In recent years, there have been two empty words that have plagued British journalism across the political spectrum, and I believe they will both attain their full meaning within years to come. With the partial conclusion of the coronavirus (well, the first part anyway) in sight, some political commentators have speculated that there will be a political upheaval, similar to 2011’s Occupy movement. With this possibility in mind, populism may still come to its fulfil its true meaning in the UK.
Recently, populism has become a bit of an empty term. Used by both the right and left to signify demagoguery, catchphrases, and empty promises; the actual word from political science has been lost. Populism is a rhetorical device used by political campaigners to pitch the ‘populous’, or the people, against a smaller group that is to blame for all of society’s problems, often claiming that they are holding back the majority. With the Nazis, it was the Jews; for Donald Trump it is the liberal elite, and for Boris Johnson it was anyone that stood in the way of a Brexit deal, or the “doubters, doomsters and gloomers” as he referred to them in his first speech outside number 10 Downing St. As previously mentioned, it can also be used on the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s slogan ‘for the many and not the few’ is essentially populism in a sentence.
Many have speculated about the end of the populist era in politics with the defeat of Donald Trump, and a return to ‘serious politics’ now that we have important issues like a failing economy, the Brexit fall out and Covid-19 to deal with. Whilst some of the faux middle class may want this return, sensible politics won’t bring about the change that delivered populism. With populism you need people to be engaged in politics, and people are more engaged in politics when they want change. People want change if the system is broken, and Covid-19 has shattered our system to bits, yet on the flip side it has also proven that governments can make a difference if they choose to.
Not to say that populism is the answer, but it could play a part in it. Used sparingly, the populist strategy can catapult politicians into power or sway a decision, like Brexit. Yet like anything that gives you a quick buzz, it should be used sparingly. As Zizek has pointed out, Donald Trump’s problem was that he never stopped being a populist even when he got into office. Like him, unless you have a plan for when you get into power, and carry out what you promised to do, then you will fall victim to the populous just as he has.
All as bad as one an other
The situation arising in the UK in a post-covid world will be ripe for populists. Trust in Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party is on borrowed time. We know the Tories will throw him overboard at the sniff of losing power, but what would their project be in the future? As for Labour, Keir Starmer seems to be chasing votes in all different directions whilst simultaneously alienating Labour’s voters from the last two elections. His triangulation on issues, such as the opening of schools in a pandemic, and his overreliance on focus groups, both signal a return to the sloppy PR type politics of the Blair years. Trying to please everyone never works. His reluctance to stand apart from the Conservatives on the Brexit vote (despite being Mr Remain during Corbyn’s time as leader) and his lack of confrontation towards the calamitous management of Covid-19 will see him and his party lumped with the Tories as being crap politicians. The mantra of every boomer that demands to speak to the manager will come true: They are all the bloody same. Golden words to a populist.
The UK hasn’t really had a populist party. Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson were populist politicians, but the closet thing we have had to a populist party was the Brexit Party. Whether or not you agree with Nigel Farage, what his party accomplished in the 2019 European Parliament elections is unprecedented in British history. He took 30.5% of the vote against Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined 33.2%. His vote came from across the board, with the Conservatives finishing in 5th place, losing 15.1% of the vote, and Labour also lost 10.8%. Later he pushed Johnson on Brexit and has since distanced himself from the tory brexit.
This win could happen again, but on a bigger scale. In the past, it never happened as Brexit was born from the nest of the Tory party and Corbyn won the leadership of the other traditional party. However, those conditions won’t be repeated (no one with a sane mind would want to repeat the last 4 years of brexit negotiations). If the conditions for populism were to play out on a national level, it might look like something that has already happened in Spain.
10 years ago, 15-M was a movement in Spain that was protesting against both the traditional right- and left-wing parties, who alternated in power for years. People felt unrepresented by their failed politicians. In the wake of the Arab Spring and in the heat of the Eurozone debt crisis, many progressive campaign groups (youth without a future, against pension Reforms, against eviction platforms) around Spain came together to protest for a more representative democracy. They spent a month camped out in Sol, Madrid’s main square, where they experimented with different forms of democracy. Many groups made connections and, eventually, over the years, 15-M rejuvenated Spain’s corruption-riddled two-party system. Municipality governments were elected in Madrid, Barcelona and other major cities; the feminist movement was united, which resulted in a fresh wave of feminism in the country, and finally Podemos was formed. The left-wing populists were made up of political lecturers at Madrid’s Complutense University and activists from various causes across Spain. Initially, they set out to be a party of neither the left of right, discarding all references to ideologies. Before setting up the party, several members had done television work and had a presence in the Spanish media, this gave them a platform. From there, Podemos offered change to the system that many Spaniards had grown tired of.
Over the years they were successful in successive elections at all levels. They won multiple seats at the 2014 EU elections, and later came close to overtaking Spain’s main centre-left party, the PSOE, at the national level. They also won the control of several city and regional level administrations working with other forces in the municipalism arena. Spain’s political landscape has not been the same since. This is textbook populism, a good use of the technique whilst riding a wave of change. Similar things have happened in several EU countries, including Greece and Italy.
