Monday, 29 May 2017

The rise and fall of Martin Schulz

Jörg Michael Dostal

Sometimes the (ir-)relevance of ‘academic’ articles rises and falls before their ultimate publication. This is the case with my paper on German social democracy in the current edition of Political Quarterly, written in December of last year. Briefly, my main thesis is that a social democratic party turned neoliberal could not, cannot and will not win elections run under an electoral system of proportional representation – as is the case in Germany. My thesis is neither new nor in any way original. If you do everything you can to demobilize your (former) core voters, by adopting socio-economic policies that are directly opposed to their material interests – such as cutting taxes for high earners, removing social protection and shifting the tax base away from progressive to regressive taxes, as was all done during the red-green coalition government led by the former German SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder between 1998 and 2005 – you will simply destroy your political support base.

Since the Schröder years, half of former SPD voters – around 10 million people altogether – have drifted away. The probably largest group has opted out from the political process and no longer votes in elections (differences in electoral participation between residential areas with lower and higher socio-economic status are dramatically high in Germany). Other former SPD voters have turned to the CDU/CSU (why vote for the copy of a neoliberal party if you can vote for the original?), the Left Party or the right-wing populists of the AfD. Yet losing one’s traditional voters has not, in fact, meant that new centrist voters would have turned to the SPD to compensate for the losses – as Blairites used to claim. In electoral terms, the SPD has virtually nothing to show for its ‘modernization’ during the Schröder years. Since the German proportional electoral system allows voters a greater degree of choice when compared with British majority voting, the SPD cannot take its traditional voters for granted and must work hard to attract new ones. In earlier times, the core of the social democratic message used to be the commitment to ‘social justice’. Today, the SPD can no longer explain to voters from disadvantaged milieus why they should vote social democratic, and the party appears to stand for nothing much in particular.

In an oblique way, the SPD has recently tried addressing its poor electoral track record in the federal elections of 2005, 2009 and 2013. First, the SPD has engaged in a major shuffling of its leadership personnel. The former SPD foreign minister, Frank Steinmeier, has become the German president (a largely ceremonial role), and the former SPD chairman, Sigmar Gabriel, has taken Steinmeier’s position in the current grand coalition government in which the SPD acts as junior partner of Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU. This prepared the stage for the re-entry of Martin Schulz, the former chairman of the European Parliament, into German domestic politics. On 24 January 2017, he was announced to be the candidate for chancellor of the SPD and, shortly afterwards, was also elected as the new SPD leader with the North Korean-style electoral support of 100 per cent of the party delegates.

To the surprise of most observers, including this writer, Schulz quickly gained political momentum: the SPD experienced the virtually first sustained upturn in opinion polls since the Schröder years and, at one point, Schulz matched Merkel’s popularity figures. This development became known as ‘Schulzmania’ in the media and on Twitter. It appeared to hand the SPD a real fighting chance to defeat Merkel in the polls in September 2017.

Why did ‘Schulzmania’ occur? From my point of view, candidate Schulz did something right: he appealed to what German sociologists usually describe as the ‘traditional employee milieus’ in German society (in his own words the ‘people who keep things moving’), and he clearly stated that it was unjust that people losing their jobs for reasons beyond their control also lose their rights in the German social security system after a single year of unemployment benefits. He suggested that people who had paid into the social insurance system all their life should be treated better, and that re-training of the unemployed for qualified jobs, rather than forcing them into poor quality employment, must be a right that the SPD should honour. In fact, his words had a very strong impact and there was a short-lived wave of enthusiasm welcoming the candidate as the saviour that the SPD had been waiting for all along.

As was to be expected, the counteroffensive of the mainstream media – mostly aligned with the conservatives – pushed the opposite story line. They suggested that the Schröder-SPD’s welfare retrenchment and deregulation of the labour market, mostly between 2003 and 2005, had been a ‘success’ and that Schulz was riding the dead horse of social justice. To quote two typical voices, one journalist suggested that ‘efforts to regain the insecure clientele at the margins of society are so last season. After three [SPD] defeats in regional elections, Martin Schulz wants to avoid more than ever to scare the centrist electorate with expensive initiatives’ (Spiegel, 20 May 2017). In the same spirit, an opinion pollster suggested that ‘it is the cardinal mistake of Schulz to put the topic of ‘justice’ so much at the centre of his campaign’ (Stern, 21 May 2017).

