John Harris

Journalist & Author

Politics’ new radicals: a special report

Big politics is in crisis. And the fresh ideas and strong personalities are emerging from what were once regarded as irrelevant fringe parties. Ahead of next week’s local elections we ask four rising stars from outside the mainstream how they see the future

When George Galloway won last month’s Bradford West byelection, two reactions sounded an unlikely note of agreement. One was from Galloway: “This is a rejection of the mainstream parties with their Tweedledee, Tweedledum, Tweedledee-and-a-half approach. It was people saying they want political leaders they can believe in, who say what they mean, do what they say and don’t lie to people.” The other was voiced by that well-known leftwinger John Redwood MP: “The old-fashioned virtues of beliefs, passion and consistency have powered Mr Galloway to an amazing victory. He has shown all the established parties that people can vote them out if they are fed up enough with them.”

In the following days, there was a burst of excitement about yet another sign of a crisis in mainstream politics and the growth of new parties. The consensus was: yes, parts of the electorate are certainly volatile, and capable of giving Westminster a shock. But those on the supposed fringes of politics are likely to remain there – merchants of protest politics rather than anything with a meaningful future.

Yet something is definitely happening. At the last general election, even faced with a titanically unpopular Gordon Brown government, the Tories couldn’t win a majority. Having entered the coalition, the Liberal Democrats have removed mainstream politics’ usual receptacle for protest votes, with consequences that have yet to become clear. In a run of opinion polls leading up to next week’s local and mayoral elections, the UK Independence Party has been either neck-and-neck with the Lib Dems, or in front of them. We now learn that Labour is sufficiently rattled by the Bradford West result to be considering barring its MPs from standing as mayors or police commissioners, in case further byelections cause similar upsets.

Meanwhile, Scottish politics has been transformed by the dominance of the SNP – set for yet more gains in the local elections on 3 May – and the prospect of the referendum on independence, whose result could have huge repercussions for England and Wales. One very pronounced long-term trend is obvious: combined support for the Tories and Labour peaked in the 1950s, and reached its lowest ever figure at the last general election. And in Europe, politics is being shaken up on what feels like a monthly basis: the National Front’s strong showing in the first round of the French presidential election, the rise of the Pirate Party in Germany, the fact that the hard left is proving to be a lot more resilient than some people would like to think.

As becomes clear when you talk to people involved in non-Westminster politics, dry numbers only tell you so much. Particularly on the left, most truly radical, interesting voices are from outside the usual circles – in new protest movements, or the Greens, or the UK’s two nationalist parties. The people responsible tend to have a lot in common: dim views of the Labour party hardened when Tony Blair was in Downing Street, watershed experiences at the time of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, a keen sense that the fracturing of the UK has profound political consequences – and a common understanding that the political legacy of the 2008 crash has only just started to reveal itself.

Moreover, two questions increasingly spring to mind. Does it feel like the Westminster way of doing things is working? And if not, who has any better ideas? © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 25th, 2012 at 4:38 am and is filed under Guardian RSS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. « The metropolitan milieu’s disdain poisons our country’s politics | John Harris | Respect’s Salma Yaqoob: ‘Labour has gone a bit mad since Bradford West’ »
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