Nigel Farage has expressed his intention to create a cross wing party like Podemos was at the start, or a big tent party similar to the Five-Star Movement in Italy. This is a realistic goal given the erosion of historical political allegiances in the UK. Red seats turned blue in the north and yellow in Scotland. Things are changing. Farage was able to attract people from the left and right with the Brexit party, the same could happen with his new party Reform UK.
Nothing is ever easy, doesn’t mean it isn’t possible
It should be noted that it will be difficult in the UK. Spain has proportional representation, the same system used for the EU elections, and the UK has the first past the post system, yet there is room for another party. I mean, where are the Liberal Democrats? Both the tories and Labour have lost any form of populism they once had. Johnson has no ‘other’ blocking him, and Corbyn doesn’t even have the party whip. Starmer is playing Mr ‘it will be my turn to govern next’, but as we saw in 2010, there isn’t always a straight swap between the two parties, and that was pre-populism. If both Labour and the Conservatives become the next ‘elites’ target for any future populists, then anything is possible.
This is where the second word comes in, which I hope doesn’t fulfil its true meaning: reactionary. Collins Dictionary describes a reactionary person as someone who “tries to prevent changes in the political or social system of their country“. Synonyms include conservative, conventional, right-wing, and old-fashioned. I think the next punch to the British establishment won’t be from left like in Spain, but it will come from the reactionary right. It will come in the form of we need to make changes to the corrupt system to go back to how it used to be, when Britain was great.
So, why will the possible populist revolution be reactionary in flavour?
Three reasons. Nigel Farage. The Media. The Elites.
As I have explained already, the way things are going, neither of the two major parties in the UK has much going for them and Nigel Farage is looking for a new cause. Reform UK are suggesting a complete reform to the House of Lords, a switch to proportional representation, abolishing inheritance tax, scrapping interest on student loans, and cutting foreign aid. Back in June 2019 it proposed taking the failing British Steel into ‘workers’ control’. No mention of conservative values or socialist economics. Often if you want to sell your project, you have to do two things: make it sound like common sense (or non-ideological) and show you are more competent than the others. That will be easier with both parties struggling to pull away in the polls.
Regarding the project, it is in the party’s name. Reforming the House of Lords will be his next project, one that most other parties have not taken seriously. Whilst it might not sound that interesting, it could easily become so. Given the right climate, reforming the House of Lords could become a new target for any populist. Focusing people’s desire for change on a graspable object is a good political strategy. It doesn’t require people to imagine an abstract future, just how the country could be beyond the proposed change (even if that future is a pack of lies!). Tapping into people’s desires is how advertising works. Often people don’t know what they desire politically or in life, but they just know that they want something. Good politicians can manipulate and offer something to meet those desires. There was no mass call for Brexit before the referendum, but it soon became an object of desire (or a nightmare!) or the whole country.
A desire for socialists is a future without capitalism, for the nationalists it is to be a white country, and for ecologists it is to have a greener society. The trick is bringing several of those desires together to build a dominant coalition. Boris did that in 2019, Corbyn nearly did it in 2017. Who will be next?
Despite being a former banker, Farage’s image of being one of the likely lads has stayed intact. He will blame Brexit’s failures on Johnson. No doubt. The funny thing is, here he will sound like a communist ‘that wasn’t a real brexit, you never did it right!’. Not to mention that the media love him, and many of the people who join him will be former MPs, frustrated z-list celebrities or people looking to get into the limelight or into politics. It wouldn’t surprise me if we saw Piers Morgan and JK Rowling up there. The media will lap it up and there is little to hold them back. As for splitting the vote, they could make another deal like they did back in 2019. This is not something Farage fears doing.
There are however many things that can hold it back. Farage’s ego and constant bashing of migrants will be stumbling blocks. He will never pull in the young progressive crowds that Corbyn drew, and only a handful of the aesthetically middle class will secretly vote for him (I hope it is not more, but who knows when there is little difference between the other two!). Yet, even if Farage does not break into Westminster, he will be on the heels of the Conservatives. Will pinning all their future hopes on heartthrob Rishi Sunak work? That may depend on what happens in the Labour Party.
I hope I am wrong and Farage flops. I don’t share his reactionary, anti-migrant politics. The sad thing is that Reform UK could have been a progressive internationalist left-wing project.
As for a true left-wing populist party, I have little hope. Many activists are too scared to leave the Labour Party and those that have don’t have access to colossal sums of money or connections in the media. The only thing I can see beating back the reactionary right is if local groups were to form municipality parties to stand in local elections and build a platform from there. Local groups like food banks, WI, anti-eviction charities and all other progressive forces in the locality coming together to build a platform that will improve their local communities for all members of the community. Because of Covid, localism is the new populism. People see their local communities in disarray, and they want change. That change could be offered by a new multi group party and breakthrough into the local council. Using the local area as a centre point for change groups could change the makeup of the two-party politics that is evident throughout all levels of administration in the UK. They could even form an inclusive democratic party at a national level that would represent all areas of the UK up and down the country.
Farage should not be underestimated, and the current parties cannot deliver any form of change. If we don’t want a reactionary populist revolution, then the left will have to do something to counter it at a community level. There isn’t much going on in Westminster, but sooner or later there could be.