Yet if these observers could really be right, how could we possibly take account of ‘Schulzmania’ in the first place? The basic issue of whether or not labour market deregulation and welfare retrenchment count as a ‘success’ is of course determined by the politics of class: it certainly was highly successful from the point of view of employers and the well-off. Yet it was a major blow from the point of view of employees fearing for the security of their jobs and those depending on welfare state solidarity.

Overall, the SPD must make an effort to clarify its electoral message. Does the party continue to advocate for neoliberalism-lite, or is it going to demand major policy change in favour of the socially disadvantaged? Most opinion pollsters claim that ‘social justice’ is not a winning topic in the forthcoming election, suggesting that other issues such as the refugee crisis, domestic security, and health and pension policies are more significant. Yet opinion pollsters frame such issues too narrowly: each of the ‘other’ major issues has a strong social justice component. A weak and deregulated state is not going to be able to solve any of the problems facing the German public at present. Thus, Schulz would be well-advised to stay ‘on message’ and to avoid blurring his initial focus on social justice. The current (late May 2017) main SPD talking point – namely reorganizing health insurance by creating a more universal system – is too obscure and has already been around in SPD announcements for many years. It is certainly not a topic that is going to solve the SPD’s search for a clear programmatic message. Schulz must reassert his position or face a lengthy and painful decline as a candidate until election day on 22 September.

Let us be honest: even the best electoral strategy would in all likelihood not allow for a left-of-centre government in Germany later this year. The current age is not a social democratic one, and electoral failure on the part of the SPD is ultimately due to difficulties shared by all progressive parties in offering convincing alternatives to neoliberal retrenchment and austerity. The SPD, the Greens and the Left Party all struggle with their own particular mobilization problems in elections, and they have collectively failed to create a mood in favour of political change in Germany. Yet this does not change the fact that the SPD and candidate Schulz really must try harder to run an election campaign with a coherent message. This would at least allow re-gaining some of the lost electoral ground.

The full article 'The Crisis of German Social Democracy Revisited' is available here

Friday, 26 May 2017

Why Grammar Schools? Why Social Mobility?

The controversy about increasing admissions to Britain’s surviving grammar schools has re-opened old, half-forgotten, lines of political controversy. The result is that some issues, such as the negative impact of selective schools on others in their areas, attract considerable attention, while many do not. Among the latter are the questions of why, and when, selection in secondary education can be justified, and of the plausibility of the justification actually deployed by Theresa May’s government.

One defence of selective schooling is that a country’s pool of educated people is too small to sustain its future economy and state administration. Indeed, this was at the centre of the National Efficiency movement’s support for a major expansion in grammar schools (which began in 1907). The pool was then too small because many pupils in private schools were not well educated, and had little interest in training for careers where a high level of skill was required. This was a system in which personal connections were crucial to job recruitment, for the middle class as much as the working class, and many of the skills eventually needed were acquired during employment. National Efficiency advocates wanted to broaden access to secondary education to social classes beyond the more affluent middle class so as to fill this “skills” gap.

A century later nearly all private schools have to demonstrate to parents that their pupils obtain high academic credentials, because their children’s success in the labour market now depends on it. This massive transformation in the operation of private education since the mid-20th century has meant that, nationally, more than enough adolescents are educated to a sufficiently high standard to fill the most skilled jobs. Indeed, five years after they complete their degrees more than one third of current graduates are still not in jobs designated as requiring graduate entry. Thus, with the important exception of some specific sectors, there is no shortage of highly qualified entrants to the workforce. Moreover, while it is possible that these exceptions might conceivably be rectified by the creation of very specialized selective schools, increasing the overall number of grammar school places could not do so. The May justification for her policy is different therefore, being couched in terms of increasied social mobility. This is an implausible rationale that has attracted surprisingly little comment, despite its underpinning assumptions being largely spurious.

