Friday 17 May 2019 8:06 am

Britain is ready for change, but politics hasn’t quite caught up

Walk past the Palace of Westminster, and the crowds of protesters blocking the pavement send a clear message: the British are finally becoming politicised. At the same time, the esteem of the UK public for our major political parties is at an all-time low.

This is not a peculiarly British phenomenon. In Europe, previously dominant centre left and right parties have self-imploded, replaced by new insurgents, such as the Five Star Movement (M5S) in Italy and En Marche in France, both now in government.

Britain has been a bit behind the curve, but it is catching up, with two new parties recently springing into existence: the Brexit Party, which is doing spectacularly well in the polls, and Change UK, which is doing spectacularly mediocrely.

So drawing lessons from insurgent parties in other countries, how likely are these new UK forces to succeed?

This is the question we address in our recently published book, A Guide to New Political Movements: How to do politics in the 21st century.

There are many lessons that new UK parties – or existing parties wishing to revitalise themselves – can learn from the rest of Europe. But are they capable of learning them?

The first lesson is that, in Europe, all successful new parties have a charismatic leader able to paint themselves as an insurgent outsider. Many come from outside politics.

Charisma is hard to define, but we know it when we see it. Emmanuel Macron definitely has it, as does (love him or loathe him) Nigel Farage. But how many people could be mesmerised by the leaders of Change UK?

Successful leaders also manage to embody a spirit of insurgency, promising to slake voters’ thirst for real, radical change. It does not seem to matter much which policy platform is chosen (we have seen successes from the far right, far left, and the liberal middle). The key is that the offer of radical change is credibly embodied in the leadership.

Farage and Macron have both managed to credibly portray themselves as political outsiders, even though, in truth, neither is.

Change UK, despite its name, does not seem to offer anything radically new, except a fresh name for a group of established, old-style politicians.

They argue for the status quo (no Brexit) and risk creating the impression that they want to go backwards – to before the Brexit mess when centrist liberal politicians like Tony Blair and David Cameron thrived.

Then there’s the way that insurgents use social organisation and participative democracy, mediated by social media, to build new movements.

They use the new media environment as robust two-way communication channel with their followers, rather than one-way push messaging (with the inevitable “please donate” button) that parties are used to.

And they break convention to burnish their insurgent image – to mobilise followers, M5S organised mass protest events called Vaffanculo (f*ck off) days. While we can imagine Farage doing something similar, it’s hard to see Heidi Allen hosting one of these, although the Liberal Democrats’ new slogan “Bollocks to Brexit” is a small step in that direction.

The Brexit Party therefore has a greater chance of success than Change UK, both in the polls and in defining its anti-establishment identity. But that may not be enough. As a single-issue movement, it will struggle to deliver when tasked with finding its voice on issues beyond the EU. After all, popular discontent with the main parties isn’t just about Europe.

As for incumbent parties, they also have the chance to reinvent themselves to compete in this new landscape – much like the Liberals in Canada have done under Justin Trudeau. But so far there is little evidence that either the Conservatives or Labour are in for a major transformation.

Britain is gasping for a new, radical, non-extremist politics fit for the 21st century. So far, none seems to be on the horizon. But we live in hope.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.