The rise of dangerous ‘strongman’ politics

Declining trust and economic hardship are combining in a potentially toxic measure to propel support for a new breed of ‘strongman’ politics, says Rosie Carter….

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Chapter : The rise of dangerous ‘strongman’ politics

Declining trust and economic hardship are combining in a potentially toxic measure to propel support for a new breed of ‘strongman’ politics, says Rosie Carter.

Since the 1970s, the British public has increasingly identified less and less with political parties[1]. But over the past two years growing opposition to COVID-19 restrictions, and more recently the ‘Partygate’ scandal, have fanned resentments towards the political elite that were whipped up throughout, and after, the EU referendum.

While questioning the actions of political representatives is not always a bad thing, feelings of misrepresentation and voicelessness have increasingly found resonance in populist-right narratives. These anti-elite framings of “the elite” against “the people” have further eroded ties between voters and political parties, and increasingly put strain on liberal democracies, fuelling the appeal of “strongman” politics.

Damaged trust

Trust in political representatives, and the political system more broadly, has long been an issue but increasingly become the norm. For a majority, politics is seen as a one-way street. In our polling from late January this year[2], while the majority voiced having an interest in politics (around one in five – 21% – would say they don’t), only 10% of people say they feel politicians listen to people like them.

And for many, local politicians are not hugely distinguished from MPs in regards to their distance from voters. While the local view is slightly more positive, there is little difference in responses when people are asked if they feel they have a say in decisions taken in Parliament and at the local level. Just 16% say they do at parliamentary level, while 21% say they feel they have a say in decisions taken at the local level. Many also feel that politics has little impact. Overall, 57% agreed with the statement “getting involved in politics is a waste of time because nothing ever changes”.

People’s relationship with democracy has been tested over the past few years by a series of political shocks, not least the turbulent and divisive period that led up to, and followed, the EU referendum. “Take back control” became a slogan that was not just about sovereignty and the UK’s relationship with the European Union, but for many signified a broader political alignment and a pushback against the status quo.

But as the negotiations dragged on, not only did many voters feel they were not getting what they wanted from Brexit, but most felt that politicians had left them in the dark over the process, distracting them from more important issues. In fact, the process fed the view of politicians as self-serving that the referendum campaign had already so turbo-charged.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic further complicated the relationship between people and politics. In a time of crisis, people look for stability and put their trust in political leaders to get them through. And indeed, that was what we initially saw. Two weeks into the first lockdown, a large majority (64%) said they trusted Boris Johnson and his government to deal with the pandemic, up from 50% in the week before the lockdown[3].

But this was short lived. Scandals involving Downing Street staff, government ministers, and finally the Prime Minister, who were all seen to have broken strict lockdown rules in the ongoing scandal about parties in and around No. 10 during strict lockdown have damaged trust between public and politicians. These events have sent a message that there is “one rule for them” and “one rule for us”.

Research from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in December last year found that just just 5% of people believe politicians work for the public good [4], while YouGov research from January this year revealed nearly three-quarters (72%) of the British public now had an unfavourable opinion of the Prime Minister[5] following the recent scandals.

Our own polling has shown how this has impacted people’s relationship with democracy more broadly.

The proportion of those who agree that “the political system works well” fell by 11% from July 2021 to January 2022, to just 34%. And in the same January poll, very few people could say that they feel very satisfied with the way democracy works in the UK – just 6% with the majority saying that they were not satisfied (57%).

While declining trust in the political system is a challenge to democracy in its own right, it has also increasingly allowed anti-democratic, authoritarian and extreme right-wing ideas to grow.

What people want from their politicians

Our poll asked people found that “honesty” (57%) was the quality they felt was most important for a politician. This was followed by “straight-talking” (31%), both of which were more popular character traits among older respondents. The rise of the “straight-talking” politician sets these figures (in respondents’ mindset) from an entrenched view of politicians as disingenuous or careerist – they are supposedly representative, accessible; they tell it how it is.

Most people also want politicians to be good communicators (27%), “hard working” (26%) and “intelligent” (25%), while the least popular traits were “ruthless” (3%), having a “sense of humour” (3%) and “charismatic” (3%).

