Never neglect the “demos” in Democracy.
It is almost exactly a year since the British people defied expectations and voted to leave the European Union. Since then, it has been an “Annus Horribilis” – to borrow a phrase from HM The Queen. We have watched a populist President come to power in the United States – committed to ‘government by Twitter’; an ‘unknown’ in Emmanuel Macron become the President of France and, in the last few days, a stable centre-right government in the U.K. commit suicide for no apparent reason.
Populism is a short-term tool, frequently used by politicians to shore up particular positions. President Trump triumphed in cyberspace by making a people believe that he was talking to them directly, intimately and empathetically. As a result, these voters, largely ignored by the traditional political parties, voted in droves for Trump.
In the U.K., a Prime Minister decided to call an election, when one was not due for another 3 years, in order to capitalise on her huge lead in the polls and to crush an unfashionable socialist politician stuck in the “red left” days of the sixties and seventies. Her hubris was that she didn’t bother to discuss the proposed election with her party or even her cabinet. The decision was taken by her with a couple of special advisors who had been with her for several years. Theresa May took the British people for granted. She emphasised her “strong and stable” government and the need for resolute negotiations for the forthcoming Brexit discussions. She made little reference to the austerity endured by people over the last 7 years, since the last Labour government was defeated, and her sole foray into social issues was to announce an ill-conceived and badly constructed policy on care for the elderly – a policy she was forced to amend within 24 hours. She was shrill, wooden and non-empathetic towards the voters; they, in turn, quickly assessed that she was not the way of the future.
At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn, the much-maligned leader of the Labour Party and a relic of the Socialists of yesteryear, adopted a highly effective campaign of listening to voters and responding by promising to provide everything to them: free university tuition and cancellation of all student debt, unlimited funds to the National Health Service (NHS), restoration of some cuts to benefits, more money to social care and, as a sop to the Socialist commune, nationalisation of rail and utilities. Blame for current difficulties were laid squarely at business, over paid capitalists and uncaring governments. How these policies were to be funded was a grey area. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, criticism of Labour’s “money tree” was largely ineffectual as their policies were equally uncosted or viewed as financial legerdemain!
Labour’s focus on young people proved to be a huge success, not necessarily because they believed that student debt might be eliminated at a stroke, but because someone was addressing issues of importance to them. There was also a strong feeling that the young had borne the majority of austerity cuts while the older members of the population had index linked pensions and houses bought at much lower prices. It appealed to their sense of fairness.
So, where are we now? We have a minority Conservative government supported by a hard right Northern Irish party (DUP). Brexit negotiations are due to start in the next two weeks and the British economy is about to hit very stormy waters. Labour is champing at the bit to continue the rehabilitation of the Socialist left at another election and the government has no room for radical action. The rebel element of the Conservative Party is busy sharpening its swords to ensure a hard Brexit, while the DUP is determined to keep open borders in Ireland. This particular “Annus Horribilis” has yet to run its course and politicians need to listen to the concerns of their voters.
Demos is essential in a Democracy.
Views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of SAGE International Australia