‘The people’s voice has been excluded from politics’
Matthew Goodwin on the coming pushback against the new elites.
‘The adults are back in the room.’ That has been the refrain among our political and media elites recently. As far as they’re concerned, the people who voted Leave and later propelled Boris Johnson’s Brexity Tories into office, have been put back in their box. The right kind of people with the right kind of views are now in charge again. But is this a case of wishful thinking on the part of our new elites? Is the populist revolt really at an end? And what now for the political realignment promised by Brexit?
To answer these questions and more, Matthew Goodwin, pollster and author of Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, joined Brendan O’Neill on the latest episode of his podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. What follows is an edited extract from their conversation. Listen to the full episode here.
Brendan O’Neill: What drove the populist revolts of the past 10 years, in your view?
Matthew Goodwin There are millions of voters who have been trying to reestablish their position in the public square. When ordinary voters look at institutions, not only do they see people not like them, but they also see these people talking about people like them in overwhelmingly negative and derogatory ways. And if you look at the way in which academics have been charting the transformation of democracy over the past 30 years or so, there’s a growing acceptance that we are no longer living under genuine representative democracy. This is critical, because it sends a signal about who is respected and who is not.
You can see this reflected in the House of Commons. There are very few real working-class MPs anymore. The political class has been taken over by university graduates, typically from elite institutions. And the largest single group in the Commons today is political careerists, who have only ever worked in politics. This has led some academics to talk about the rise of ‘diploma democracy’, instead of representative democracy. Essentially, a liberal, graduate political class has taken over the institutions of politics and of the state. That class of people is able to colonise power and reshape the policymaking process around its own interests.
That is essentially what has happened. If you look at all of the big issues that drove the populist revolts of the past decade – mass immigration, concerns with the European Union, the lack of accountability, the lack of democracy – none of these were reflected in the policymaking process in Westminster. That in itself was a reflection of how the people’s voice had been excluded from the institutions. The only voices that mattered or were respected were those of the experts and the political class. That’s why ‘take back control’ as a slogan was so powerful. There is a palpable sense of disillusionment that is entirely understandable.
The reaction to Brexit certainly changed my political views in a big way. My naive assumption was that the establishment reaction to Trump and to Brexit would be to open up the public square. I thought that the political and media elite would have to listen to these different perspectives. But what we actually saw in the aftermath of those revolts was the opposite. We saw a prejudice that would never be applied to any other group in society, but which was rapidly applied to the working classes and to the non-graduate majority.
Unfortunately, this is now being compounded by a widespread feeling held by the majority in Britain that they cannot say what they really think, because they are fearful of the consequences. There is an oppressive climate in this country, which is intimately connected with the rise of the new elites. They have expanded concepts like racism, transphobia, Islamophobia and so on to essentially discredit those who hold alternative perspectives.
I’ve seen this most clearly in the universities. As I was writing my book, we had the cases of Kathleen Stock, Noah Carl and Jordan Peterson. Ironically, the very institutions claiming to be open, tolerant, diverse and committed to pluralism were acting in a way that proved the exact opposite. Universities were purging the institutions of voices that were nonconformist, gender critical, conservative, pro-Brexit. Thankfully now we’re beginning to see more acceptance of these nonconformist voices, or at least an acceptance that such voices have to be listened to – for example, Nigel Biggar’s book on the British Empire, or Hannah Barnes’s book on the Tavistock clinic. But that this loss of voice is happening at all is still really troubling.
O’Neill: Are you concerned that the lack of pushback within the political world might make fighting back against the new elites a lost cause?
Goodwin: What we’re seeing is the rise of a new consensus in politics. A kind of return to managerialism and the more technocratic, expert-led model that we saw more of in the 2000s and less often the 2010s. Politics is like a seesaw. As we saw during Covid, the experts or technocrats went way too far with the philosophy that was guiding them. And we can also see problems with Boris Johnson and the Brexit wing of the Conservatives. They also lost touch with its mission and what it was trying to bring about.
Where we are today is a continuation of this technocratic revolution. If you look at what separates the left and right today in the UK, it’s hardly anything. Both are committed to a big state, to big spending, to high tax, to high immigration. Both are very comfortable with globalisation. The only difference is that the Conservatives have been forced into accepting Brexit.
In some ways, we are back to stripping the politics out of politics. The real winner today is neither Keir Starmer nor Rishi Sunak. And it’s certainly not the ‘grown-ups’ coming back into the room. The real winner here is apathy. A lot of people are thinking we’re back to having two parties that do not actually reflect what the populism of the last decade was all about. The realignment is on pause.
There is a big chunk of MPs who have completely lost touch with this realignment. This is especially crazy when you consider what voters were trying to bring about over the past decade. Did they want the small-boats crisis to become so out of control? Do they really want 16-year-olds being allowed to legally change their gender? Or, as Lisa Nandy said, 13-year-olds? Is this what people want for their society?
The populist pushback that found this expression over the past decade is in abeyance. People are sitting it out. A lot of people who voted Conservative in 2019 are now saying they’re undecided. There is a big chunk of the Labour vote that is very accepting of the fact that Keir Starmer has nothing real to offer. People are just shrugging their shoulders, they see Labour and Conservative as the same. No one in any party seems to be dealing with the long-term structural problems facing the UK. And nobody seems to be acknowledging the Great Awokening of the institutions that has taken place over the past decade. Very few politicians are recognising the way in which white, graduate liberals are moving further away from the rest of the country.
People can sense that the culture that they are surrounded by is no longer coming close to representing the reality they live in. That is becoming increasingly visible, as the people who dominate those institutions drift away from the rest of us. This is not sustainable. There will be a correction. There has to be a correction. The question is, who will lead it and when will it arrive?
Matthew Goodwin was talking to Brendan O’Neill on the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show. Listen to the full conversation here:
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