Through The Storm

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

@FoxHedgehog

RELATED

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”.


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7 thoughts on “Through The Storm

  1. Corbyn isnt the right man to sell anything (bar jam maybe!) but that doesnt however paper over the cracks of trad ‘Blairite’ centrism.

    There is a complacency re ‘centrism’ which betrays a certitiude that ‘centrists’ are on the ‘right side of history,’ that all that is required is a period of ‘watchfull waiting’ – as if the rise of populism was merely a viral infection to the body politic! – and reason (defined to mean: those who agree with me) will prevail.

    Well, Im afraid to say, history doesnt have a telos but it does have a trajectory and that trajectory is most certainly in the direction of ‘pasokifaction,’ the decline of social democracy throughout the world.

    ‘Watchfull waiting’ would be a disatrous strategy for any party let alone a party representing social democracy in 2016. A radical re-think is required, recent pieces by John Denham and Tristrum Hunt concerning fashioning a ‘progressive patriotism’ are a start but unfortunately they are vague concerning specifics.

    Fashioning a ‘principled populism of the left’ (to purloin Michael Kazin’s phrase) is a more realistic way for a socially democratic party to face the future and fight on both flanks in my view. When I talk about LW populism Im thinking FDR not Hugo Chavez.

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      • I think the interesting thing about the ‘watchfull waiting’ approach you advocate is how much it mirrors Corbynite philosophy, in form, if not in content.

        Instead of meeting the public where they actually are – whether that be on Brexit or otherwise – this approach hopes the public will eventually change their minds, once they see sense! and move towards a revanchist ‘Blairite” centrism.

        Similiarly to Corbyn who hasnt changed any of his positions – aside from the EEC/EU maybe – since 1983.

        Im not a big fan of ‘false consciousness.’ I think it is best that the public define the ‘centre ground’ rather than political activists/commentators doing so.

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        • Thanks Peter,

          I tried to make clear that we needed new public policy positions. But they have to be supported by a reasonable approach to the economy etc.

          If such policies don’t appeal to the public then they won’t get traction. So I’m not saying ignore the public, quite the opposite.

          As I said, most people supported the status quo in the US and I’m confident they will do the same in Germany later this year.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Steve
    Love the blog post but thought I’d chip in a few comments that would struggle via the 140 character medium.
    As you know I agree totally with holding the centre ground, but I seriously question the nostalgic belief of some who still carry a membership card that the party to take forward the centre left agenda to the people will be the current Labour Party. I appreciate that you’ve said in a tweet ‘why should I move’ and the sentiment certainly worked for Tony Benn who had a long time in the wilderness before the party returned to his brand of socialism BUT we have to question what the Labour Party’s core role was and is now.
    You don’t need me to tell you that labour were founded on socialism and class politics. It has drifted latterly into social liberalism (mainly by replacing class politics with identity politics) and social economic democracy. Under the Corbynistas it has economically reverted to its socialist roots and it is hampered in its ability to practise class politics because the ‘working class’ that it originally championed are 1, not the homogenised industrial unionised workforce they once were 2, more likely to identify as patriots (as was always the case and sits uneasily with the ML elite ((I don’t like the term but…)).

    I think Labour are a busted flush not so much because they don’t appeal to the middle ground but because they don’t have a base constituency anymore. The middle ground has moved away. As you say in your article it is not possible and not palatable to chase the rabbits down the hole and this includes the Scottish (SNP) , Welsh (Plaid)and English nationalists (mopped up in the UKIP vote), AND the working class who are still actually ‘working’ who identify more with the Tories’ aspirational ideas.

    So I think Blairites , and I was a supporter of his in the day, need to make a choice and do it quickly.
    Stay with Labour and the dinosaurs and ghosts of Bevan and Benn OR form a progressive , social Democratic Party that can and will eventually ally with the LDs. (And I’m not a LD supporter 🙂
    I know they’re worried about a few years out of power but you and I know that’s inevitable anyway under Corbynistas et al .

    One more point, left wing populism is very much a real thing and develops in parallel to the right wing one. Many countries have seen this historically (Russia and China had their,rather long, spasms last century) and many do now, eg: Venezuela , Thailand, Greece etc. There are differences in scale but it does remind us that if we fail to hold the middle ground then we will be thrown to the extremes.
    I’m not as hopeful as you about Merkel’s chances and I seem to have been a bit of a mystic meg when it comes to the last 2 years of shock results. Should have had an accumulator on !-).

    Rich

    Liked by 1 person

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