Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A Tea party of the left?

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


Photo: Stefano Gabrieli

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Anthony Painter

is author of 'Barack Obama: Movement for Change'


  • The anger with labour is they are not fulfilling their mandate. They campaigned on the ground of opposing cuts and now they are speeding them up. It is an issue of honesty and trust. They knew the situation was bad and they exploited the publics desire for a reduction in cuts to get elected. They are also implicit in the underpaying of hundreds of workers which has left the council with a several hundred million pound deficit. it is partly their fault they need to cut and their lack of honesty over the deficit has led to a crisis of trust. Why be so forgiving? The public are justified to be angry.

  • The anger with labour is they are not fulfilling their mandate. They campaigned on the ground of opposing cuts and now they are speeding them up. It is an issue of honesty and trust. They knew the situation was bad and they exploited the publics desire for a reduction in cuts to get elected. They are also implicit in the underpaying of hundreds of workers which has left the council with a several hundred million pound deficit. it is partly their fault they need to cut and their lack of honesty over the deficit has led to a crisis of trust. Why be so forgiving? The public are justified to be angry.

  • The situation facing an incoming Labour (NOT New Labour) Government is completely different to the one facing Birmingham City Council. For example, a Labour Government could borrow to invest in high-growth infrastructure projects at historically low interest rates. It could cut VAT and increase the minimum wage and uprate benefits and pensions to put money in people’s pockets. This would , generate growth in the economy. Read Paul Krugman and Robert Reich for goodness sake.This is the non neo-liberal alternative that is so desperately needed but which Progress won’t consider as you are stuck in the dark ages of ‘New’ Labour. While you continue to buy into the deficit-cutting austerity policy formulations you have nothing to offer ordinary working and non-working people in Britain.

  • 1. The electoral system is a likely constraint. We might see a Front de Gauche, but its electoral impact is limited without the French Communist base that still exists in parts of France.,_2012 In addition compared to France, the Greens are more detached from Labour and so might fulfil part of that role at least in more inner directed and cosmopolitan areas.

    2. Labour fighting local government does need to be realistic in what it can achieve. As Andy Harvey points out a Labour Government has the flexibility a Labour Council does not. Labour now only has the 2013 elections for the Counties and just the 2014 elections for the Metropolitan and London elections and Labour Groups and local parties should be focusing the political debate on the 2015 elections as the referendum on how ‘far and fast’ the cuts go and see the local elections as stepping stones towards that. Clearly there might be a specific library or swimming pool that becomes a local ’cause celebre’ that the party could make a commitment to, but it might not want to make loads of commitments it cannot keep and demoralise activists and voters before the real fight in 2015

  • So, fundamentally, you’re proferring the rather wan and tired ‘dented shield’ policy of Labour in the 1980s – that we will defend an amount of the community or services we deem worthy of preserving and throw the rest to the dogs. You don’t need to be a Trot – and I hasten to add that I am not – to want to query the unquestioning acceptance by the Progressistas of the Conservative Party analysis of the economy and the solutions they’ve formulated to address it. Quelle surprise that UNISON and other unions are resisting yet another pay freeze – are they supposed to endure still more privations in the name of Labour Party solidarity – whilst others – particularly senior management and the political class – grow fat and don’t have to endure the cuts they so willingly espouse. We need a completely different offer and a different analysis to make any sort of headway with the vast numbers of disconnected, apolitical individuals I meet week to week on the doorstep whilst canvassing who see no point in voting Labour if all they will do is the same as the Conservatives.

  • In Northampton a number of former activists including the ex MP Tony Clarke have separated from the Labour Party for various reasons including being excluded and have tried to form a separate political grouping.

    There success has been limited to getting Tony on to the borough and county councils though he has since lost his borough seat.

    In the General Election he performed poorly against a dismal campaign by Labour.

    It would seem that a ‘Tea Party’ of the left would not thrive very well except in limited circumstances.

    Clearly any challenge will have to come from within the party to confront the leadership about what they are proposing and delivering in local authorities and how things would be in an incoming national government.

    This is the time to get positive changes done to the way we do things so we do not have the situation that existed in the Blair years where party policy could be disregarded by the government.

  • I would not bank on historically low interest rates still being there by the time of an incoming Labour government. At present the national debt is still rising because there is still a revenue deficit, and there is still a revenue deficit not because there hasn’t been any cutting of public spending but because it was the collapse of tax receipts at the middle/end of the last decade that suddenly created the revenue deficit not “maxing out te credit card” as alleged. Interest rates will rise when other nations – and businesses – start borrowing again, competing for funds, and the sluggish British economy will not impress potential lenders. Osborne has failed and should go. Major infrastructure projects are indeed needed but they don’t fix a failing economy fast enough. We need demand in the economy now, for British products, and probably the best way to achieve that is injecting funds into the purses of the poor rather than the wallets of the wealthy. The propensity to spend rather than save (or pay off debt) is stronger with the poor, and they are more likely to spend on basics like food and local travel, which involve little use of currency reserves, than the rich who might buy imported consumer goods.