First, the scale of the proposed increase in grammar school places is so small that any impact on British social structure overall will be tiny. It is akin to claiming that economic inequality nationally can be reduced by the government establishing a lottery fund from which a few poorer people each month will be set up as millionaires.

Secondly, even if that expansion were much larger, disadvantaged primary school children would have to be the beneficiaries of positive discrimination in selection processes for most to compete successfully for places, given the family and school advantages many middle-class children would have had beforehand. While May wants schools to ensure that some places do go to the disadvantaged, the whole history of selection in those areas (notably Kent and Buckinghamshire) where comprehensivization was not introduced 40 years ago has been of a strong association with social class. Obviously what middle class voters in those areas do not want is for their grammar schools to be given over primarily to the children of the disadvantaged; their aim is to reduce stress for themselves and their children in relation to the 11+ examination, by having more places available to them. They will surely get their way, and the class bias in grammar school selections will largely continue.

Thirdly, there is a widely held, but false, myth that for any position, providing you devise the right sort of selection procedures, you can always determine an approximate rank order among candidates, thereby ensuring the “best” are selected. In fact, even with adults, with vast amounts of information about them available, and with extensive testing, selection is imperfect. While it is relatively easy to determine competence – who does, and who does not, have the skills to be proficient in a particular activity – rank-ordering the competent is subject to considerable inaccuracy in all cases. That is, assessments of relative potential for future performance are always, and necessarily, highly imprecise. That situation is far worse when information is limited and when it is children being ranked for rationed places (at grammar schools). Among those children who do demonstrate competence, it is luck that will primarily determine which of them gets admitted and which rejected.

Finally, like most politicians, May invokes social mobility as if it were always a desirable social goal. It is not. Obviously, few today would advocate a society in which social advancement was impossible, and most argue that mobility during the last century has been socially beneficial. However, the expansion of the middle class then was the result primarily of changes in the labour market, with proportionately fewer non-skilled jobs and more skilled ones. Some of those born into working class families thus became middle class. Relative social peace was possible because there was much less downward mobility than upward mobility. If this earlier shift in the labour market does not continue this century, and there is strong evidence that it will not, then any upward mobility will be associated with corresponding downward movement. Too much of the latter can be at least as politically destabilizing as too little of the former, as Poujadism in 1950s France demonstrated.

For a leader portraying herself and her party as agents for political stability, May’s invocation of social mobility as a core objective is somewhat ironic therefore. While some mobility is always valuable, too much would almost certainly not be promoted by anyone supposedly intent on preserving the polity’s stability during the present century. While St Augustine supposedly exclaimed “Make me good, God, but not yet”, May is surely committed to the view: “Give me social mobility, but not too much”.

You can read Alan Ware's article 'Grammar Schools, a Policy of Social Mobility and Selection - Why' here.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

How the sovereign speaks: The changing language of parliamentary legislation

Matt Williams

At just seventy words, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 is roughly half the length of an article abstract. But, in terms of impact, it is fair to say that few academics will achieve as much in so few words. The language used is plain, with short, unadorned sentences:

    ‘1(1) The Prime Minister may notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU.
    (2) This section has effect despite any provision made by or under the European Communities Act 1972 or any other enactment.’

The only language used whose meaning could be contested is the modal verb ‘may’. As in: ‘The Prime Minister may notify’. As it happens we know the Prime Minister will give notification before the end of March. But the law technically allows her to escape this commitment if gripped by a sudden change of heart. This is unlikely. But the modal verb ‘may’ is not always so innocuous. Section 28 of the Digital Economy Act 2010 swapped modal verbs in existing law:

   ‘(2) In subsection (1) for “must do all that they can to” substitute “may”…
    (4) Accordingly, in the heading of the section, for “Duty” substitute “Power”.’

As this legislation lays bare, switching must to may changes a duty to a power. And executive powers are the subject of public concern, parliamentary scrutiny and judicial review. Former leader of the Conservative Party, Michael Howard, came against the sharp end of ‘may’ when he was Home Secretary. It was in a lawsuit brought by the Fire Brigades Union. At issue was section 171 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988:

    ‘(1) Subject to the following provisions of this section, this Act shall come into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument appoint and different days may be appointed in pursuance of this subsection for different provisions or different purposes of the same provision.’