But for some, other traits were considered more important: 10% of GB News TV station followers saw “ruthlessness” as one of the most admirable traits for a politician, while more than twice as many (15%) than the overall population (7%) said “courageousness” was an important trait. “Strength” was seen as a more important factor to Conservative voters (23%) while “loyalty” was seen to be a more important factor for Brexit party voters (32%).

And there was a considerable amount of similarity between the views of those who view Boris Johnson very favourably and those who see Nigel Farage similarly – with both seeing strength, straight-talking, charisma and ruthlessness more important than all respondents overall. And while these figures have largely failed to win voters over, there is the potential for a “strongman” figure to capture public support by weaponising these traits.

A strongman appeal

The desire for this strongman politics and authoritarian rule may well seem contradictory to a sense of voicelessness and misrepresentation. But strongman politicians play (even prey) on a feeling of being “shut out” to make themselves appear as the voice of the people, pointing the finger and laying blame on elites. Often charismatic, they build their support as “true” representatives of the people, as those who will really “say it how it is”.

In times of fragility and uncertainty, people look to strong figures who can offer straight-talking answers. These strongman figures also offer an alternative to broader dissatisfaction with the political system.

Worryingly, in our late January poll, 15% of respondents, including more than a quarter of young people (26% of 18-24s) and one in five 2019 Conservative voters (20%), said that they did not care if a politician was corrupt so long as they got the job done.

Staggeringly, more than a quarter of all respondents (26%), including more than a third of those who voted for the Conservatives in 2019, voiced support for a system in which a strong leader could make decisions without interference from Parliament or the courts, while 56% were opposed and 17% remained unsure.

Those who voiced a preference for this kind of governance tended to be politically right-wing, more concerned about criminality and immigration than the general population, and more likely to value strength, loyalty, courage and drive in politicians.

And while they are also a very mixed group, with a larger share of 2019 Conservative voters (46% voted Conservative in 2019 while 28% voted Labour), many have moved away from Boris Johnson’s party, as more say they would vote Labour (32%) than Tory (31%) if there was a general election tomorrow. This suggests how the ‘Partygate’ scandals have undermined Johnson’s presentation as a strongman figure, making many of those with more authoritarian views politically homeless.

A sense of being ignored, of politicians serving themselves not their voters, and a widespread view of a ‘broken’ political system that is rigged to maintain the status quo, all have the potential to feed the appeal of strongman politics.

The COVID-19 effect

While the UK’s anti-lockdown movement has largely been framed around “reclaiming freedom” and individual rights, and even pushing back against authoritarian rule, much of its beliefs are rooted in populist anti-establishment and anti-mainstream thought.

Our polling suggests that those who favour authoritarian strongman politics – voicing preference for a political system where a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts, or who those who say they don’t care if politicians are corrupt as long as they get the job done  – are more likely to be sceptical about the vaccine’s safety and to support anti-lockdown protests, or to feel that lockdown measures were a restriction on their freedoms.

But as well as this overlay, the impact of COVID-19 has the potential to broaden the appeal of strongman politics too, as the economic realities of the coronavirus outbreak and restrictions alongside soaring costs of living begin to take hold.

We have seen, time and time again, how hardship can brew deep resentments towards a distant political establishment and an economic model that is unfeeling to place or people. The hard end of the political right has found strength in exploiting genuine anxieties in communities that have been hurt most by economic decline and austerity. They have offered mass immigration and “cultural incompatibility” as simple answers to complex problems.

“Strongmen” fill a space by offering simple answers in times of great uncertainty. But these figures generally do more to add to existing challenges than to offer solutions. They continue to feed anger and resentments that can spill over into greater extremes.

While declining trust in the political system is a challenge to democracy, it has also allowed anti-democratic, authoritarian and extreme right-wing ideas to grow. Economic damage caused by of COVID-19 alongside sharply rising living costs is likely to bolster support for this form of politics.


NOTES:

[1] https://whatukthinks.org/eu/a-nation-of-remainers-and-leavers-how-brexit-has-forged-a-new-sense-of-identity/

[2] Focaldata polling of 1,500 adults, fieldwork carried out 24-25th January 2022, weighted to be representative of the GB population

[3] https://hopenothate.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/HnH_Covid-19-first-three-months_2020-06.pdf

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/dec/04/johnson-faces-trust-crisis-as-sleaze-shatters-faith-in-mps

[5] https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2022/01/14/boris-johnsons-net-favourability-drops-another-all

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