  • Comment by Anthony Sperryn, 8/3/2013

    Andy Harvey is thinking along the right lines. Jobs are the key to it and the State, with the local authorities, needs to become the employer of last resort. This requires the public finances to be organised on a holistic basis, rather than on the present blinkered basis used by HM Treasury. Consequential adjustments will be needed to benefits and means-testing, but people should be better off.

    The mess we’re in results from politicians of many hues believing that free markets can solve all the problems. The politicians have shown an apparent blind unawareness that markets can be rigged, and that most of them are. I say “apparent”, because many of the politicians, on retirement from office, have benefited from jobs in the private sector or quangos.

    Britain has often had an “Us and Them” culture. A huge opportunity for changing this was lost with privatisation of the utilities, many of which are monopolies for which the notion of “competition” is a sham (regulators notwithstanding). The trend continues with the current privatisation of the NHS and the marketisation that has occurred within it.

    To get to a “One Nation” Britain, we need to re-examine the notions of control and ownership of British assets. These have, to a large extent, been given away to foreigners – but they can be reclaimed. Middle England has great fear of the unions and the disruption caused by strikes, work to rule and so on. In part, it may be a class thing, but an intelligent New Labour would have restructured the utilities and business so that ownership was pushed down significantly to employee and consumer level and WOULD HAVE MADE SURE THAT IT STAYED THERE. Likewise control, but that must not end up in the hands of little cliques of insiders.

    Were all those entities to become close to being mutuals, there would be little fear of disruption to the public, because they would have moved away from the “Us and Them” culture. All of this does not need massive disruption to corporate structures, but just careful use of corporate law to make some changes and, above all, political will.

    Britain will, of course, need a greater degree of self-sufficiency – starting with food and moving on towards finance. It is absurd that it has got itself into the position of requiring foreign finance for its own investment plans (not that there are any at the moment), let alone to pay for its imports.

  • “Tea Party” ?. Hmmm… the one in Boston was a bit demeaning for us Brits, and the another one we have daily, at “Tea Time” in UK uses |Teas| imported from Sri Lanka/China.Both overseas imports.

    Any British “Tea Party” should, as far as is possible, use some home-grown Tea leaves.(No rhyming Cockneys here please)

    This ‘argument’ is getting a little too ‘Hi-brow’ for moi, just lets get the job done without shooting to many toes off our own feet in the process. Ed’ & Co are IN in 2015 ! Get the Boots polished.

    Ed’ is doing a very good job — get prepared for Govt, Ed, choose your team very wisely, you will have them for [at least] 5 years. And wake up and buy some coffee — Tea is now passe.

  • Points have already been well made on the need for a fiscal stimulus that goes beyond infrastructure and increases demand in the UK economy. The article is disappointing in not going beneath the surface in examining what the Tea Party was and is. This is particularly important in terms of the funding of the Tea Party by reactionary corporate sources in the US and the tight control that those corporate interests then exercised over what was acceptable in policy and arguments in the Tea Party and what was not.
    Politics is an expensive business and there is no evidence in this article or elsewhere that there is any comparable funder waiting to take on the mantle of resourcing any such movement on the left. For the moment, much responsibility for devising progressive economic policies rests in conventional channels. Yes, there are stronger new extra Parliamentary voices in networks like UK Uncut, who offer a significant critique of our deeply unequal society. However uncomfortable, there is a dialogue to be attempted with those voices. This requires abstaining from automatically closing down seemingly radical solutions at this stage simply because you don’t like the source.
    If we’re going to focus on populism, it would be much better to consider the threat posed by various far right wing parties and movements in the midst of austerity Europe (i.e. the Europe that includes the UK). I read the discussion papers on this that Policy Network and Cadbury Barrow Trust have commissioned for their Conference later this month and I’d recommend others to read them too. They raise hard issues which are worth considering and debating throughout the democratic left and beyond.

  • An interesting and provocative article.Neither ‘tea party’ nor ‘populist’ may be entirely appropriate terms when it comes to the left but subject to that:… a Left Tea Party (LTP) may feature: scepticism about the capacity of the State as a vehicle for sustainable change, instead more attention to localism and voluntarism, serious engagement with the co-operative movement as a source of strategic insight plus a cautious empathy with traditional culture, patriotism, family and faith. So our LTP could be ‘Blue Labour.’ Through its links with the citizen organising movement, Blue Labour has also brought an approach that places more emphasis on relationship, and less on formal programme-based offers, than traditional democratic politics..See ‘Tangled up in Blue’ by Rowena Davis for more on these links. For a council which is make a success of a genuinely community-focused approach, with effective use of organising, while not shy of a hard-edged readiness to reduce cost, try Telford. Labour’s key promise when it took power in 2011 was to close an expensive town hall, sell the site and move – an emblem of corporate humility and financial realism that has carried the Telford party forward.

  • A “Tea Party” (a daft label”) off-shoot of the left would be far prefereble to the right-wing gang led by Blair – happily pandering to the banks and big business.

  • Funny that is was New Labour who introduced the minimum wage, created tax credits, invested to get Britain out of recession and took millions out of poverty. Instead of trolling Progress and attacking fiscal credibility, start helping the party win in 2015.

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