Last week’s local election results produced some curious reactions from those speaking on behalf of the main three parties in response to UKIP’s meteoric performance. There was an underlying confusion that I’ve rarely seen before. The usual game where at least one of them comes out smiling, whilst the other two lick their wounds and make their excuses went out of the window. Even Labour who gained 291 councillors only managed to make amends for their disastrous showing at the same set of elections in 2009 where they lost exactly the same number of seats. There was a struggle to make sense of UKIP’s achievements and consider what the best response should be. Shadow deputy prime minister, Harriet Harman, talked about it being a ‘wake-up call’ for the main parties, but the reaction was one of someone waking up from a bad dream and fuzzily trying to work out if it had been real or not, rather than any coherent reaction.
The last time that something along these lines happened was in 1989 when backing for the Green Party surged to 15% of the votes in the European elections. This wasn’t sustained and public support quickly fizzled to just 0.51% at the 1992 general election. The main parties will probably be hoping that something similar will happen with UKIP in 2015 at the next general election. However, having read a good number of post-election articles over the weekend, the consensus from commentators is that UKIP’s result is unlikely to be a flash in the pan.
My interpretation of the situation is that we are moving into a new phase in British politics where the relationship between voters and politicians is fundamentally changing. This development has been branded as ‘post-liberalism’ and UKIP are riding on the wave of this sea-change of public opinion.
Apologies if this now gets a bit academic, but please bear with me. Much of modern politics has been influenced by the twin ideologies of social and economic liberalism. From the 1960s onward, the liberal left has won much of the the social and cultural argument and since the 1980s, the liberal right has been winning the political and economic argument. Both forms of liberalism champion unfettered personal choice and freedom from constraint. We can see that these beliefs have been accepted across the political spectrum by the way the main parties have been increasingly drawn towards the centre ground as they progressively embrace both of them. This liberalism has had its benefits , but there has been a cost; the financial markets through deregulation have badly overheated and a lack of self-control ultimately led to the financial crisis we are now having to deal with. Personal debt has also spiralled. Social liberalism has eroded communities and a communal sense of morality leaving many of us more concerned about our own happiness and material wealth at the expense of our relationship with others.
Nasty shocks to the system, such as the financial crisis we currently find ourselves in the midst of, often cause us to question what has previously been taken for granted, tolerated or ignored. The consequences of a lack of morals and ethics in our financial systems along with excessive government borrowing has had serious and painful consequences. Politics has increasingly become the domain of the metropolitan, educated elite, who are regularly seen to be out of touch with and lacking empathy with the majority of voters. The gradual weakening of moral codes as well as the erosion of the social bonds tied up in family, faith and community, have damaged the social fabric of our society.
We are starting to appreciate that things have gone wrong and are not as they should be. The turning to UKIP by many voters is a symptom of this. Max Wind-Cowie in a piece for Prospect explains how this has happened:
‘The reason UKIP is a genuine threat to the political establishment, rather than merely to the Conservative party, can be found in its accidental post-liberalism. This emerging school of political thought and practice—which seeks to challenge the assumptions and excesses of both social and economic liberalism—has found something of a testing ground in UKIP. Bringing together the dissatisfied of Tunbridge Wells and the downtrodden of Merseyside is a remarkable feat, and it stems from UKIP’s empathy for those who have been left behind by the relentless march of globalisation and glib liberalism.
‘All three main parties have important lessons to learn from UKIP’s success. A failure to grasp the post-liberal nettle and to confront the profoundly unfair impact of cold-blooded meritocracy could well lead to their slow marginalisation. This doesn’t mean just imitating their policies (which often smack of illiberalism rather than post-liberalism) but it does mean adapting rhetoric and proposals to demonstrate some understanding for the people they are elected to serve.’
Philip Blond, Director of the ResPublica think tank tweeted yesterday: “We are now in the era of post-liberal politics – UKIP are its negative manifestation we need its positive form”. The problem as is often the case when a reaction against an -ism leads to a post -ism is that it is not immediately apparent what form the post-ism will take. As I view it, post-liberalism is still in its infancy, but we see it manifesting in Justin Welby’s recent calls for the creation of regional banks, communities taking responsibility for those locally in need through such activities such as food banks, a continued call from many to see families recognised in the tax system and an increasing belief that rights and responsibilities need to become more balanced within our society whether it be in relation to benefits or the tax receipts of multinational companies.
What I find heartening about much that is associated with post-liberalism is a turning towards values that are decidedly Christian and biblical. It is an acknowledgement that we are not isolated individuals free to live as we like, but that we inherently live as part of a community (local, national or beyond) where issues of justice and seeking the common good should be valued.
UKIP have been successful because they are offering the taste of a different vision that the main parties are failing to provide. Even though they are seen as right-wing, they are political outsiders, not readily playing to the traditional left-right political spectrum. Their policies may be populist, but they have also tapped into an underlying frustration that the public has with our politicians at the moment. In contrast, the main political parties are struggling to adapt and see that what they are all offering is not meeting what an increasingly large number of people are looking for in their politicians.
This is a time for new visions and for any party that manages to break out of its mould and re-engage effectively with the public, the rewards could potentially be very high. The recent elections were indeed a wake-up call for all our main parties, but whether any heed the warning signs or not will show whether they have grasped the need for them to adapt and change effectively to respond to the mood of many in our nation. To ignore it could well turn out to be political suicide.
You can read about post-liberalism in more depth here.