Rightwing populism has been on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic. Where is its leftwing counterpart, asks Anthony Painter
BIRMINGHAM city council faces monumental cuts and, following last year’s local elections, is now led by a Labour administration. Through absolutely no fault of its own – the numbers are terrifying – Labour now finds itself on the receiving end of some public anger. The centre-left blog, Left Foot Forward, recently reported on a public meeting addressed by the leader of the council, Albert Bore. One member of the audience complained: ‘You were not voted in to do this. We voted for a Labour council, not a Tory one.’
Absolutely no blame can be attached to Bore and his team as they endeavour to get to grips with the ‘jaws of death’ – budget pressures increasing as revenues fall. In fact, they deserve a huge amount of credit for taking this horrendous challenge head on. The purpose of raising this situation in Birmingham is not comradely support, however. It is rather to illustrate what a future Labour government may face as it takes on the challenge of deficit reduction on a national scale. An anti-coalition austerity mood could easily turn on a newly elected Labour government with frightening velocity.
The major strategic decision for Ed Miliband in the run-up to 2015 is the calibration between idealism and pragmatism. It is this more than anything else that will determine his ability, not only to win office, but to govern effectively while keeping his party and coalition of support together.
One of the more notable developments in UK, west European and US politics in the last quarter of a century has been the establishment of rightwing populism as a permanent feature of the political landscape. Populist parties are pro-democracy but sceptical about liberal democracy with its institutional complexities – hence the suspicion and antipathy towards the European Union. They consider that ‘the people’ and the ‘general will’ have been betrayed by the ‘corrupt elites’ of mainstream democracy.
In Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary and the Netherlands these parties have found themselves either in office or in cooperative arrangements with the governments of their country. The Tea party in the United States has parasitically attached itself to the Republicans. In the UK, the United Kingdom Independence party has begun to add even more discontented Conservatives to its previous base of support. This is the most successful new ‘party family’ – outperforming both nationalist parties, with which there is an overlap, and the Greens, with whom they share little common ground.
The success of the populist radical right, as it is collectively known in academic circles, predated the economic crisis, which does not seem to have had a clear impact upon it. The mystery, though, is why we have not witnessed the rise of a populist radical left – a Tea party left – as a mirror-image, equal and opposite force. Perhaps Syriza in Greece, UK Uncut and Occupy, the J14 movement in Israel and 15-M in Spain are the nearest examples but the impact of these – with the possible exception of J14 – has been pretty negligible. With youth unemployment soaring in many places, austerity in overdrive, economic growth absent, welfare states being cut back and taxes increasing, a Tea party left may well be a mysteriously missing political force. It should be said that populism is not necessarily a negative force and, indeed, can mean that the popular will is expressed when ignored by the political establishment. It becomes negative when it fails to recognise real constraints, alienates minorities, or undermines trust in the system as a whole, debilitating it in the process.
It is worth looking at the UK case in some focus to analyse the likelihood of British left populism. If it emerged, a Tea party left could have significant consequences for a Miliband-led Labour government. There are three main models that present themselves when looking at the interaction of idealism in its populist form and pragmatism as an expression of the political mainstream: Labour between 1945-51 and 1974-79, and the New Labour years.
Labour governed in a period of postwar austerity from 1945-51. This might at first glance serve as a model for Labour in office in 2015. Kenneth O Morgan’s history, Labour in Power, points to the importance of Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary and former trade union leader, in maintaining unity despite tough choices: ‘With Bevin present at the summit, the loyal support of the trade union movement … even when having to accept such stern medicine as a wage freeze, devaluation of the pound, or modified direction of labour was assured.’
So unifying figures are important in preventing the fissure of the labour movement between its pragmatic aspirations and populist idealism. However, the parallels end there. Under Clement Attlee, Labour was also able to massively increase social expenditure as the increase in size of the state which had occurred during the war was not completely reversed to prewar levels.The chances of Labour being able to adopt a similar approach in 2015 are very constrained.
New Labour in office has similar limitations as a model in considering populism and pragmatism. Contrary to recent mythology, there was a pragmatic and constructive relationship between the government and the wider movement in the main – including the trade unions. However, holding together a movement is easier in the good times with increased social investment and expenditure oiling the wheels. The second half of this decade will not be like Labour’s first decade in office after 1997 or even that which occurred in the three years to 2010 as stimulus spending delayed the inevitable. The fear, therefore, has to be that Labour will face a repetition of the 1974-79 government where post-IMF loan austerity and wage control sundered the party’s left and right flanks.
The mistake that many on the right of the party are making is to view the threat through the lens of the rise of the Militant Tendency. Actually, it is very different to that: the greater risk is of a left idealistic populism refusing to accept the pragmatism of office. This is not just about trade unions but a possible wider ‘no cuts, no austerity’ movement. While the temptation will be for Labour to milk this type of support before 2015, it will backfire. Last year, Ed Balls made some movement towards acknowledging the pragmatic challenge when he committed to freezing public pay increases overall. It was met with ferocious opposition – a possible warning shot.
As a mainstream party of power, Labour’s relationship with the broader left is usually awkward and fraught. When these tensions are internalised though strong party management and a pragmatic mindset then the relationship is a healthy one. Were they to spill over into a pragmatic mainstream versus populist ‘general will’ battle – as happened in the late 1970s – then it becomes a political disaster. So Miliband is faced with the challenge of not only winning the next election but setting himself up to succeed once in office. Whether Labour is in coalition or secures a majority, managing these tensions will be mission-critical.
In Birmingham, Labour has so far risen to the challenge. Both the party and unions are campaigning together for a fairer deal for the city. The administration is honest and transparent about the magnitude and complexity of the challenge. ‘You’re just the Tories in disguise’- style rhetoric is relatively contained. Nonetheless, the potential for the emergence of a Tea party left must still be understood. For Miliband, winning the next election is only the beginning.
Anthony Painter is a Progress contributing editor. He leads the ‘Populism, extremism and the mainstream’ project at Policy Network
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