The risks of fetishising ‘the people’

The UK is hurtling towards a December general election. It will be the country’s third in five years. It will be the most consequential in decades. And more than ever before, it will be a battle over who represents ‘the people’. It is a risky strategy for all involved.

Labour and Conservative, the country’s two largest political parties, have both put ‘the people’ to the front of their campaigns. Since coming to power in July, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his cabinet have framed themselves as their defenders in the face of a deliberately disruptive parliament. With help from right-wing tabloids they have accused the press, judiciary and political class of sabotaging Brexit, declaring that only a Conservative majority on 12 December can fulfil “the people’s priorities”.

While Mr Johnson and his party have been the main offenders, Labour is guilty too. Jeremy Corbyn’s election campaign opened with pitting ‘the people’ against a corrupt, rigged system, in a battle against an unaccountable elite of “tax dodgers, dodgy landlords, bad bosses and big polluters”. “They aren’t on your side” said Mr Corbyn during his manifesto launch. “The people own the Labour Party”.

Their arguments are very different and it would be a mistake to draw a false equivalence between the two. When it comes to policies and a roadmap for the UK’s future the parties could not be further apart. Yet by indulging in the language of ‘the people’ both are playing to a similar type of populist politics. That is, one where politicians claim exclusivity over defining and representing the population, and paint those that get in the way as illegitimate at best, nefarious at worst.

The use of ‘the people’ as a political tool is hardly new. In the late 19th century American populists used it to target Wall Street and the emerging financial sector. Nor is it limited to one particular type of ideology or party. It is vague enough, ambiguous enough, and flexible enough to be used across the political spectrum, from left to right.

The power of ‘the people’ as a rhetorical device lies in its ability to unify and divide. Most members of the voting public will want to see themselves as part of it, but its use also promotes a zero-sum approach to politics. The problem lies in the willingness of politicians to construct a single ‘people’ while claiming to speak on its behalf. It is an attractive narrative that helps avoid scrutiny while justifying a host of action, from questioning the impartiality of the media to delegitimising opposition members of parliament. After all, if ‘the people’ all share the same political interests and desires, can any challenge really be genuine? Politics becomes less about policy and instead about something deeper, even moral. Are you with us, or against us? Are you for ‘the people’ or the establishment elite? It is a world which distorts the traditional model of representation and, at its most extreme, risks making political debate redundant.

Despite being relatively a-political the language of ‘the people’ has been, in the main, associated with the more radical fringes of contemporary politics, particularly on the right. A decade ago it was the domain of radical-right parties across Europe, often mixed with elements of nativism, authoritarianism and exclusionary welfare chauvinism; ‘the people’ defined by who they are not within a certain society.

Much has since changed. Populist language now dominates so much of our political discourse, seeping into the mainstream to be used by traditional parties who claim to speak on behalf of ‘the people’. From Theresa May’s 2016 Conservative Party conference speech to US President Donald Trump’s 2017 inaugural address; on the most important of stages, leaders of the UK and the US pitted the ‘people’ against an out of touch, international elite.

At a time or declining trust and eroding popularity in politicians across the board, indulging in this language is not surprising. At its most basic it is an attempt to attract voters; to be seen as a relevant part of a political solution by tapping into existing, often legitimate, feelings of disenfranchisement that have long been ignored. And with the UK in the middle of a polarising, sound-bite dominated election, still struggling to adapt to a binary referendum result in a world of pluralities, it may provide some short term success.

But in the longer term it will damage the UK’s representative democracy. There is no ‘people’. Nor is it the job of politicians to manufacture and define binary, opposing political choices. Politics is about the legitimate struggle between competing interests and values. There can, and should be, genuine, healthy competition amongst parties — despite what the current climate allows for. Without it we risk slipping into a type of ‘anti-politics politics’, where technocracy and populism collide and where issues are essentially depoliticised under the guise of there being one will and one truth (or, as critics of converging centrists parties in the early 2000s put it, TINA; ‘there is no alternative’).

For now distinctive policies still matter; something Theresa May found out in the 2017 general election. The then Prime Minister ran a campaign light on detail. It focused on divisive notions of belonging and relied on the tabloid press to roll out coverage determining who exactly where ‘enemies of the people’. It didn’t work. In polling her party became known for ‘negatives’ while Labour’s more positive, universality policies (scrapping tuition fees, NHS and school funding etc) provided the party with a significant bounce albeit not a victory. This helps explain the shift in the Conservatives narrative; now claiming to offer solutions to the many problems they spent several parliaments creating.

British democracy feels to be teetering under any number of political, economic and social crises that require a fundamental rewiring of UK political life. But attempts to transcend party politics are not sustainable. They are fraught with short-termism and it becomes impossible to avoid the polemic. It also damages a political discourse already toxic. The sooner our politicians stop claiming to speak on behalf of ‘the people’ the better. It is the least the British public deserve.

Published November 2019

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