Anti-politics: the Lib Dem problem

by Stephen Tall on September 18, 2014

A very interesting blog-post from two Southampton academics, Will Jennings and Jerry Stoker – Parties and anti-politics – examines the problems each of the four parties has with the current mood of anti-politics (hat-tip John Rentoul). Its introduction summarises its argument:

How and why do political parties struggle to ‘get’ anti-politics? They all nod in speeches and policy statements in the direction of public disenchantment with politics but fail to take tackling its causes seriously. UKIP seek to exploit it, the Tories want to wish it away, Labour under Miliband claim innocence and ineptness in their defence, while the Liberal Democrats misread it and think constitutional change is the answer.

The section on the Lib Dems is especially worth highlighting:

With the Liberal Democrats largely dazed and confused as a political force since their decision into the coalition in May 2010, anti-politics is just another problem for a party that has lost its identity and its electoral appeal. They seem particularly at sea in dealing with anti-politics and find it hard to understand why it appears no one likes them anymore. Getting involved in government at the local level was not such a negative experience but the national engagement has made it impossible for activists to present themselves on the side of the angels; they are firmly part of the political elite and have found that an uncomfortable position.

Because traditionally the Liberal Democrats pursued a more positive/optimistic style of politics than their counterparts, especially locally, anti-politics is something of an anathema to them, and as such it is understandable the have not fully been able to comprehend the alienation felt by some. The traditional focus on constitutional reform has become outdated, as the roots of anti-politics attitudes have become better understood as not simply about the electoral system. When asked in focus groups or surveys citizens do not back the idea of constitutional reform among their top choices for political reform.

There’s been some excitement in party circles at the interest triggered in constitutional reform by today’s Scottish independence referendum – and in particular the co-signed vow by Cameron, Clegg and Miliband to legislate for devo-max for Scotland. (What more than a century of liberal campaigning for home rule may not have achieved, a single YouGov poll in The Sunday Times appears to have delivered.)

That’s all fine and dandy: I’m a federalist, a devolver, a power-to-the-people-er. I’d like to see a written constitution, electoral reform, an elected second chamber in place of the House of Lords, a disestablished church, and a republic as well.

However, two things. First, I’m in a minority on most of these issues. I suspect in a referendum on any one of them, I’d be on the losing side. As a democrat, not just a liberal, that should give me pause for thought.

Secondly, even if all these things happened I think there would still be a problem with anti-politics. All my longed-for constitutional tinkering might (I hope) improve the process of politics. But I suspect public antipathy towards its outcomes would remain. Indeed it’s arguable that such things as an elected second chamber and a republic – wit yet more professional politicians – might exacerbate the mood.

None of which means I’ve changed my mind about those things. But I think it’s a category error to believe that the public’s anti-politics mood is driven by the lack of politics in their lives. It’s the type of politics (and perhaps politicians) that’s the bigger issue.

Jennings’ and Stoker’s conclusion sets a stiff challenge, albeit quite a fuzzy one:

None of the main parties get anti-politics. … The first party leader or group of activists who really show an ability to understand the world from another’s perspective and then show a real capacity to shift the way they do politics might indeed reap a considerable reward in support. … the overwhelming sentiment is for a political leadership that is seen engaged, connected and responsive and not driven by spin, self-aggrandisement and connections with big business. People want a representative democracy that works. If a political party could show them how to get that it would be on to a winner.

Easier said than done, of course.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.