5th January 2017
-By Steven Duckworth-
Through The Storm
Over the Christmas period I had the pleasure of reading an interesting blog post by Peter Hurst.
In the post Peter takes his readers through the current political landscape and how the rise of populists politicians and movements is shaping it. He has a particular interest in how a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party might harness populists sentiment. I want to suggest here why I think this isn’t a moment for a left-wing populist movement in the UK and even if there were some ground for the left to build in this regard, Jeremy Corbyn is not the man to lead the project.
Peter begins his piece with a quote from the philosopher Julian Baggini who has suggested that populism is not defined by left and right. Up to a point Baggini is right. If you listened to the sentiments expressed by supporters of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the recent US presidential election, you would have found many overlaps and similarities – challenging elites and the negative effects of globalisation being two obvious points of convergence.
Where I take issue with this analysis is that it fails to recognise that there are different hues of populism and these movements tend to wrap themselves around existing political ideologies, most obviously nationalism and socialism. So while the rhetoric is similar, the politics still fall out into right and left wing variants.
One major obstacle to the development of left wing populism is its narrowness. Yes, the left can legitimately make a case about the effects of globalisation on jobs and wages and it can make a case that it opposes the political and business elites, but so can right wing populists.
What characterises the current mood is a nativism that can spill over into xenophobia and racism, social conservatism and isolationism. These are not sentiments that the left can exploit and neither should it want to.
Even on the populist issues that the left can get some traction on, Jeremy Corbyn is singularly ill-equipped to exploit them. Populist leaders bask in the limelight, while the Labour leader skulks away from news cameras and disappears from the public’s gaze for days on end. Populists come across as spontaneous and authentic; Corbyn’s Virgin train stunt was the antithesis of both. Finally, while populists don’t need to be overwhelmingly popular, they do need to have some support. In the latest You Gov poll, Jeremy Corbyn has a net approval rating of minus 43%.
In his piece Peter highlights the problems that populism poses for the centre left. He is right to suggest that centrists are in a perilous position. Centrists value pragmatism and incremental improvements over big narratives and grand gestures; in the populist zeitgeist this is, with some justification, seen as trying to preserve the status quo. But that is the only place Labour can realistically position itself. It can’t outgun the right through a narrow expression of populist sentiment, so it must stay with its view (until recently held) that freedoms are important, whether trade, movement or societal. But it must also commit itself fully to security, whether it be in terms of defence or the economy. There is absolutely no doubt that some communities feel left behind in the complex and constantly changing world and Labour must have some plan to address their concerns. It isn’t enough to just redistribute money to support these areas, though it would help. It is essential that Labour recognises that the cultural impacts of globalisation have been significant on certain communities and starts to address some of these concerns. Labour has a solid history of communitarian politics. It must rediscover them now. It must also trust some of our liberal institutions, such as the separation of powers and the sovereignty of parliament and rather than trash them must realise that they are an effective bulwark against this current populist spasm. Because despite all the predictions and analysis, spasm it is. More people voted for Clinton than Trump, the Brexit vote was narrow and the centre will almost certainly see off the populist right in France and Germany this year.
This is more than a keep calm and carry on strategy. Left leaning centrists particularly need to start to rethink their offer to voters on issues such as the changing economy, developing technologies, health and education to name but a few. Nothing will happen overnight and Labour centrists need to recognise that Jeremy Corbyn is a symptom of the crisis facing British social democracy, not the cause. Moderate Labour supporters need to hold their nerve because one thing is clear – chasing the right down the rabbit hole of populism will not win votes for Labour but it will leave it severely hamstrung once the current storm has passed.
By Steven Duckworth
By Stephen Bush on Labour’s populist turn:“Before the financial crisis, Labour’s ability to appeal to compassion, justice, wealth and security overcame its inability to address anger. Now, Labour is only able to appeal to two of voters’ appetites: for compassion and for justice”.