Specifically, the Home Secretary had been empowered to create a compensation scheme for victims of violent crime. The problem is that he did not want to. An older non-statutory scheme of ex gratia payments to victims of violent assaults was preferred by the Home Secretary, who thereby chose to interpret ‘may’ as ‘may not’. The Appellate Committee of the House of Lords disagreed. Thereby pulling the court into public policy making. As per Lord Mustill (1):

‘To avoid a vacuum in which the citizen would be left without protection against a misuse of executive powers the courts have had no option but to occupy the dead ground in a manner, and in areas of public life, which could not have been foreseen 30 years ago.’

Misuse of executive power was, in this case, non-use of executive power. But one can imagine ‘may’ creating a variety of uncertainties as to the ‘whens?’, the ‘whys?’ and the ‘how fars?’ of power. Lord Mustill points to a fundamental change in British law when he argues the case would not have been imaginable in the 1960s. The change he alludes to has been so slow and subtle as to be barely perceptible. It is by taking a long view and using the latest machine reading technology that a pattern of linguistic change emerges. It will not be a surprise to readers that the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 is unusual. But then what is the usual use of language for the sovereign Parliament in the twenty-first century?

My new article in Political Quarterly shows that, besides an astonishing increase in the volume of legislation enacted, the language used increasingly relies on parts of speech that enable discretion and are adaptable to unforeseen circumstances. In terms of volume, having surveyed all 191,080 pages of legislation enacted between 1900 and 2015, a clear pattern emerges. Fewer laws are enacted of much greater length. Just 198 pages of legislation were enrolled in 1900, covering sixty-three separate Acts. In 2015, there were 2,428 pages of legislation enacted in thirty-seven Acts. The average statute was just three pages long in 1900, and sixty-six pages long in 2015. Of course, size is not everything, as the EU Act 2017 will no doubt demonstrate. But besides changes in scale, there have also been changes in language. In 2015, 18% of all sections enacted relied on the modal verb ‘may’, where in 1900 it was just 4%. And besides the verbs used, the sovereign in 2015 relied on significantly more adjectives and adverbs (62%) as compared to 1900 (30%). Adjectives such as ‘reasonable’, ‘vulnerable’ and even ‘conducive’ require interpretation. This interpretative necessity will typically favour the powerful. If, for example, an immigrant needs to prove that their deportation is not, in fact, ‘conducive to the public good’ (as per s. 3(5)(a) of the Immigration Act 1971) it will be their word against the Home Secretary’s.

And, finally, there has also been an extraordinary increase in the use of conditional conjunctions in parliamentary legislation (73% in 2015, up from 31% in 1900). Conjoining indeterminate conditions in law will also create latitude, again largely to the advantage of those able to fight for their preferred interpretations in court. The Equality Act 2010 demonstrates the potential elasticising effect of adjectives, adverbs and conditional conjunctions:

    ‘159(1) This section applies if a person reasonably thinks that –
    (a) persons who share a protected characteristic suffer a disadvantage connected to the                      characteristic, or
    (b) participation in an activity by persons who share a protected characteristic is disproportionately low.’

So the EU Act 2017 is highly unusual, in terms of its length, its use of language, and, of course, its content. Given one ambition of the Act is to retake sovereignty from the EU, it is timely to consider how sovereignty actually operates in the twenty-first century. What we see are not clear instructions handed down by a self-possessed sovereign, but indeterminate delegation to the government and private citizens. If Britain is to take back control, perhaps more attention is needed not only on what the sovereign may say, but how.

(1) R v Secretary of State for the Home Department ex parte Fire Brigades Union


You can read the full article 'The Grammar of Politics: A Brief History of Legislative Language in Britain' here.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Parliamentary sovereignty and Brexit

Deborah Mabbett

For many people, the first weeks of February were a dispiriting time. After the brief cheer of the Supreme Court’s decision, MPs bowed to pressure to accept the referendum as decisive and trooped into the ‘Ayes’ lobby to support the government’s authority to trigger Article 50. Albert Weale has brilliantly explained in this journal why this was a dereliction of the democratic duty of those who opposed Brexit. Evidently MPs saw it differently, but what exactly did they think they were doing?

