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Home Opinion Anti-politics: It's not the economy, stupid; it's you
Anti-politics • Populism • Ukip

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

Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker - 20 November 2014

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  

Last month, in an article for Progress magazine, Blair McDougall, director of the Better Together campaign that won the battle over Scotland’s independence vote, suggested: “Anti-politics is largely a symptom of a political failure on economics.” The implication of this, he argued, was that, “we should spend as much time worrying about that cause as its effects.”

The view that the anti-politics sentiment out in the country is mostly down to economic factors – and if growth returns then it (and its harbingers) will simply fade away – is a popular one among political elites. Indeed, we have been told by Dominic Cummings, a former special adviser to Conservative cabinet minister Michael Gove, that many in the Cameron government held the same view when planning strategy in 2010. The problem with this theory, however, is that complacency about anti-politics underestimates just how long-term, prevalent and entrenched public discontentment is with the behaviour of the British political class.

It has, of course, to be recognised that anti-politics is a complex phenomenon. It is both a threat and an opportunity. Anti-politics sentiment consists of a set of different expressions of discontentment with the status quo, but not necessarily a rejection of politics as a solution to the problem. For citizens, anti-politics is reflected in two dimensions: negative attitudes towards politicians, institutions and broadly the political system and a withdrawal from formal politics, including not voting or joining parties and engaging in other forms of political activity. But it is also not just about decline: instead it is also about change as citizens search for alternative parties, leaders and political practices. There is a sustained wave of anti-politics and it is unwise for any political leader to dismiss it as superficial.

We commissioned two surveys by YouGov, in June 2013 and October 2014, to explore public attitudes towards both the motivations and capabilities of politicians in facing the problems facing Britain today. These reveal the varied forms of political discontentment in contemporary Britain that amount to far more than the product of a sustained period of economic pain (though this, of course, is a factor). Our analysis suggests complex shades of light and dark in anti-politics.

Here is the scorecard for the British political elite and is does not make for happy reading. There is a dominant belief that politicians are too focused on short-term headlines and are more concerned with protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society. A remarkable 80 per cent of the public agreed with the statement that, “politicians are too focused on short-term chasing of headlines”, with just three per cent of respondents disagreeing. Views about the manner in which politicians are believed to privilege the rich and the powerful are similarly lopsided, with 72 per cent of respondents agreeing that politics, “is dominated by self-seeking politicians protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society”, and just eight per cent disagreeing.

It is fair to say that, since survey detail became available, British citizens have never been universal admirers of politics but our evidence shows that things have got worse. There has been a clear shift in public attitudes: 48 per cent of respondents consider politicians are “out for themselves”, a further 30 per cent believing they put their party’s interest first, and just 10 per cent thinking they want to do what is right for the country. These figures represent a sharp drop from Gallup surveys that asked the same question in 1944 and 1972. There is a widespread feeling, then, that politicians and politics has lost its way, and no longer look to stand up for the public in the face of powerful special interests.

It is also clear from our data that disaffection with politics and politicians is fuelling the drift of voters away from the main parties towards the UK Independence party. Ukip voters are steadfastly negative about the political class. Some 74 per cent of them believe that politicians are out for themselves, 19 per cent for their party, with a paltry three per cent thinking they are motivated by a desire to do their best for the country. Ukip supporters even more predominantly believe that politics is dominated by “self-seeking politicians protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society”, by a remarkable margin of 85 per cent to three per cent. In contrast, 53 per cent of Conservative supporters agree with this statement and 20 per cent disagree. This view of self-serving politicians is arguably the unifying feature in terms of the attitudes of Ukip supporters.

If we model the likelihood of voting Ukip as a function of the different measures of political discontentment in both our surveys, about as much variance is explained as typical social predictors of Ukip support (those predictors in our dataset being respondents who are male, over-54 years-old and working class). Ukip voters are not necessarily the “left behind”, but are people holding unambiguously and intensely negative views about politics and politicians. What is striking, though, is that Ukip supporters do not necessarily agree with the proposition that “politics is a waste of time”. This suggests that many people who are disillusioned with the status quo and the political class are looking for a new means of expression.

More generally, when asked to weigh up how our politics is managing austerity and the economic downturn, it is not fatalism about the capacity of government or politics that comes to the fore for most citizens. What emerges is a sense of being failed by a political class that lacks the competence and strength of character to follow the right policy options and, above all, is regarded as too short-termist, media-obsessed and in cahoots with the rich and powerful to provide leadership in the public interest. Britain is weighed down by a substantial fiscal deficit but as far as the public is concerned it is also suffering from a depressing shortfall in the quality, grasp and connection of its political class.

Will Jennings is professor of political science and public policy at the University of Southampton and Gerry Stoker is professor of governance at the University of Southampton 

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Understanding Populism .

Tags: Will Jennings , Gerry Stoker , populism , anti-politics , Nigel Farage , Ukip , Blair McDougall , economy , Dominic Cummings , political class , establishment , formal politics , Britain , elite , politics , politicians , special interests , austerity , status quo , policy

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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