For me, it is an honour to write about honesty in politics. From a young age I was taught by my father that honesty is an important asset to have as it gains you the respect of those you are with. Now, as a politician representing my constituents, honesty is at the core of my work: I am always ready to say what I think and believe, even if that sometimes goes against popular opinion.
I am fascinated by the current trend in politics and I am excited to finally see that politicians are able to have frank conversations with their voters. I have often been referred to as a candid Yorkshire woman, but actually it is simply in my nature that people should say what they think and believe, even if that sometimes goes against established ways of doing things.
For me, when I reflect on a new direction in politics I do not see it as being neither populist nor being against popular opinion. We need to listen to public opinion, even if this means difficult conversations. We are beginning to see this direction across the globe, whereby voters’ disappointment with politicians not wanting to have an honest conversation with them is resulting in unexpected election results. But whilst these results may be unexpected for the politicians they are a victory for the people. We have seen this occur at home, in the US, in France, Greece and Germany to name just a few. These unexpected outcomes have often been a result of political views that, at times, made me cringe. However, the new political style of politicians telling things ‘as they are’ represents a refreshing change for many of our electorates. Whether this is deemed to be populism or simply the electorate’s desire to have more honest politicians is much open to debate.
We do not need to look far to find a good example: it was effectively showcased by our decision to leave the EU. Through the campaign, politicians were able to put forward what was initially perceived to be as the publically awkward position of leaving the EU. Many were pessimistic about that prospect, calling it a leap of faith or a walk into the dark - but I found it to be quite the opposite. I was thrilled to be able to have an honest conversation on how the previously unchallenged status quo was affecting us. Disagreeing with the European Union and its bureaucratic nature and believing that our great nation is better off outside of it has not always been a mainstream stance, especially within political circles.
Throughout my lifetime, Conservative and Labour governments alike have held pro-European views. This, however, has not affected my life-long disagreement with the European project. Campaigning for a referendum on the European issue before I was an MP hardened my disagreement with the political union in Brussels. In those days, I would go door-to-door talking to people in what was to become my constituency, Morley and Outwood, asking them for their opinions on the European Union. Most of them shared my view that it was a protectionist anchor, holding us back from truly global outreach, while depriving us of our sovereignty at home. The tide turned in our favour in the end, but as an MP I am proud to say that I was frank about this discussion from the outset, even when it was an unpopular opinion to have. I was passionate about being honest in my views and thoughts, and it was this that truly allowed me to represent my constituents.
Following the referendum result, I saw countless headlines describing it as a ‘victory for populism’. It seems every journalist and politician has their own idea of what populism represents. In the sense that it is a respect for democratic values, the power of people to make their own decisions and decide their own futures, then I agree that the Brexit result was a victory for populism. The referendum allowed the people to make one of the most important decisions of this generation. It trusted them to choose the direction their country would go in.
If we believe that populism is a representation of the people’s feelings towards policy and government, then Brexit sent a clear message that must be listened to. British people are frustrated with issues that the EU has kept out of our control. The right to make laws specific to our nation’s needs and values has been denied to the British people.
Furthermore, the referendum sent a clear message that the majority of people believe freedom of movement does not work. Britain needs a new, unique and tailored immigration system that understands the needs of the economy, yet considers the strains on our public services. Labour’s reluctance to fill the Shadow Immigration Minister role is naïve. As happened across the Atlantic, people will support those they believe are taking their opinions seriously. Labour’s denial of people’s genuine fears on immigration is a threat to the legitimacy of our political system.
To conclude, there are many definitions of populism. In this article I have outlined how I see it: an understanding of the need to take public opinion seriously. We must, as Randolph Churchill once said, “trust the people”. Brexit sent a clear and optimistic message that we want to take control of our future and our destiny and this message must be respected.
Andrea Jenkyns MP is Conservative MP for Morley and Outwood. This is an article from Bright Blue’s magazine The End of the Establishment?