x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 October 2017

In the West, the traditional political system is broken. The question is: how do you fix it? 

In France, the United States and the UK, voters no longer divide along the lines of the left and the right, they split between those who think the systems work ... and those who don't

A woman holds a banner ridiculing political figures during a ‘March for Europe’ demonstration in London on July 2, against Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Neil Hall / Reuters.
A woman holds a banner ridiculing political figures during a ‘March for Europe’ demonstration in London on July 2, against Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Neil Hall / Reuters.

The most important political division in the world used to be between the left and the right. No longer. Nowadays it is between those who believe the economic and political system worldwide broadly works for them and those who don’t. Political divisions of the old fashioned left-right variety still exist, but the "system works or does not work" division cuts through what used to be normal. I know all this because Dave, the builder who has been working on my house, told me so. Dave does not vote in elections, but he did vote to pull Britain out of the European Union. Dave does not usually vote because politicians are “all the same”, the system “doesn’t work” and his vote “doesn't make any difference.” So, I asked, why vote for Brexit?

“Because my wages will go up,” he replied, convinced that EU immigration would be controlled and his business would cease being undercut by Polish or Romanian builders.

“This time 'they'”, he meant the political class who believe "the system works", had to take notice. Turnout for the Brexit vote was very high, 72 per cent, boosted by a lot of people like Dave, intent on making their voices heard.

Something similar happened in Scotland during the 2014 vote on independence. Turnout was a record 85 per cent, with many who do not usually vote feeling this time they needed to do so. All over Scotland I heard complaints about a broken system, and that “they”, the political class, the people at Westminster, did not listen and didn’t care. Some called it “West-Monster”, a place filled with politicians who argued a lot but had more in common with each other than with ordinary people.

And it has also happened in the United States. Voters in the middle of the country are sometimes dismissed as “flyovers”, the people the smart folks from New York and California “fly over” to get to someplace else. I spent a great deal of time in those flyover heartland states and fell in love with them. But I constantly heard flyover people describe their great capital, Washington DC, in abusive terms I cannot repeat in a family newspaper.

Donald Trump won big in flyover America, among the "system doesn’t work" folk who loved his promise to “drain the swamp” and shake things up in Washington.

“Washington,” one mid-Westerner told me, “is a place where if you drive long enough you can get to the real USA.” Or there was a bumper sticker in flyover America that said: “Whoever I vote for, the GUMMINT (government) gets elected.”

The idea that mainstream politicians are all the same and need a kick in the pants exposes the "system works or does not work" fault lines. America’s Democratic party, for example, routinely opposes Mr Trump, but is split between those like senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders who are of the "system doesn’t work" view, which is precisely the same view held by their ideological opposite, all of whom claim the system is rigged. In Britain, so does the left-wing Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, as do his ideological opposite, the far-right UK Independence Party. So in France did Marine Le Pen and also Emmanuel Macron.

Behind all this is another fault line: trust. The Edelman Trust Barometer measures trust in institutions in 28 countries around the world. In its 2017 report, Edelman found a clear “trust gap” between what they call the “informed public” and the “mass population”. The “informed public”, around 13 per cent, are "system works" people. They tend to have university degrees, higher incomes and read quality newspapers. This 13 per cent trust institutions, governments, businesses and the media much more than the other 87 per cent, who tend to be "system doesn't work" diehards. Like my friend, Dave the builder, they work hard in what they are told is an opportunity culture, yet see their living standards slip and fear for their children’s future in a broken system. Some respond with anger. Many respond with apathy. American commentators noted that in November 2017 Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump each received more than 60 million votes, with Clinton three million votes ahead. But few paid attention to the more important fact that at least 90 million American voters who could have voted in this crunch election did not bother to do so, despite the huge issues at stake. For them, clearly, the system doesn't work.

Many years ago, John F Kennedy told Americans that a “rising tide lifts all boats”. But hundreds of millions of people worldwide now believe the economic and political system of 21st century capitalism is so skewed that, like Dave, they do not even have a boat in the water and that no mainstream politician truly understands their concerns. A political and economic system that only works for a small group at the top is a system that needs to change. It needs to bend, before Dave and millions like him decide to break it.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, television presenter and author