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Home News A new Policy Network and Barrow Cadbury Trust project

Understanding the populist signal

16 January 2014
Understanding the populist signal

A Policy Network and Barrow Cadbury Trust project

Across Europe and beyond, systems of representative democracy are shaking and popular anger is growing as frustration over socio-economic inequalities, concerns over identity and belonging and virulent strains of anti-politics sweep the landscape.

Against this backdrop, Policy Network and the Barrow Cadbury Trust have launched a major 2 year programme of investigation into ‘Understanding the Populist Signal’. This project will explore the drivers of populism and the scope for renewal of approaches to governance and representation in populist times.  It builds on an earlier Policy Network/Barrow Cadbury Trust collaboration “Populism, extremism and the mainstream.

Read the project brief and mission statement.


The programme of events will bring together leading experts in the field from across Europe, encompassing a series of events and workshops, a collection of papers on key themes and opinion polling and interviews.


6th February 2014
Beating populists in populist times

31st March 2014
UKIP's threat to Labour?

11th September 2014
Populism, power and place

30th October 2014
Devolution and the changing nature of power

9th December 2014
Contact democracy for the hyper-connected age: A new way of doing politics

17th June 2015
The Populist Signal: Why politics and democracy need to change

Read the final report, published by Rowman & Littlefield, here. The press release covers the main findings, conclusions and recommendations, and media contact.

The following are a set of expert papers and briefing notes commissioned to inform the project:

The populists: threat or corrective to the political establishment?
The rise of populism across Europe is a symptom of the contemporary crisis of governance and democracy. Political parties find it increasingly difficult to represent the constituencies that elect them and govern responsibly in an era of increasing complexity. So how can modern political parties be more representative, beat populists, win elections and govern in a populist climate? What potential does the devolution of power and innovative political party reform hold?
By Michael McTernan & Claudia Chwalisz

Picking up on populism: playing with fire, or putting out the flames?
The centre-left is still missing a popular critique, particularly on the economy. Picking up on populism may be playing with fire but, done carefully and, dare one say, responsibly, it could very well do social democrats more good than harm.
By Tim Bale

The challenge of populism, then and now
Mainstream politicians tempted to trim their sails to a populist wind should take caution – we should never forget that populist appetites grow with feeding.
By David Marquand

Accepting the collapse of the old order of party politics
The existing establishment still spends much more energy fighting for control of a sinking ship than imagining the design of new political vessels more sea worthy for the waters of the twenty-first century.
By Matthew Taylor

Relieving democratic stress: Devolution and strong cities
Although devolution is no panacea to the drivers of populism, it could bring decision-making closer to people’s lives and communities, and move towards a bottom-up rather than top-down centralised state management approach.
By Alexandra Jones

Localism and resilient communities: closing the populist space
In an era of economic uncertainty, cultural anxiety and political disillusionment, greater decentralisation could offer the potential for new institutional approaches needed to foster stronger communities that are more resilient to the populist threat.
By Jessica Studdert

Responding to the populist signal
The growth of populist movements all over Western Europe can be understood as a political "signal" to mainstream politics, and not as a full-scale "shift to the right" in a more classical party-political understanding of politics and voter behaviour.
By Ernst Hillebrand

What happens if the radical right is granted power?

Last October Norway’s populist Progress Party entered government as the minor party in coalition. Half a year into their term, what lessons can be drawn from this tactic of engagement?
By Elisabeth Ivarsflaten

Why do Tories defect to UKIP?
Even if those who defect do so initially only to register a protest vote, the emergence of ‘cultural’ as opposed to ‘class’ voting means that many may never return to the mainstream.
By Paul Webb and Tim Bale

Time for 21st century democracy
In a digital age, the closed world of traditional, top down, elite models of democracy and accountability is no longer viable.
By Martin J Smith and Dave Richards

Is participatory democracy the solution to populism?
More participatory or deliberative local publics can help strengthen the legitimacy of democratic institutions.
By Carolina Johnson

The role of the 'local' in political renewal: Some cautionary thoughts
The Northern Irish experience indicates that decentralisation has not, on its own, revitalised a paralysed political system.
By Michael Morrissey

Nuancing the right-wing populist hype
While right-wing populism is one expression of democratic discontent, disproportionate media focus risks reinforcing these parties.
By Aurelien Mondon

Localising power: A synaptic approach to public services
Post-Scottish referendum, we find ourselves in a unique moment to deliver a connected localist agenda.
By Jonathan Carr-West