In the absence of a written constitution, we rely on authoritative commentators to tell us what the rules are. Among those commentators, Vernon Bogdanor is currently enjoying ascendancy with his claim that there is a new convention governing the relationship between referendums and Parliament (1).  Parliament is sovereign, except over the range of its own powers. If it is considering giving up some of its powers, it should seek a public mandate through a referendum: the 1975 vote on EEC membership and the Scottish referendum in 2014 could be said to be governed by this principle. An instruction from the people to Parliament to take back powers is also binding, and the 2016 referendum gave that instruction. Parliament should have its say, but, Bogdanor suggests, what it should say is governed by the referendum result, and MPs know this.

Why should a referendum have this authority? One familiar argument is that representatives should act as delegates when there is a clear expression of voters’ preferences, which a referendum provides. A referendum is a vote on just one issue at a time, whereas a general election cannot give a clear verdict on any single issue. But the claim that the referendum result is a clear verdict is easily rebutted. For referendums to produce clear expressions of preferences, they would need to be designed carefully. Very often, a two stage procedure is required. For Brexit, a first vote could determine whether to start negotiations while a second would test the outcome of negotiations against the status quo. There are various practical objections to this process, but it seems to be the only way to ensure that referendums provide clear expressions of preferences.

Bogdanor recognises these issues, and he does not offer a general defence of policy-making by referendum. Rather, he proposes that there are some decisions so fundamental that Parliament cannot legitimately decide them: specifically, decisions to transfer powers to and from Parliament, either upwards to the EU or downwards to the devolved governments. It follows that referendums bind Parliament when they are votes on the constitutional order, as Parliament operates within the constitutional order.

But the ambiguity of the referendum result damages this argument irreparably. Somehow, the result had to be invested with meaning, beyond ‘Brexit means Brexit’. At this point, the role of Parliament became its normal everyday role of rubber-stamping executive authority. In passing the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill unamended, the House of Commons bowed not to the will of the people but to the authority of the government to promote a particular approach to implementing the outcome of the referendum. The government has apparently decided on a ‘hard Brexit’. There is surely a majority in the House for a softer version, but MPs proved incapable of organising themselves to set the agenda and vote for that. The vote was not a temporary suspension of parliament’s authority in the face of a popular mandate, as Bogdanor has argued. Rather, it was the result of the same old political behaviour that has weakened Parliament for decades. MPs went along with party positions: they did not vote with the views of their constituents; nor did they vote in accordance with their own beliefs about the best policy for the country.

It was business as usual, except that Labour failed to perform the role of official opposition. We don’t know exactly why, but it seems likely that the leadership of the party took a position that was based on an assessment of the views of those who it sees as the party’s core voters, particularly in the North. That assessment has been challenged by John Curtice, who has shown that a clear majority of Labour voters supported Remain, not only in the South but also in the North (2).  Just because a majority in a Labour-held seat supported Leave, it does not follow that a majority of Labour voters in that seat were Leavers. Curtice’s analysis has in turn been challenged by Ian Warren (3),  who has argued that the voters who abandoned the party in 2010 and 2015 were mainly Leavers, so Labour has to pitch to Leave to get them back. Perhaps, but perhaps Labour should think about better representing its faithful Remain voters. It could even adopt a position of principle that does not succumb to the cries of the tabloid press, but that might be too much to ask.

This leaves the puzzle of why the government is apparently intent on propelling the UK towards the hardest form of Brexit, and why Conservative Remain MPs have allowed this. The most charitable interpretation is that the government’s position is a bargaining strategy. To have any hope of getting other EU members to agree to a special relationship, the UK has to make it appear credible that it will walk away without an agreement. This, incidentally, makes it vital that Parliament is not allowed to vote on the final deal or non-deal, as it would surely reject a non-deal, and EU partners know this. Whether the bargaining strategy will work or not, we will find out, but there is an uneasy sense that the UK is playing chicken with a juggernaut. It will be very difficult for the other twenty-seven to find the flexibility that the UK demands.

