Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The limits of populism

For much of the last three decades, leftwing populism has seemed something of a contradiction in terms. Even after Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan departed the political stage, the right retained a powerful hold over much of the traditional discourse of populism: inverting and perverting its narrative of the ‘people versus the powerful’ to target government in general and the welfare state in particular, while suggesting to the middle classes that their economic interests were more closely aligned with the super-rich than the working poor.

Ed Miliband’s promise in his speech to Labour party conference last month of a ‘government that fights for you’, his pledges to freeze energy prices and tell developers to ‘use the land or lose the land’, and his portrayal of the recovering economy as a ‘rising tide [that] just seems to lift the yachts’ represents the latest attempt by the Labour leader to challenge neoliberalism’s domination of this important part of the political terrain.

Over the past three years, we have seen Miliband frequently attack the ‘vested interests’ and juxtapose wealth-creating ‘producers’ with short-termist ‘predators’. In so doing, he echoes the language of late 19th century American populism which, during a similar time of economic dislocation and recession, railed against the corporate ‘parasites’ on behalf of the ‘producers’ of the nation’s wealth.

It would, however, be wrong to view Miliband’s approach as a decisive break with the New Labour and New Democrat approaches which won Tony Blair three election victories and enabled Bill Clinton in 1996 to become the first Democrat since Roosevelt to win re-election. It was Clinton, after all, who ran for the presidency in 1992 attacking the Bush administration as the ‘economic elite of the country’. And it was Blair who opened Labour’s manifesto in 1997 with an attack on ‘an elite at the top increasingly out of touch with the rest of us’ and committed the party to a windfall tax on the privatised utilities – a tax which, at the time, was attacked by the Tories as ‘a tax on jobs, bills and pensions’, deemed legally unworkable by the Confederation of British Industry, and which the utility companies warned would choke off investment and cost thousands of jobs. All of which sounds somewhat familiar.

With John Major advocating a windfall tax on the energy companies and Labour making clear that the energy price freeze is a stop gap measure while its reforms to the energy market are introduced, it is not hard to see why the right’s attempt to portray Miliband’s approach as modern-day Marxism has fallen on deaf ears.  As YouGov’s new poll for Progress shows, freezing energy prices heads the list of measures those ‘squeezed middle’ voters Labour is so relentlessly targeting would like to see a government adopt to help people’s personal finances. Indeed, if anything, many voters would approve of him going further: other polls show that 69 per cent would like to see the energy companies renationalised. Likewise, Labour’s promises to stop above-inflation rail fare rises, cap bus fare rises and prevent the Tories privatising East Coast appear rather tame in the face of polls indicating that nearly three-quarters of voters would like to see the private rail companies brought back into public ownership.

Nonetheless, Labour should be cautious about the popularity of this left populism for four reasons. First, as our YouGov poll indicates there has been a big jump since 2010 in support for Labour among ‘squeezed middle’ voters. However, these very same voters also appear sympathetic to a number of measures – including cutting income tax, council tax and fuel duty – which are far more associated with the Tories than Labour. Left populism will find itself with a powerful foe in the rightwing populism that Tory strategist Lynton Crosby is the master of – a populism which, as we have already seen with the ‘go home’ vans and attempts to divide the populace between ‘strivers and skivers’, will not simply be confined to cutting taxes and duties.

Second, as Labour’s experience in the 1980s and the Tories’ in the 1990s show, voters can agree with a party on a whole raft of policies – including many which they profess to care deeply about – but if they do not trust that party to run the economy, it will pay a heavy price at the ballot box. There is nothing illogical about this sentiment: only when Labour came to be trusted to grow the economy were voters convinced that the country could generate the investment the party was promising to plough into public services.

Third, the correlation between good short-term politics and a credible long-term governing agenda is not always a strong one. As Roger Liddle has pointed out, Harold Wilson’s campaigns in the two general elections of 1974 promised to tackle the cost of living crisis with a string of price controls, rent freezes, and rises in benefits and subsidies which, when implemented, provoked the ‘worst postwar crisis in the public finances Britain experienced prior to the present one’. Wilson’s successful electoral tactic – upsetting a much-predicted victory for Ted Heath in February 1974 – thus had ‘disastrous economic and political consequences’ over the longer term. The travails of François Hollande – now the most unpopular French president since polling began –  represents a more recent parable on the limitations of populism as the basis for governing.

