New politics has to deliver on the false promises of populism

The week before last I gave a speech on democracy in a time of populism and security concerns, unrelated to the EU directly but delivered at a European conference. Here’s the text I prepared.

I want to start by agreeing with Tom [van Dijk, the keynote speaker].

I think his call for a new political leadership of the centre is absolutely right, but it has to go beyond the political leadership.

The new politics — and by that I mean new models and government as well as new political messages or electoral positions — has to deliver for real on the false promise of the populists: that people can feel a sense of belonging and trust in their societies, that they need no longer feel strangers to the institutions that govern them, that they can be involved and connected in the decisions that are made about their lives.

Where populists look for trust by associating themselves with defence of nation, blood and people, the new politics and government must deliver inclusion, democracy and transparency.

“Good governance” or “Glocalisation” can never be a rallying cry to match the emotional pull of flag and country, but it can make government and public services work better for a new era of politics — and deliver the security and reassurance that drives the mainstream of politics away from populism and paranoia.

Tom talked about responding to a feeling of Unsicherheit. That is clearly an important part of today’s democratic crisis. But I want to add another German word to the mix — new politics has to handle Unübersichtlichkeit. In English we might translate it as “complexity”, but it implies an inability to see everything. It’s a better word because it starts from the perspective of the viewer, trying to get a viewpoint on this vast and complex world.

Populists, and a large part of the press, tell the reader or viewer that they are besieged. Migrants are coming to change the nature of their towns and communities. The welfare state is collapsing, being undermined by lazy poor people. The world they know it’s changing, all the security is gone and nothing will be the same again.

The power of these messages is unconnected to the truth behind them. In the UK, the strongest anti-immigration feeling is where there are fewest immigrants. The strongest support for leaving the EU is where the impact of free movement has been least. We should not be surprised — those are the places where there is no real life counter example to the mythology of populists in politics and press.

But this is not to say that everything is just fine, if only people would understand it. The populists draw their support from a kernel of truth: economic, social and political change are making the terrain for politics very different, and politics is not keeping up.

This is where civil society, in the broadest sense, has to play its part. For democracy to reform itself in the face of the network society and the populist threat, we need three elements to work together. Politicians must face the people, rather than each other. We know that party structures are in decline, possibly terminal. Politicians have to lead beyond their party, not just within it. Parties may transform themselves into loose alliances, which have a number of leaders rather than a single figurehead. This is the point that Tom makes about leadership from the centre.

At the same time, networks and connections among the people need to be supported and strengthened so that they can be informed and ready to participate in a new more open model of politics. I call them the people because they are 500 million individuals, who collect themselves into multiple overlapping “publics”. The idea of a general national public, let alone a European one, is unrealistic.

Creating an informed people, and connecting different publics, needs new forms of media, it needs better information for citizens and better education, and it needs leadership from within the people, rather than just from existing institutions and establishments. This the role of civil society, not just as a traditional bearer of voice or transmitter of grievances.

Finally, the places and structures through which politics and public come together need to be recreated. Old structures of party, old broadcast media are suited for the 19th century, not the 21st. Deliberative, collaborative and participative systems need to be created, trustworthy and authoritative around an open and networked structure.

Government has to commit to involve itself in these, to support them, and to give people the information they need to participate, alongside other organisations and institutions.

I don’t want this to sound like a dry technocratic model of politics, where every evening is another public meeting, and every inbox contains a survey.

There is plenty of scope for leadership, it needs leadership right now even to get close to what I am describing. However, that leadership needs to be honest, and pragmatic — a slow boring of hard boards, in Weber’s phrase.

We cannot in rage ourselves into a new democracy, we cannot refurbish a house by setting it on fire. The fevered atmosphere of politics at present needs calm, strong, clear voices that point out the direction and the reforms that are needed to deliver the belonging, the democracy and the change that the populists can only promise.