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
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