Britain’s Presidential Election

Britain’s general election, scheduled for 8 June 2017, is being conducted on presidential lines.  Theresa May is offering “strong stable leadership” and the Conservative Party’s publicity material is emphasising her personality rather than policy issues.  There are problems with this approach:

  1. She is exploiting a deep human instinct, in turbulent times, to look for a strong leader. She is offering authoritarian populism in the style of Donald Trump.  She presents herself as a strong negotiator, being confrontational, anti-immigrant, and making promises which will be hard to fulfil.
  2. Her desire to sweep aside opposition, and to dispense with the checks and balances of parliamentary scrutiny, is fundamentally undemocratic.
  3. Strong leaders tend to become hubristic, not taking advice and failing to harness the strengths of a cabinet team.
  4. The opposition in Britain is currently weak and divided. It does not have the appearance of being ‘a government in waiting’.  This makes it unelectable in Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system.  The opposition might win some seats by co-operation in a ‘progressive alliance’, but there is a real danger that it will not be possible to hold the government to account and that this could result in harm to large parts of the population.

The signs are, from her early interactions with the EU, that she is being confrontational in Brexit negotiations.  This is precisely the wrong strategy.  Britain and the EU need to work together to solve the problems presented by the Brexit decision.  Co-operation would lead to a better outcome for all parties.

Democracy under attack

ISIS has claimed responsibility for the truck attack on a Berlin Christmas market on Monday, 19 December 2016.  Angela Merkel, in a televised broadcast, expressed concern that immigrants might be blamed – and the anti-immigrant Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party has done just that.  Angela Merkel faces an election next year, in which AfD is strongly placed to become Germany’s  largest political party – and the Berlin truck attack will help it to do so.

It isn’t only Angela Merkel’s political party that is under attack, and ISIS isn’t the only attacker. The whole of Western liberal democracy is under a 3-way attack: from an Islamic terrorist jihad to set up a universal caliphate, from a wave of anti-establishment authoritarian populism, and from Russian interference with elections.  These three directions of attack are not coordinated, but are nonetheless helping each other to undermine Western democracies and the EU.

ISIS is trying to polarise society.  It wants headlines, Western indignation and condemnation of Islam – so that more Muslims will join its cause in what it presents as a conflict between civilisations.  It did not have to arrange for the truck attack.  It merely had to radicalise an individual, provoking the attack, and then claim responsibility for it.

Authoritarian populism is a style of political leadership which feeds on people’s discontent with their current situation.  That discontent might come from job losses due to globalisation, from liberalisation in society’s attitudes on gender, from gross financial inequality, or from multiculturalism.  Donald Trump, AfD and Nigel Farage can all be categorised as authoritarian populists.  Some of their supporters have reacted to multiculturalism by supporting ‘alt-right’ racial supremacists, whose views are similar to Nazism.

It has been alleged that Russia influenced the US presidential election by hacking into email servers, and Internet attacks on German political parties have also been traced to Russia.  It has also been alleged that Russia is sponsoring the spread of disinformation on Internet social media.  Disinformation is an effective way of swinging elections: Breitbart used it to help Trump be elected and is about to launch a German site.  It has been suggested that Russia is also using disinformation as a political tool, to promote nationalism and to undermine the EU and NATO.

It is easier to describe the problem than to propose a solution.  The European Union was initially established to counteract the forces of nationalism and fascism that had led to the Second World War, but it and its members are now experiencing this 3-way attack.  Sadly, the EU is no longer seen by many people as a force for peace.  There is some justification for the accusations levelled at it: bloated bureaucracy, failing to listen to the people and the pursuit of a political dream that seems to threaten the autonomy of its members.  It is clearly imperfect, and unless it starts to address the population’s real concerns it is likely to collapse – but now it is needed more than ever.

Resisting Authoritarian Populism

Donald Trump was elected on a wave of anti-establishment resentment, in what has been called ‘authoritarian populism’.  This phenomenon is also growing in Europe, so it is important to understand its origin and nature, its prevalence, how it might gain power and how it might be effectively opposed.

Stuart Hall used the term ‘authoritarian populism’ (AP) in the book The Politics of Thatcherism in 1983, but as Bob Jessop pointed out in a 1984 critique, there are separate phenomena within it.  AP is a useful term when applied to a desire for a strong leader with a forceful independent foreign policy and impatience with liberal social attitudes.  Hall swept up Thatcher’s neoliberalism in his use of the term, but more recent writers have not done so.   “Populist authoritarianism can best be explained as a cultural backlash in Western societies against long-term, ongoing social change”, according to Pippa Norris in an article published on 11 March 2016, and she highlighted a popular desire for “a strong leader unchecked by elections and Congress”.  Her article cited the rise of liberal attitudes – to matters of gender, cultural diversity and global governance – as having caused sections of the population to become anxious and resentful.

An anti-immigrant stance is a feature of AP.  In this respect it overlaps with the term ‘alt-right’ that Sasha Abramsky used in an article published on 29 October 2016, entitled Make America hate again,  when explaining Trump’s success and drawing attention to the attendant risk of fascism.   The terms ‘far right’ and ‘radical right’ are also used by different writers to highlight similar political phenomena.

A recent YouGov survey of the prevalence of AP in Europe was entitled Trump, Brexit, Front National, AfD: branches of the same tree.  It depicted AP as “a core set of attitudes: cynicism over human rights, anti-immigration, an anti-EU position in Britain, and favouring a strong emphasis on defence as part of wider foreign policy.”  It found that “in eight of the twelve countries, almost half of voters – if not more – hold authoritarian populist views”.  In France, Marine Le Pen’s Front National – an AP party – already enjoys considerable support.  The survey’s finding, that 63% of French voters have AP attitudes, would suggest a potential for her to win the French presidency.  She is anti-EU and there is growing anti-EU sentiment in several other member countries, resulting from people’s concerns about the economy and high levels of immigration, so there is a significant threat to the EU’s existence.

Britain’s next General Election is currently expected to be in 2020 (if there were an earlier election, focused on the issue of Brexit, it is predicted that the Conservatives would win – but that would merely postpone political change).  At present the 48% of British voters who have AP attitudes are mostly in the Conservative Party and UKIP, but there are some in all the political parties.  UKIP is a political party which has entirely AP policies; its new leader, Paul Nuttall, has said that he wants to “replace the Labour Party and make UKIP the patriotic voice of working people”.   This could be a serious threat to Labour, which is already looking vulnerable.  UKIP came second in 125 constituencies in the last General Election; in the next election it might easily win many of those seats.  In any case, AP voters are likely to vote for UKIP or the Conservative Party.

People with progressive attitudes tend to oppose authoritarian populism.  They are represented by several political parties in England at present: Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green.  With a first-past-the-post political system in Britain, a divided opposition would win very few seats, but the Liberal Democrat win in the Richmond Park by-election gives an indicator of how this problem can be overcome (even though it was a very unusual situation).  The relevant lesson for other constituencies is that there was a pact: the Green Party stood aside so that the Liberal Democrats were able to overturn a substantial Conservative majority, campaigning on an anti-AP and pro-Europe platform (the Labour Party had very little support in this wealthy part of London).

A pact between the progressive parties in England, whereby only one of them fields a candidate in each constituency, might give them a chance in a General Election.  It is very difficult to launch a new political party in a first-past-the-post system (as UKIP discovered, having won only one seat despite having received 12.6% of the votes cast in the last election) so a pact has a better chance.   There would be problems in agreeing which party would be best placed to win a particular constituency, but if they all committed themselves to trying to introduce proportional representation they would be helping to ensure the future survival of them all (and UKIP might also support a move to proportional representation).