The constitutional issue that this raises concerns the government’s power to negotiate on behalf of the UK without parliamentary constraints. The judgments in the Miller case clarify this power. Even while the judges determinedly stated and restated the principles of parliamentary sovereignty, they all agreed on the existence of executive prerogative in the area of international relations. Prerogative powers, as the majority judgment puts it, relate to ‘important areas of governmental activity which .. are essential to the effective operation of the state’, including foreign affairs: diplomatic relations, the deployment of armed forces abroad, and the making of treaties.

The judgments in Miller turned on the question of whether this prerogative power could be invoked to end the UK’s membership of the EU. The majority held that the government could not invoke its authority over foreign affairs in dealing with the EU, as EU law has become part of domestic law. To treat EU membership as a matter of prerogative would be to assert prerogative powers to change domestic law, and that is untenable. Parliament makes the law, not the executive.

But here the legal position comes up against the realpolitik of negotiation, and it is surely this that meant there was no rebellion on the Conservative side, with the lonely exception of Ken Clarke. Conservative MPs with Remain constituencies followed the logic of power that has served their party well for a century: their government is leaving the EU and their task is to ensure that it has the bargaining power to do so on the best possible terms.

The real fallacy of Bogdanor’s argument is the implied claim that leaving the EU will restore the powers of the national parliament. Parliamentary sovereignty was a fiction before Britain joined the EU, and leaving will not change that. The national sovereignty that is being reclaimed by Brexit is not parliamentary sovereignty: it is executive authority. The vote was not about parliamentary power, but about the balance of power between a judiciary that is part of a supranational legal order on one hand, and the executive (and the legislature it dominates) on the other. The primary impact of leaving the EU will be to reduce the authority of the judiciary and and increase that of the executive.

The judges in the Miller case found that EU law is part of domestic law. This has important practical effects. A remarkable achievement of the EU is that it has replaced diplomacy and executive discretion in international relations with a system based on law. While this legal system is integrated by the supremacy of the Court of Justice in Luxembourg, it is first and foremost a system based in domestic law, routinely accessible to businesses and citizens. The effect is that a UK-based business which finds itself excluded from trading or operating in another state can challenge the regulatory authority that is obstructing it in the courts of that state. The British government need not get involved; indeed, very often the higher echelons of government in the other state do not get involved either. They can leave the question to the relevant regulatory body, which wins some cases and loses others in its dealings with its own business community and citizens, and has the same relationship with those based abroad (provided they are in the EU).

In its Brexit plans, the government has been forthright in its determination to leave this system. Bringing an end to the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice is the main subject of chapter 2 of the Brexit White Paper, ahead of controlling immigration (ch 5) and ensuring free trade (ch 8). In future, aggrieved citizens will have to turn to their consulates. Businesses that find their market access blocked by a regulatory agency will have to ask the UK government to take up their case, instead of being able to seek the protection of EU law in the courts of the country that has blocked them.

I remarked above that a charitable interpretation of the government’s strategy is that it is trying to secure a strong negotiating position. A less charitable interpretation is that senior members of the present government fundamentally reject an international system based on law. They prefer bargaining and diplomacy to the settlement of disputes by independent authorities. One explanation of this preference is that judicial settlement of international disputes has a tendency to spill over into areas of domestic law which have no apparent cross-border aspect. Indeed, it is arguable that the Court of Justice has done little to prevent this spillover, as it has over time given up the self-restraint that confined its decisions to matters with cross-border effects. Still, the hostility of the present government to judicial authority is striking. Courts are, apparently, all tarred with the brush of progressive liberalism. The Court of Justice has blotted its copybook with the British government with decisions upholding the rights of EU migrants to receive social security benefits. This is small beer financially and economically, compared with, say, the same Court’s decision that the City of London must have non-discriminatory access to the euro derivatives market, but the government seems unable to weigh up the gains and losses in a rational way.

