From his first mayor's success in London to his victory in December, Boris Johnson was consistent in one thing.
In 2008, he campaigned in the London suburbs with a simple core message. He would dodge. While the citizens of Central London wanted an active mayor to solve the city's problems, the people in the green suburbs were fed up with Livingstone's initiatives.
By pledging to reduce the mayor's power, Johnson increased voter turnout in places like Croydon, Harrow, and Romford – suburban towns that identified less with the thriving metropolis – and won a stormy victory.
In 2019, Johnson's slogan "Get Brexit done" followed the same anti-political mood. Rather than claiming that leaving the EU would be a good thing, he described it as a boring process that got stuck in Parliament. The implicit consequential clause was: "So that we can all continue with our Christmas shopping". It was devastating.
I spent the week before the vote traveling across the country and asking people how they felt about the elections. Almost nobody talked about politics. Very few people mentioned tax rates or the housing crisis or the collapse of the climate or the NHS or education. They talked about truth and trust.
This is not uncommon. In fifteen years of talking about elections and politics to strangers on every street in the UK, I've gotten used to these kinds of answers. What was new, however, was the level of anger – a hatred of "politics" that Johnson had deliberately sparked with his support for Parliament, the lies of his own campaign, and anti-MP rhetoric in the elections.
The trick is smart. Because "politics" is just another word for "democracy" – or at least the closest approximation that we have: the compromises between people and power that the struggles of our ancestors negotiated for us.
Convince people that these democratic structures are useless and corrupt, and those who argue that decisions should be made differently will always succeed. And the idea that decisions about the market and traditional class, gender, and race hierarchies should be made is at the core of conservative philosophy.
It's not just Britain. Questioning people across Europe in recent years – from Ukraine to Spain – the idea that our democratic systems are broken and we should therefore resort to more traditional decision-making structures is the implicit ideology of all flourishing rights. In a workers' area on the outskirts of Prague in February, a young woman told me that she didn't believe in politics. I asked what she believed in. "The family," she said. She voted for the country's conservatives, as did many of her neighbors, none of whom had a positive word to say about Czech politics.
However, this trick is particularly effective in Britain, for the simple reason that our political system is particularly broken. When Jeremy Corbyn promised to use it to give people lots of nice things, they didn't fail to vote for him because they didn't want the nice things – opinion polls consistently show that people are center-left for ideas – Party like renationalization of the public, services and taxation of the rich are a bit more.
People I spoke to in the north of England didn't vote for his manifesto because they generally didn't believe "politicians". They didn't want to be taken for cups. While many said they knew Boris Johnson was the biggest liar of the game, they would still vote for him because he really only promised one thing – to get Brexit done and implicitly to get politics out of the way.
Labor's approach to this problem was the same as that of most center-left parties in the western world. Instead of addressing why people don't like our political systems, they continue to say that they will use these systems to give people nice and necessary things. And that should come as no surprise – the Labor Party became part of the British state about a hundred years ago. It is very difficult for them to analyze and criticize something to which they belong.
The Lib Dems have always advocated political reforms and have always done so horribly. Instead of grabbing the net and insisting that this is a debate about power and who has it, they always argue about which form of proportional representation best provides some kind of theoretical mathematical equality or other sedative. You can't seriously talk about distortions of democracy in the modern world without being ready to ask questions about class, business, and capital. And there are too few liberals. And so their arguments are ignored.
For the Greens, on the other hand, radical democracy is one of the cornerstones of the party with ecological and social justice and peace. Green parties emerged from the 1968 uprisings, and the slogan “power for people” is as much part of our DNA as the fight against climate change.
Too often, however, when the Greens in England try to talk about democracy, they either follow the logic of Lib Dems or Labor – and consider how PR would be a "game changer" in a way that always sounds selfish or groaning about how "ordinary voters are not interested in these things".
The former is not helpful. The British establishment has spent years trying to turn the argument of power into a shaky conversation about constitutions. We shouldn't fall for it. And the latter of these arguments is obvious nonsense. The two election events in recent British history with the largest turnout were the independence referendum in Scotland and the Brexit vote: both questions about our political system. Give people – especially non-voters – half a chance, and most love to talk about how broken our policies are.
English politics is plagued by a deep feeling of alienation. People just don't trust our political systems for the simple reason that they're not idiots. Either the left will organize this anger against the machine into progressive demands for a redistribution of power among peoples, or the right will continue to use it to prove that "politics" is a failure, and we should be our "natural" rulers make responsible .
Green is uniquely placed to guide this movement. And now is the moment.
This article is the fourth in a row on the upcoming Greens' lead elections in England and Wales. Bright Green has invited a number of Greens members and activists to share their views on what the next Greens leader should deliver. You can find the articles in this series here.
PS. Bright Green has big plans for the future, but we need your input. Take 2 minutes to see what we are planning and let us know your thoughts.
Credit: vgm8383 – Creative commons