shopkeepers and eventually found himself elected to parliament (Le Pen was his youngest elected deputy).  Poujadism has become a byword for the kind of xenophobic, anti-intellectual populism, based on a squeezed lower middle class, that most terrifies the political establishment.  Not for nothing did Poujade call the French National Assembly the "biggest brothel in the world".  There is a sort of UKIP whiff about it all.

Fear of Poujade and his kind makes the conventional political parties - with their technocratic graphs - particularly vulnerable to movements like UKIP, when they are intelligently led.

But I've been asking myself whether it might be possible to construct a populist Liberalism capable of taking on the Poujadists and beating them.  Here is my six-point plan for doing so.

1.  Take a deep breath, make a pot of tea and do a great deal of talking - preferably to some regular users of public services - claimants, parents of children in failing schools, and/or people with long-term health conditions.  Take notes.

2.  Accept the full truth: many, if not most, of our public institutions have been hollowed out by poor management, bone-headed IT systems and centralised targets - and are only kept alive by the courage and devotion of frontline staff.

3.  Order the collected writings of Ivan Illich (see photo above) and read them, and imagine what kind of policies one might hammer out if he had been right - and institutions really did have the opposite effect to their declared purpose.

4.  Take a second look at the euro, and ask yourself again whether the same interest rate can possibly suit every part of the continent of Europe - and (be honest now) whether it might actually have encouraged the Poujadists after all (difficult, that one).

5.  Take a blank sheet of paper and work out an emergency plan for providing people with the energy, healthcare, education and support they would need if conventional channels suddenly became impossible.

That's 5.  But you said a six-point plan?  I know, but I haven't worked out the sixth point yet.  Please give me a hand, anyone who happens to stumble across this.

The key difference between conventional politicians and populists is not hatred - you don't have to hate to be a populist.  It is the understanding that our institutions are no longer effective.  These are the very institutions so beloved of conventional politicians who play their tweaking games and look at their wholly irrelevant statistics - unaware that the statistics machine has become disconnected from the frontline thanks to Goodhart's Law.

What I'm saying is that the essence of populism isn't xenophobia, it is scepticism about our institutions, just as UKIP tend to be a little sceptical of the EU (I put this gently).

That is the key central truth of populism.  It is also their strength.  It enables them to portray themselves living in the real world, rather than in Westminster - where things still seem to work - as realists in a world of illusion.  It is also a strength because it is largely true.

And if you don't believe me, read my book The Human Element.  Or if you can't face that, try Harriet Sergeant's brilliant account of gang life in Brixton, and see the reality of these expensive institutions, paid for by taxpayers on the ground, but achieving so little when it really matters.

Because, it seems to me, that unless Lib Dems do this - or somebody else with an enlightened outlook - then the Poujadists will get the edge.


Anonymous said...

It's Poujade, not Poujarde.

Simon Titley said...

Rule 6 is "There is no rule 6". Take all your other blank sheets of paper, hand them out and encourage people to write their own.

David Boyle said...

Thank you, Anonymous. I've acted on your spelling advice!

Simon said...

I have an idea I think might fit in here 'slow government'. I tried to write a post about it on Jonathan Calders blog, but re-reading it I think I did a rather poor job (but still - here's a similar idea

If I had to summarize it in a sentence it would be something like 'the more we build institutions that are capable of really listening, and responding, to ordinary people the less people are going to demand radical change the whole time'.

So to be honest I would just have rule 1 repeated six times, because the danger is always that people do listen, they then start thinking they understand the problem and stop listening, and as long as that keeps on happening people just keep on making the same mistakes again and again and again and again and...

Myles Clapham said...

I found the point on skepticism to be interesting. Long standing Liberal policies on electoral and institutional reform are, by their nature, skeptical. Skeptical of the current political establishment, skeptical of our broken electoral system, and most important of all skeptical of the other major parties.

asnell said...

Very good post. There's nothing inherently right wing about populism. If you look at what a lot of UKIP voters are saying, it's not actually very right wing.