Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Radicals against populism

Populist narratives of good versus evil, national decline and secret control by elites could lead the left down some dangerous paths, writes Chris Clarke

What does a non-populist left-winger look like? Does such a thing exist?

This question was invited by the ‘How populist are you?’ quiz – published in the Guardian late last year. The test places you on a chart with two axes, the first running from populist to non-populist, the second from left to right. Various political figures have been located onto it, to help you get your bearings. And what is conspicuous is the stretch of empty space in the ‘non-populist left’ corner.

Few contemporary politicians or national leaders sit here, according to the chart – at least, not if we are obeying the current vogue terminology. Even Barack Obama is a ‘centrist’ these days.

The issue this needles away at – the question of what socialism looks like without populist narratives – is important to consider. It cuts to the quick of the crisis that has consumed Labour since summer 2015, and which now moves into its fourth year. It explains the battles that rumble on as a result, fuelled by mischaracterisation and misunderstanding.

Labour’s civil war has been framed by the populist left on the basis that those of us who cannot sign up to the full agenda of the current Labour leadership believe less in fairness or equality. That we are ‘the Labour right’. That we are closer to the Tories. That we are closer to fascism, even.

But the real problem with this brand of politics – and with its equivalents in Europe or the United States – is that has nothing to do with positions on the left-right spectrum. Economically, you could not put a piece of paper between pre- and post-2015 Labour members when it comes to ideals. The same goes for Clinton and Sanders supporters. If being left-wing means believing in social justice, then the supposed ‘far left’ are no ‘further left’ than I am.

The real problem is populism. It clouds political leaders’ judgement and can take once reasonable political parties down a dishonest and extremist course. Populism renders all bets off, whatever political colour it appears in.

The populist triangle

There are three Trumpian narratives that form the sides of the left populist triangle.

The first is to do with politics and morality. Left populism sees the political spectrum as a moral spectrum: every disagreement between individuals, policies, movements, institutions or even nations shakes down to a clash of good and evil – a left-wing white knight against a right-wing dark knight.

The second narrative concerns power and society. The populist analysis is that problems are designed by ‘elites’, who crush or silence ‘the people’ for personal gain – via the ‘mainstream media’ or the ‘deep state’. Democratic governments do not mediate poorly or prioritise wrongly, according to this ‘puppet master’ analysis. They oppress wilfully.

The third narrative relates to decline and change. This says that society is becoming more right-wing in every way; that socialist arcadias have been destroyed by ‘neoliberalism’. The prescription is that a year-zero approach is needed, to resuscitate the golden era from which we have departed, and halt the globalised world once and for all.

Taken together, these populist myths – the dark knight, the puppet master and the golden era – have the potential to take Labour down reactionary and self-defeating cul-de-sacs. Because they are based on falsehoods, they fuel a type of politics which is extreme instead of radical.

Indeed, the Corbyn project’s biggest controversies have come when these myths converge. Antisemitism stems from dark knight attitudes to the Middle East and a puppet master attraction to conspiracy theories. Corbyn’s Lexiteer instincts (which mean we inadvertently have the most reactionary Labour immigration policy in a generation) fuse a puppet master suspicion of ‘corporate elites’ with a golden era fondness for socialism-in-one-country.

Radicals against populism

Whether or not you believe in the three myths has no bearing on how progressive you are. I was perfectly able, in the aforementioned Guardian quiz, to strongly support socialism, redistribution, green policies and minority rights, while disagreeing with the idea that political opponents are less moral or that shadowy elites control us.

I would readily vote for radical egalitarian policies. But would struggle to support a leadership that demonises opponents, or for one that refuses, because of a supposed media conspiracy, to engage with legitimate questions.

In 2019, those of us on the left who remain sceptical of populism must make this case. We must not fall into the trap of using the dark knight, the puppet master and the golden era for our own ends, and must actively contest them whenever they arise. We must reject labels which imply we are less committed to fairness or equality, and must focus on the real guts of the difference, which exists at the level of narrative and analysis.

We are not ‘centrists’ opposing radicalism, but radicals opposing populism.


Chris Clarke is author of Warring Fictions – you can buy the e-book here. He tweets @WarringFictions


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Chris Clarke

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