Populism is hardly new. It was, for example, the rarely acknowledged fourth ingredient of Thatcherism, mediating the tensions between its other elements – nationalism, market economics and social conservatism.
But over the past decade, a potent new populism has become a force in Western politics. It has been especially noticeable since the referendums on Scottish independence and Brexit and has seen the rise of political ‘outsiders’ such as Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn.
The common characteristics of the recent resurgence are easily recognised. Understanding how to challenge it is more complicated.
At the centre of the new populism lie the raging ‘culture wars’ between and within political parties, accompanied by a growing authoritarianism. Fake news and obsessive crank conspiracy theories are manufactured about supposed self-interested controlling elites. The furore around ‘15-minute cities’ is one of the latest examples. There is too a rejection of science in areas such as climate change, vaccines and human biology. Experts generally and the ‘mainstream’ independent news media are objects of hostility. ‘Defund the BBC’ is an ongoing campaign.
This breed of identity politics is about inflaming and prolonging divisions rather than bringing people together to solve problems: in essence it means disrupting rather than governing – whatever the cost. Fears and insecurities are exploited and targeted groups are scapegoated. Populists often rewrite history, hankering after ‘golden age’ myths from centuries past. They are usually isolationists – always better apart than together.
Populism creates a climate where antisemitism, misogyny and other prejudices thrive and the threat of political violence festers. The disturbing echoes of the 1930s are obvious. What has helped this toxic culture to spread? Building on 30 years of 24-hour rolling news, over the past decade social media has amplified the ‘trolling’ influence of populists and helped them to network. Dubious ‘news’ sources, some purely online, reinforce prejudices, radicalise and feed polarisation.
Mainstream progressives find ourselves in a culture war against two main sources of this populism – the hard right and the hard left – united in a ‘horseshoe’ alliance against us. Brexit’s ally was ‘Lexit’. Both extremes have their own political correctness and cancel culture, launching ritual ‘pile-ons’ against heretics.
Tories resisting ‘bring back Boris’ and ‘national conservatism’ have recently been on the receiving end. In Labour’s case, it was directed against those who were unconvinced that the cult of Corbyn had solutions for beating austerity.
Fundamentalist cults infiltrate mainstream parties whose values they do not share to drive out non-believers. They seek power, but avoid real responsibility. Rules do not apply to them.
Often presenting themselves as persecuted, voiceless outsiders, once populists assume any position of power, one-way loyalty is demanded – without debate or dissent. We must just ‘respect the mandate’.
Until their revolution arrives, the populist left agitate from the fringes, trying to drag Labour there with them, with empty gestures, platitudes and sanctimonious slogans. Their most significant accomplishment is making it more difficult to keep right-wing populists from power. It is not radical or even progressive for Labour to wallow indulgently in this comfort zone culture of impotence, irrelevance and futile protest.
At best, this populism leads to chaos, recrimination about betrayals and infighting. At worst, corruption proliferates and the pillars upon which our hard-won freedoms stand – democracy, the rule of law and equality before that law – are undermined.
Naturally, these fundamentalists never accept that they have failed because, so they claim, their ideas have never been tried; or they were thwarted by treacherous conspiracy. Defeat is always denied.
Liz Truss recently held the ‘left-wing economic establishment’ and the ‘Whitehall blob’ responsible for her crash. Meanwhile, in 2019, parliamentary Labour party ‘centrists’ and others were blamed for Labour’s worst general election rout since 1935. Any suggestion that, as an overall package, Labour offered a less popular populism than Boris Johnson is dismissed to this day. Apparently, “we won the argument”.
Confronting this toxicity requires more than PR skills. A deeper, broader political response is essential. The starting point for mainstream Labour is to assert who we are and what we believe in. Our party was formed at the beginning of the 20th century to seek majority Labour governments through the extended franchise and parliamentary democracy that our movement’s pioneers fought to establish. The aim was to secure social and economic reforms for the many, unachievable through trade union activism alone – nor by voting Liberal.
We need to talk not only about the Attlee government creating the NHS, but also about Labour’s role in setting up NATO and playing a key part in the cause of freedom before 1945. We should be proud of many aspects of our past, learning from it without living in it.
Labour today is a modernising, progressive and patriotic social democratic party, working to establish our timeless values as the centre ground. At our best, Labour is the party of the active enabling state, of equality through levelling up, of meeting both need and aspiration – and not one at the expense of the other. This means, for example, having equal enthusiasm for expanding home ownership and building new council homes.
As we approach the election, Labour must build confidence that we can deliver our pledges – for example, that local families on council waiting lists will be prioritised for the promised new-build homes.
In government, combating the different varieties of populism will be even more challenging. It will require competence, honesty and transparency about the tough choices we face and clarity about how long progress will take – whether that be training doctors or renovating schools.
Rights and responsibilities must apply throughout society. Labour should exhibit more consistency in our values in areas such as human rights than populists ever could, striving to advance equalities together and not one at the expense of another. Labour must be clear on the limits of the free market and the state. Whether it is banking, consumer protection or migration, markets require regulation.
Fighting populism means a huge reality check. A successful Labour government will not build Utopia, even in 15 years. We will inherit disharmony, dysfunction and decline. The Tories will leave behind a food bank-dependent Britain of debt, squandered potential and broken promises. Generational progress has stalled and life expectancy for the least privileged has worsened since 2010.
Labour will need clear priorities for what needs changing first, both because of the parliamentary time it will take and the taxpayers’ money it will require. After the experience with hunting reform in the early noughties, while not downplaying the need for constitutional modernisation, do we really want a first-term Labour government to get bogged down in issues such as Lords reform or the quest for the perfect electoral system? Not when that government will be judged on getting the basics of normal life working again.
Obtaining an appointment to see a GP or an NHS dentist, reliable train and bus services, affordable utility bills, action against anti-social behaviour, cleaner rivers – these are the sort of everyday life issues on which Labour will be judged. Our reforming fervour must focus on them.
We must confront the harsh economic reality that plans to make the wealthiest pay their fair share will only be enough to kickstart Labour’s first-term investment in the NHS, education and green energy. Going further and turning round the fall in living standards will require a growing, more productive economy with stable low inflation.
This in turn requires every region to contribute more to boosting growth. Transformative Canary Wharf-scale public and private investment must proceed in places like the Humber estuary, whatever happens on regional devolution.
After decades of emphasis on globalisation, we need a focus on national self-sufficiency and resilience in important areas like food, steel, energy and defence. Yet at the same time, trading relationships with the EU must be repaired.
Labour will inherit a stagnant economy of ‘maxed-out’ borrowing, where tax revenues fall short of what is needed to provide a modern welfare state, strong public services and renewed infrastructure. Working families already have the highest overall tax burden since the 1940s. How fairly tax revenue is raised and how effectively it is spent are more relevant to the cause of social justice than the size of the state and public spending.
Investing early to save later, achieving economies of scale and cutting waste will all be key as we relentlessly focus our spending on taking forward Labour’s priorities. To adapt famous words from the Clinton era, to defeat populism it’s not just the economy, stupid. It’s the results too.