Brexit will mean the replacement of law by diplomacy in economic relationships with the EU. Diplomacy is an area of prerogative power; leaving the EU will enlarge the domain of this power. We will not see international relations widely discussed and debated in Parliament: it is an area where secrecy prevails. The Supreme Court did its best to allow Parliament to have a say on Brexit, unequivocally rejecting the claim that the referendum result could be put into effect directly. Parliament’s capitulation shows us how referendums really work, and the distance from Bogdanor’s account is large. Referendums permit the expression of a general ‘will of the people’, but the people’s will is susceptible to interpretation, and it is the political executive that has seized the power to interpret. Parliamentary democracy and the rule of law are squeezed between the general will and the strategic executive, between the moment (but only a moment) of democratic expression and the long-drawn-out process of closed door negotiations.


(1) Vernon Bogdanor ‘After the Referendum the People and not Parliament are Sovereign’ Financial Times, 9 December 2016.
(2) John Curtice, 'Is Labour’s Brexit dilemma being misunderstood? 'The UK in a Changing Europe, 17 February 2017
(3) Ian Warren, ‘Brief response to John Curtice’ 2 March 2017

Thursday, 26 January 2017

The populist surge and democracy in today’s Europe

Giorgos Katsambekis

If we believe top European officials like Herman van Rompuy or Jean-Claude Juncker, as well as mainstream media, populism is now ‘the greatest danger’ for our democracies. Indeed, during the years of crisis and austerity there has been a significant rise of populist parties in Europe, with some of them winning elections and disturbing previously established hegemonies. In this sense, the populist challenge has a ‘real,’ concrete base, as populists of various orientations are gaining ground. Interestingly, this ‘populist surge’ has brought renewed intensity to the debate around the crisis of democracy itself and the capacity of existing institutions to express and empower citizens. If people are turning to populist challengers, who seem overly radical, or even ‘extremist,’ then something must be wrong with our democratic-representational systems. This, at least, seems to be a common suggestion on the lips of politicians, pundits and academics.

To be sure, populists are identified on both sides of the political spectrum. Starting from the right, the Front National (FN) under Marine Le Pen poses as a viable contender of power in France, the Finns Party in Finland are participating in a coalition government, holding significant cabinet posts, the Freedom Party’s (FPÖ) candidate, Norbert Hofer, was only narrowly defeated in the recent Austrian presidential elections, while Fidesz and Viktor Orbán’s hegemony in Hungary seems unchallenged.

At the same time we have witnessed a new surge, characterised by the emergence of populist parties that belong to the Left. The austerity-hit European South has been at the forefront of this new trend. Political parties like SYRIZA in Greece and Podemos in Spain rode the waves of massive grassroots anti-austerity movements and significantly expanded their electoral support, with the former being already in power for two years and the latter consolidated as a major player in Spain’s political scene.

But is this trend something good or bad for democracy? And what are the prospects of populism from now on? To deal with such questions we have to start from defining populism. Drawing on the emerging consensus among academics that use discursive or ‘ideational’ approaches, we can sketch the main characteristics of the phenomenon.

First, populism entails the discursive construction of ‘the people’ as a collective subject. ‘The people’ are called upon as the only ones that can legitimise democratic decision making; as the key-subject of social change and radical subversion. The second characteristic of populism is its sharp antagonistic worldview: the representation of society as ultimately divided between ‘the people’ and the ‘establishment.’ Populists are placed on the side of ‘the people,’ pledging to serve the popular will and reinforce popular sovereignty, accountability and participation, against power holders and ‘oligarchs.’

This formal understanding of populism gives us a precise illustration of its political logic, but it does not tell us much regarding the content of populist politics. Indeed, populism’s contents may vary, depending on the ideology to which it is attached, as well as the socio-economic environment in which it develops. This explains the fact that we have historically witnessed many different forms of populist articulation: populisms that favoured statist economic programmes and others that were free-market oriented; populisms that emerged from the grassroots and populisms that were concentrated on charismatic leaders and top-down hierarchies; populisms that put forth demands for democratic expansion and social inclusion and populisms that defended authoritarian logics and social/ethnic exclusion.

Accordingly, the way in which populists speak about ‘the people,’ can vary significantly, as some consider the people to be a mono-ethnic community bound by relations of common culture, language or blood, while others see it as a political community, plural and heterogeneous, bound only by a sense of common fate and a shared set of values. Moreover, the way in which the antagonism with the ‘enemy’ is signified can also acquire different content: in some cases, an unresponsive ‘elite’ can be blamed for its economic injustices and corruption, or it can be castigated for opening the borders and allowing invading ‘others’ to ‘take over’ the country.