The myth of 'anti-politics'
We are living in intensely political times, where a tech-enabled civic democracy is flourishing and new political forms are driven by emergent individualism.
By Anthony Painter

Debating Europe: How the media and Conservatives' campaigning strategies affect populist support
How should pro-European parties communicate their support for the EU and simultaneously hamper populist advances?
By Timo Lochocki

Why not try leaving things to chance?
Introducing lotteries of randomly selected citizens to police the democratic system could prevent special interests from dominating the political process and enhance its democratic legitimacy.
By Peter Stone

Against elections

How to renew the centralised, hierarchical party system to reflect the horizontal power relationships of the hyper-connected, interactive society of the 21st century? A bi-representative system, combining elections with the democratic principle of sortition, or drawing of lots, could steer democracy into smoother waters.
By David Van Reybrouck

Why 'anti-politics' is not a myth
To dismiss ‘anti-politics’ as a ‘myth’ may be to miss something crucial. Progressives have failed to grasp the mood of alienation, seized upon by only the populists.
By Matthew Wood

Populism: a flashing amber signal?
The causes of populism are complex and many of its effects negative. But should we also consider its potential role as an egalitarian agent and a warning sign about the health of representative democracy?
By Teun Pauwels

Anti-politics: It's not the economy, stupid; it's you

Populism in Britain is being fuelled by discontent with the political class. But even Nigel Farage’s supporters do not believe politics is a waste of time 
By Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker

A moment for self-government
Britain’s two main parties deride and dismiss nationalist and populist sentiments. The left should seize the opportunities they present
By Michael Kenny

The popular centre: How progressives can beat the populist challenge

In this paper, Hopi Sen warns against trying to ‘out-populist the populists’ – making promises to end austerity or reduce immigration to a trickle. This raises unrealistic expectations and feeds the very distrust of politicians and government in which populism thrives. Sen calls instead for a new popular centre – 'focused, concrete, limited social policy changes' and allocating 'blame for the failure of politics where it belongs: with politics and the state itself.
By Hopi Sen

Immigration's 'dark side': a challenge for the left

Discussing immigration purely in economic terms neglects the need to talk about social, political and electoral realities.
By Paul Collier

A new lease of life for Italy's Northern League
Could Matteo Renzi face a showdown wit hMatteo Salvini heading a rival coalition?
By Anna Cento Bull

A second chance for Spain's populist radical right
Might discontent with the Popular Party provide Spain's radical right with a new opportunity?
By Sonia Alonso and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser

The French National Front: On its way to power?

Marine Le Pen must succeed in a delicate balancing act if her National Front is to become a mainstream party
By Joel Gombin

A party with no past, just a future?
Marine Le Pen is using young people to airbrush her party's history. But why are so many attracted to the far right?
By Charlotte Rotman

The Sweden Democrats: Ostracised and energised?
Sweden's mainstream parties have tightened the cordon sanitaire around the country's populist right party.
By Nicolas Aylott

The populist Pandora's box is open
The European establishment ignores the populist tide sweeping Europe at its peril.
By Rene Cuperus

Democratic decline or democratic evolution?
The way that people engage in politics is changing, but it is a mistake to necessarily equate this with democratic decline
By David Farrell

Anti-politics: a supply problem, not an engagement problem
Only when politics changes and the behaviour of politicians becomes more focused on ‘doing the right thing’ will citizens be prepared to engage
By Gerry Stoker

An Athenian solution to democratic discontent
New forms of contact democracy and innovative forums that allow political and economic institutions to deliberate with citizens are important steps in the long-term battle to renew representative democracy for the 21st century. They should not be seen as a threat to formal systems of government but as important add-ons that enrich democracy and give a window into the complexity of governance
By Claudia Chwalisz

Why 'hashtag activism' is not the solution for democratic inequality
The internet offers of swathe of new opportunities for democratic interaction, but how does this affect engagement levels among different groups?
By Marc Hooghe, Jennifer Oser and Sofie Marien

How can democracy compete in the age of information overload?
Compared to the amount of private corporate advertising they are bombarded with, the public know practically nothing about what goes on in government
By Matt Wood

Should Labour fear 'Pasokification'?
The left populist challenge to Labour is contained for now. But victory in May could make the party more vulnerable.
By Tim Bale


Claudia Chwalisz, Senior Policy Researcher




This project is kindly supported by the Barrow Cadbury Trust.

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