Sunday, 3 March 2013

The lure of anti-politics

If the Italian elections and the Eastleigh by-election have anything in common, then it is the rise of populism. In Eastleigh, UKIP managed to come an astonishing second, beating the Conservative Party into the third place and just narrowly missing to relegatge the LibDems to runner up. In Italy, Beppo Grillo's Movement 5 received about a quarter of all votes cast and became the biggest single group in the lower house of parliament.

So, what's so attractive to voters about UKIP and the Moviemento 5?

UKIP of course has been around for a long time and, after an inglorious start in the end 1990s, smoothed its message to appeal to more moderate voters. The essential argument they put forward however has always been the same: get out of the European Union in order to re-gain control over our borders.

There can be no doubt that uncontrolled immigration can be a serious problem to any country that has to cope with a large influx of immigrants in a very short period of time. Local authorities in the South East of England faced unprecedented challenges when more than 600,000 European workers arrived on these shores in 2005. Teachers in local schools went from teaching classes with English speaking kids to classes with predominately Polish speaking children, sometimes within a matter of months. This required flexibility of resources that simply was not built into the educational system and caused serious problems for those living here already and the new arrivals.

And UKIP also has a point when it argues that the EU guarantees freedom of movement (and freedom to settle) within all member states. Yet, the scary picture UKIP paints is nevertheless simplistic. Immigration is never just a matter of who controls the borders. It is always a function of the various incentives put out to potential arrivals. They include generous welfare payments (which includes accessibility), free health care and housing for new arrivals. Despite the anti-European Union rhetoric, the British government has enormous leeway to shape these incentives and thereby to influence the number of people coming to the UK.

But the real underlying message of UKIP actually centres on something else, and this is where UKIP finds an ally in Beppo Grillo's movement. It articulates an anti-political message, expressing a widely felt sentiment that all politicians and established parties are either corrupt or incapable of reflecting public opinion. UKIP's party leader Nigel Farage never tires of saying that he is not a politician. But is this true? And what does this argument mean?

As Grillo's movement in Italy is refusing to co-operate with the 'corrupt' political elite, it forgets an age old inconvenient political truth: there is no such thing as an un-political action. Whatever you decide, operating in the political arena means that you take sides and make decisions for or against some group or other in society. Refusing to co-operate with others is a political decision, like it or not.

The second delusion of Grillo and Farage is however more serious. It concerns their disparaging of the 'political class'. They argue that politicians are not representing 'the people'. Yet democracy is always the struggle between competing visions of society, and politicians are charged not with representing 'everybody' but with representing their constituents. The essence of democratic politics is strife and argument, which leads to compromise. Decisions 'untainted' by consensus and compromise can only be had in totalitarian regimes, where some are riding roughshod over the views of others.

In addition, in democratic societies, we made the decision to be represented by our peers, selecting them from our midst to find solutions to problems that concern us all. Thus politicians are also a reflection of ourselves, the good and the bad. The alternative would be to argue for a government 'above the partisan interests of society'. The last time that call was heeded, the world tumbled into mass murder under the guise of 'the common good'.

So, where does this leave UKIP and Grillo? Dismissing the political class as crooks may resonate with our fury at politician's occasional misdemeanours but it fundamentally positions them at the margins of democratic society. Our politicians are as good or bad as we are. When we look at the spectacle of political shouting matches in parliament we see a mirror image of our own souls thrown back at us. Perhaps that's why we like to vote for UKIP and people like Grillo sometimes. We hope that our vote for them demonstrates that we are nothing like conventional politicians when deep inside we know different.

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