In this context, taking into account the vast heterogeneity of the phenomenon, I believe that it is wrong to denounce populism per se as a pathological and anti-democratic form of politics. In fact, it might be better to understand it as one way, among many others, to appeal to groups of people in order to mobilise them against named opponents, while offering some kind of incorporation.

Now, what we may call ‘populist incorporation’ can be exclusive and identitarian (‘you’re one of us, as long as we share the same ethnic origins’), or it can be inclusive and pluralist (‘you’re one of us regardless ethnicity, religion, etc., as long as we stand together against an oppressive elite’). Admittedly, this is a simplified version of possible articulations, based on the two broader trends that seem to crystallise in Europe. In any case, this function tells us something crucial regarding the conditions of emergence and probable success of populist projects.

And it is here that the notion of ‘crisis’ enters our discussion. Kenneth Roberts, for example, has linked populist ruptures to certain crises of representation. One of the scenarios that he describes is the situation where a political system is characterised by lack of responsiveness or accountability. In this case, while democratic institutions formally work, the rule of law is respected, liberties are secured and parties can freely compete in elections, citizens are left with a feeling of lacking alternatives or of not being heard; they thus do not feel included, incorporated.

This is due to the fact that mainstream parties that dominate the political scene have converged to such an extent that it does not really make a difference to vote for one or the other. And this seems to be the case today in many European countries. Moreover, citizens in Europe have often witnessed the imposition of policies sharply opposed to their mandate, due to external pressures and constraints. Take for example the Greek referendum of July 2015, where, despite the people’s clear decision to reject a new bailout deal premised on further austerity, such a deal was imposed on the Greek government under the threat of a complete economic collapse and international isolation.

In such a context, where citizen feel misrepresented or not represented at all, where there are serious doubts about the moral integrity of the political elite and the policies being implemented have little to do with the popular vote, populists can claim to better understand and express the frustrated people, against a political system that has become self-serving and alienated.

Hence, instead of trying to account for populism as a ‘threat,’ there might be a much more important lesson to draw from the success of populist parties and movements, and this has to do with the quality of representation itself; with the responsiveness of political actors and institutions.

This is particularly important in today’s Europe, where mainstream political forces seem to have lost their links with civil society, becoming increasingly attached to the administrational workings of the state; what Peter Mair has described as the ‘cartelisation’ of political parties, which has spread to the EU itself, making it a ‘protected sphere,’ unaware of people’s needs and grievances. In one way or another, populists are gaining ground against such ‘cartel’ systems around Europe, and they are doing so not only in cases where economic hardship has been severe, but also in cases where the economy has performed well and institutions are stable and efficient.

In the South, the populist Left has found a favourable environment to put forth demands against austerity, rising inequality and impoverishment, in favour of re-including the marginalised people. In the North, the populist Right has managed to attract voters that were frustrated with mainstream parties, channelling social anxieties through identity issues, stressing the need to return to strong nation-states that provide protection to ‘their own.’ It would be impossible for such parties to succeed, if a ‘gap of representation’ wasn’t there for them to fill.

To sum up, any discussion regarding populism in Europe cannot be productive if we don’t take into account the inherent ambiguity of the phenomenon: both threat and corrective, both fulfilling a democratising promise and susceptible to authoritarian turns. The a priori demonization of populism that ignores its specific content and message, is doomed to backfire, since along with dismissing the populist ‘devils,’ one risks dismissing ‘the people’ themselves, their worries, frustrations and grievances.

In this sense, mainstream parties ought to take seriously the demands of populists on the issues which they raise, from participatory democracy to transparency, and from wealth distribution and social protection to popular accountability. And they do not just have to take them into account, but they ought to respond to them with concrete policy proposals and with discourses that can aspire positive passions of hope among citizens that struggle in conditions of stagnation and impasse.

You can read the full article The Populist Surge in Post-Democratic Times: Theoretical and Political Challenges here.