Sleaze is just a symptom – democratic politics in the UK is dying

Though fears of Covid-19 are spiking once again, this seems to be a comforting moment for the Labour party. After a disastrous few weeks for the ruling party, it seems as though politics is returning to “normal”: sleazy Tories are being sleazy, reneging on commitments to the “red wall”, and the opposition is sneaking ahead in the polls. But flashbacks to the mid-90s are, in reality, delusions. What most hurt the Tories then was that sleaze came to symbolise a decaying, patrician regime that, Labour argued, must give way to a new political generation. Johnson is a big, tempting and sometimes easy target. But our problems are not reducible to the moral failings of one individual. The current state of British politics – with an “incompetent” and “corrupt” administration at its centre – is symptomatic of a British state in which democratic politics is failing.

To understand the depths of the problem, we can start by recognising that democracy isn’t just about voting. It names a much wider political and social system. People will be interested in politics – and more likely to see it as legitimate – if they think it cares about their interests. Large and active political parties circulate ideas, arguments and experiences between the centre and the periphery of power. So too do membership organisations: trade unions, business associations, consumer groups, campaign organisations, charities, churches. Through these, citizens identify the causes and interests they have in common and see them represented in their politics.

This is not how British politics works any more. Parties do not closely engage with a mass membership, and are not attached to stable social interests. The Conservatives’ coalition is a protean ragbag of Thatcherite revenants, self-caricaturing traditionalists and anti-political culture warriors; Labour’s electoral strategy is to divest itself of obligations to members and of connections with clearly defined interests. Advocacy, charitable and campaign groups have become highly professionalised, their personnel sometimes taking on government positions. Public political engagement is intense but unstructured. Triggered by terrible events, and catalysed by social media, we swarm around issues – posting, petitioning and protesting. But, disconnected from civic institutions and with nowhere to go, energy dissipates rapidly, leaving only a bitter residue of resentment.

In this “post-democracy”, governments give up the complex business of brokering between differing wants. Instead, a few people at the centre – advisers, lobbying consultants and public affairs professionals – make policy, leaving a void between people and politics, which governments try to bridge using tools of public opinion management and behavioural change. But this is not enough. And so, political loyalties – within parties, between voters and parties, and between citizens and government – come to rest on personalised promises of reward or punishment: the main reason to vote Conservative isn’t ideological, but because your constituency might win a prize.

The political scientist Chris Hanretty found that being in a Conservative ultra-marginal made places more likely to receive money from the Towns Fund by 45 percentage points. We learned from the budget that if you want your town swimming pool refurbished, you shouldn’t campaign for your local council to get it done, but have the chancellor deliver it personally. Deeper down, people have learned that if you keep on good terms with the government you’ll drive in the VIP lane to government contracts (but be critical and you may get “cold shouldered”). Such a political culture changes what an MP is, from a representative of constituents to a professional conduit between private interests (blocs of voters, personal acquaintances, the highest bidder) and the state. This is the context in which we need to understand the recent corruption scandals.

You may object: haven’t governments always acted like this in some way? What’s wrong if people really do get the swimming pool they need? But there is a world of difference between people organising to make demands (becoming part of a process through which interests are brokered, agreement reached) and a government dispensing courtly favours according to its immediate interests. “Clientelism” (receiving benefits in return for political support) is not citizenship. It widens the gap between people and their politics. Rather than meaningfully involve us in the democratic process, the government has only to know – from polling, market research and social media sentiment analysis – what to offer to enough social segments, in the right places, to remain in power. This means it becomes incapable of addressing long-term problems. It has no obligation to work with populations to address fundamental challenges (the climate crisis, inequality, infrastructural decay) and no incentive to overcome resistance from clients demanding that their self-interest be satisfied. Under such a regime, things don’t rapidly fall apart. Uncared for, they slowly become more threadbare. The public realm is reduced to an endless queue of ambulances for which no doctor waits.

Furthermore, as is clear with the Johnson regime, this creates a fateful political dynamic. To remain in favour with its supporters (voters, donors, second employers) the government needs continuously to reward them. Whatever gets in the way of making ad hoc decisions – constitutional rules or independent overseers – is an obstacle to be overcome. Lots of regimes are clientelist because they are authoritarian and have no other support; ours is becoming more authoritarian because it is clientelist. As the constitutional expert Meg Russell observes, ignoring independent oversight is a hallmark of this government: marginalising the Commons; trying to overturn the parliamentary commissioner for standards; ignoring breaches of the ministerial code; weakening the electoral commission. These are not deviations but steps in a process of making it easier for centralised administration to direct resources to where political calculation deems it necessary.

Today’s sleaze bears the stamp of a leader whose temperament is at odds with public service. But it is not out of tune with how our politics works now. Johnson is a creature of this degraded democracy: he is an exemplar of social-media celebrity politics supported by a fandom, and sellotaped into a network of personal favours and obligations. Labour’s leadership has promised a constitutional commission to be led by Gordon Brown and made positive noises about devolving power, yet ignored members’ overwhelming support for electoral reform (which would break the closed cartel of clientelist parliamentarism) and expressed hostility to sharing power. Doubtless these issues don’t poll well and the party thinks it wiser to demonstrate greater competence at giving out favours. But in so doing it misses a chance that its predecessors would have seized, to put itself at the centre of demands for a better democratic politics, fit for the 21st century.

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