Populism by Permission

Populism:  Britain (UKIP, Brexiteers), the USA (Trump, Bannon), Italy, (Salvini), Hungary, (Orban), Israel (Netanyahu), Sweden (Akesson)….and the list goes on. Sometimes in government (Britain, USA, Italy), other times just menacing – the rise of extreme right-wing parties causes growing alarm. Sweden has been the most recent showing with Sweden Democratspolling well enough in the recent general election to hold some sway in the formation of the next government administration.

Less well publicised has been the relatively strong showing of the far Left party in Sweden – the Left Party (Vänsterpartiet) and an often stronger resurgence of centre-left parties in Spain, Portugal, the UK and elsewhere. Though sometimes feared more than the extreme Right, the Left is rarely thought be capable of winning enough hearts and minds to constitute a serious threat in European politics. Electorates routinely vote Right Wing, even against their own interests.

In Britain, on the other hand, we have Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader and quite possibly the next Prime Minister, and he is portrayed widely as a ‘Hard Left’ politician. That, however, is a mischaracterisation – sure, he is anti-the status quo (anti-austerity, anti-privatisation, pro-wealth redistribution) but his policies and preferences place him in what, in the post-WW2 period up to the 1980s, we would have thought of as conventional, democratic socialist. The shift to the Right of domestic and international politics has left him somewhat stranded. As I have argued in other Blogs, what the press and the media tend to call a ‘polarisation’ of politics can better be interpreted as electorates engaging sufficiently strongly to see with greater clarity what the options are. It increasingly boils down to pro-wealthy or pro-poor. This is a healthier state of affairs than having all parties milling around an ill-defined ‘centre-ground’ looking for elusive and often illusory consensus while the power elites carry forward their concerted and often extremist plans. Not a conspiracy theory…just an emergent and compelling logic feeding into action.

Populism is mostly talked of as ‘the rise’ of the extreme Right Wing. This, however, is merely the ‘symptom’ and not the ‘disease’. The pathology is most often – perhaps too lazily – thought of as a disaffection from politics and economics by people who have suffered from the rapid concentration of social wealth in the hands of a few. Trumpism in the USA is a classic case, as is the Brexit vote in the UK.

This is partly, but not entirely satisfactory, however. People feeling that they are victims of inequitable wealth distribution ought, rationally, to vote for those who promise a fairer distribution – certainly not the Far Right. The fall-back explanation is that voters respond to proxy issues – notably, immigration – either looking for scapegoats for their suffering, or for supposed relief from unfair competition for work. This, too, falls short of a satisfactory explanation, though there is little doubt that ethnic tensions seem, historically, to correlate with economic decline, and cities like my own, Bristol, are sharply ghettoised along ethnic lines. Still, that does not explain the other side of the picture, the strength and success of cultural integration and diversity in societies like ours – look at fashion, food, architecture, travel, music – skewed, admittedly, to the middle classes. But look, too, at the Labour Party in Britain with a membership approaching the levels last seen in the post WW2 period, and reputedly the largest current party membership in Europe.

Look in more fine-grained detail and we can see other factors at play that offer further explanations – in particular, the collapse of discipline in political parties. In the USA, it was the Tea Party movement that eliminated the Republican Party establishment that might, otherwise, have moderated the commitment to and the legitimacy of Trump. In the UK, the weak standing of both major party leaders – May and Corbyn – has left something of a vacuum of power at the centre which gives permission to Brexiteers (Conservatives) and the ani-Corbynites (Labour) free rein to publicise and even celebrate divisions. Under conventional politics, party whips would ensure enough discipline to suppress the Conservatives’ open argument which flails this way and that over Brexit; and the anti-Semitism arguments in Labour. In both cases the lack of party discipline has allowed – encouraged, perhaps – the free-run of hyperbole, exaggeration and dissimulation. We may feel uncomfortable with the convention of parliamentary ‘whipping’ for imposing consensus and discipline, but one thing it ensures is a level of mutual respect and of rational argument. In previous Blogs I have written against the Lord of the Fliestrope that kids default to chaos and anarchy and need external discipline (Summerhill School is a powerful counterfactual to that), but it is compelling to see this trope at play in Parliament. Where young people in school actually seem to default to self-discipline, political people seem to do the converse and default to irrational behaviour: Boris Johnson, Margaret Hodge, Chuka Umuna and others exhibit a behaviour which is driven by personal, immediate and short-term interests, but which works against their best long-term interests. Boris may succeed in becoming Prime Minister, but the cost to the Conservative party will be incalculable; Margaret Hodge and Chuka Umuna may succeed in de-seating Corbyn, but at the possible cost of the electoral collapse of Labour and the continuation of the extreme Right-Wing policies of austerity.

The picture is complicated. One element of what we label ‘populism’ is a shift of power from political centre to political periphery – from the parliamentary labour Party to the burgeoning party membership base; from the Conservative party to the ill-defined suburban, lower-middle-class voter.

The point about the collapse of the political centre is that this has always been an element of check-and-balance in government. Britain and the USA – perhaps most European countries, too – have had self-stabilising political economies, resistant to the pull of extremism in either direction. Even Thatcher and Reagan had to moderate their Right-wing extremism – reduction of the State, emphasis on militarism, transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. They were able to harness Right-Wing sentiment and tie it to a mainstream pragmatism. First David Cameron, and now Theresa May simply lost control through weakness and fear of being toppled, and the ultra-extremist politics and racism of the so-called ‘Brexiteers’ has free rein, along with an inflated rhetoric. Views and policies are legitimated that would otherwise be looked upon with alarm (‘bedroom tax’, withdrawal of disability benefits, shift of wealth from metropolitan authorities to the shire counties).

Corbyn, on the other hand, has a secure position and the considerable power base of his membership, but here, too, his personal weakness has allowed party indiscipline to spill into extremist positions – such as the coerced adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism (the definition is currently being championed by the Trump administration to close down critique of Israel on university campuses). It is hard, if not impossible, to think of an organisation in which such excoriating and overblown accusations can be made of the leadership as we have seen from Margaret Hodge, Luciana Berger, Tom Watson and others. A stronger, more seasoned political leader than May or Corbyn would have confronted their intemperate critics and, doing so, would have stolen away some of the ‘oxygen’ of publicity for extremist views. Strong leadership need not imply authoritarianism. It is, however, a sine qua nonfor maintaining important checks and balances. May and Corbyn need their ‘clause four’ moment, but so do we all.




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