People vs Parliament Populism

Rosie Carter - 19 11 19

Some parties want to set voters against elected politicians, writes Rosie Carter. But will it work, and what is the long-term effect.

This election looks set to run as ‘people vs. parliament’. The Conservatives’ campaign takes the position that only they are able to get Brexit done, and it is parliament who have blocked their ability to lead Britain out of the EU. Nigel Farage launched his Brexit Party back in April with an aggressive speech in which he set out to “to put the fear of God into our members of Parliament in Westminster. They deserve nothing less for the way they have treated us over this betrayal.”

This populist approach which pits ‘the will of the people’ against ‘the corrupt elite’ plays into rapidly weakening public trust in the political class. Three-quarters of people (73%) say that none of the main political parties speaks for them, and half of voters said they thought that the media and politicians were conspiring together to lie to the public, in our May 2019 poll.

Mistrust of politicians is nothing new, but infighting among the major political parties over Brexit, spurred by media and political narrative that this is simply ‘stalling’ has further weakened public trust. This framing has also helped to maintain some level of optimism among people who hope that Brexit will bring about positive changes for themselves, and the country as a whole.

In focus groups run by HOPE not hate, we often found people dismissing economic projections about Brexit as scaremongering, which fed their perception that politicians were acting in their own interests:

“Now all these things come up on the news, trade and that… but they’re making it more complicated because they don’t want to leave, ‘cos these big shots in London are gonna lose the most, not the working class”  Blackpool: Labour Leave voter

It’s apparent that the people vs parliament line will have some traction in galvanising those who most want Britain to leave the EU and are frustrated at delays and deadlock. It may well also tap into broader frustrations about representation and the political system. But outside of parliament, the ‘people’ are a more nebulous group. Rather than being a decisive issue, this narrative may simply further alienate voters. Telling people who already feel the political system is not working for them that the political system isn’t working could push them further away.

Our research shows that there is a clear group of voters who identify most with Nigel Farage and are most likely to vote for the Brexit party. But the majority of this older and more established group, who have shifted loyalties from the Conservatives to the Brexit party, are not the same group of voters who feel voiceless, detached and frustrated at the political class.

We identified a second group of voters who share many attitudes with the first, but feel most detached from the political system, feel that things will get worse for themselves and the country as a whole. Critically, this group are also resigned in thinking that Brexit won’t change anything. Boris Johnson’s failure to deliver Brexit by the 31st October deadline he so strongly promised is unlikely to motivate this group, who will likely see this as yet another broken promise from a politician who doesn’t represent them.

Moreover, Brexit is not the number one issue for everyone. As someone in a focus group we ran in Watford put it: “Brexit has dragged on for too long as it is, but people are forgetting all about schools, the NHS”.

Further alienating those already feeling distanced and not represented by pushing a narrative of distrustful politicians is not going to win over voters for whom Brexit is just another example of broken promises. Playing the anti-establishment card will not win this election.


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