Finally, history suggests populist messages tend to succeed when they are combined with a strong agenda around reforming the state and its institutions. Only when allied in the early 20th century with the progressive movement, which wanted to clean up the corrupt machines which dominated American urban politics, did the populist movement succeed. Under Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, that fusion produced a raft of measures, including antitrust legislation which busted monopolies, the creation of regulatory agencies, and the introduction of income tax, which fundamentally altered the balance of power between citizen, state and market.

More recently, Clinton’s election in 1992 was the result not simply of his attacks on the ‘economic elite’ but also of his promise to ‘reinvent government’, reform welfare, and ensure that fiscal discipline and public investment went hand-in-hand. In 1997, Labour’s populist attacks on the utility companies were combined with the promise that the party would be ‘wise spenders, not big spenders’, would tackle the state’s ‘over-centralisation and lack of accountability’, and ensure that ‘all parts of the public sector live within their means’.

Three years later, a rather different campaign produced a rather different result when Al Gore ran for the presidency as the tribune of ‘the people versus the powerful’, abandoning the New Democrat administration in which he served, and ignoring the reinventing government programme which he had himself led. The election of George W Bush proved a very hard lesson in the limits of left populism.


Robert Philpot is director of Progress


Photo: David Sim

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Robert Philpot

is a contributing editor to Progress magazine and former director of Progress


  • I don’t really understand the perpetual attachment of part of the movement to Clinton. This is a man who executed a mentally handicapped person to prove he was ‘tough’, then set about, with a Republican congress, shredding the last vestiges of The Great Society. He removed the Glass-Steagal controls that led directly to the economic crisis of 2008, and bombed countries to distract people from his abuse of the female staff.

    If ever there was an example of the catastrophic effects of chasing power for its own sake it’s the Clinton presidency.

  • Philpott is theoretically right to note the similarity between New Labour and One Nation Labour, each with their balance between implementing popular measures and seeking to shift the balance of power.

    Whether it is timely for Philpott to note this similarity is a moot point.

    But the main point is that New Labour and One Nation Labour have different environments. New Labour’s environment was defined by the apotheosis of neo-liberal discourse. One Nation Labour’s environment is defined by the decay of that discourse while the successor discourse remains, today, inchoate.

    New Labour failed to foresee – and prepare for – the crash of neo-liberalism (just as the ideologues of neo-liberalism [i.e. most economists] saw no US housing bubble). The result was the destruction of New Labour.

    Can One Nation Labour avoid a similar failure? Yes it can, precisely because neo-liberalism’s successor discourse is inchoate and therefore One Nation Labour HAS to listen to more voices in more places.

    Is the Shadow Cabinet up to this task?

    To which economists is the Shadow Chancellor listening? Manchester economics students no longer want to listen only to their neo-liberal lecturers – they want a revised syllabus:

    To which innovators is the Shadow Business Secretary listening? Just to venture capitalists and fly-by-night start ups? Just to vice-chancellors who treat (or are obliged to treat) their institutions as private businesses? Just to the same economists as the Shadow Chancellor?

    You get the idea.

    The Shadow Cabinet and the party need to ensure we are speaking to people who are engaged in breaking with the dominant neo-liberal discourse. Some of us know we are trying to. Some of us still don’t.

    Just having a vox pop One Nation website does not cut the mustard. Just exposing the crassness of Old Labour won’t help us rebuild post-crash Britain.

  • Middle England wants public services, because instinctively it realises that collective provision is more comprehensive and ought to be cheaper than individual private provisions. (It’s called social insurance)

    Middle England does not know exactly, because the costs of provision are shrouded in secrecy, or obfuscated, or based on dubious methodology.

    What is making things go wrong is that there are top-heavy bureacrats (some of whom are ex-professionals) running public services, scooping the salary and pensions pools. They compare themselves with the bankers and their bonuses and they want to live in nice houses, too.

    Added to which, computerisation reduces the jobs available (think self check-outs in supermarkets and, kindly, re-think what you mean by “lump of work fallacy” – it’s a matter of jobs now, not in some distant utopia when a market has re-adjusted).

    If the top levels of society get too rich, the middle layer is not going to be willing to muck in and help the poor, because why should the middle layer take a disproportionate part of the burden?. If you want to get rid of the “scroungers”, everyone has to pull their weight to get people into meaningful work or to give them the opportunity to be of some use to society (whether it is in paid work or not).

    I have to emphasise that “some use” doesn’t have to be a contribution to GDP. Not everything useful is captured in that primitive form of measurement. And, while Britain still claims to be a civilised country, it is wrong to use poverty as a slow form of euthanasia.

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