The future of the left since 1884

Populism at the crossroads

Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry MP addressed the FEPS-Fabian New Year Conference: Brexit and Beyond.



We are gathered here at a tumultuous time for our country, and as Keir and others have already discussed in their contributions earlier today, our thoughts are understandably occupied right now with the constitutional impasse in which we find ourselves.

A government that cannot govern on the most important issue facing the country, but which refuses to follow historical precedent by calling a general election. An opposition that is currently unable to force that outcome because we lack the numbers to win a ‘No Confidence’ vote. And a Brexit process which, as a result, is in total limbo.

Theresa May has claimed that we are in ‘uncharted territory’ as a country, which is of course nonsense. Numerous previous Prime Ministers have faced this challenge before when they could not get their key legislation through Parliament, and have therefore called an election as a result.

The only thing that is ‘uncharted’ about our current situation is that we have never before had a Prime Minister defying that convention, ignoring those precedents, and limping on regardless.

If we are being charitable, we can only assume that – contrary to appearances – Theresa May is one of life’s great optimists, like Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss or Dickens’ William Micawber, and in the immortal words of Mr Micawber, she is hanging around on the off chance that “something will turn up”.

And it is only fair to point out that things ended well for both Dr Pangloss and Mr Micawber: one by emigrating to Turkey; the other by emigrating to Australia. And if Theresa May wants to take either of those routes, I will personally buy her plane ticket and pack her bag, blue passport and all.

But as internationalists, even at this time of domestic strife, it is incumbent on us to raise our eyes from what is happening in Britain to what is happening in other countries around the world, far too many of them facing their own tumultuous times.

I have said in the past that, in terms of the scale and seriousness of the political upheaval that we currently see all across the world, this is the most dangerous and unpredictable period that we have faced since the 1930s, and in the case of our current world, one compounded tenfold by the crisis of Climate Change.

Indeed, when we look at five common factors at play across the world today, the similarities with the 1930s are all too disturbing:

– First, a continuing economic malaise caused by a financial crash that has left whole sections of society worldwide not just feeling cut out of the prosperity being enjoyed by others who have emerged from that crisis even richer, but also feeling desperately angry about that fact;

– Second, an increase in societal division, most disturbingly characterised by the demonisation of minority groups, of foreigners, of immigrants, of refugees, and anyone else on the wrong side of the hateful divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

– Third, a rejection of business-as-usual politics, characteristic of a wider hostility towards the so-called ‘elites’, or in our country ‘the establishment’, a catch-all term of abuse variously used to attack politicians, business, the media, or – in the infamous words of Michael Gove – ‘experts’.

– Fourth, a renewed sense in some quarters that violence is not only an acceptable but a default means of resolving disputes or pursuing political agendas whether in international relations, in domestic security, or in protest movements on our streets.

– And fifth, most dangerous of all, the resurgence of a class of politicians who are prepared to exploit all of those factors, to harness and stoke all of that rage and division and hatred, either to win power or consolidate it, and turn the politics of the street into the policy of the state.

For genuine want of a better word, that class of politicians have been labelled as ‘populists’, and it is worth unpacking that description, because I’m sure I’m not alone in speaking to many people in everyday life who wonder what is wrong with a politician doing or saying things that are popular.

But to confuse those two things is a mistake, and one we must correct.

There is nothing wrong with doing things that are popular.

The most popular Budget of the last twenty years, even among 54 per cent of Tory voters, was the one when Gordon Brown raised National Insurance in 2002 for every working person in our country to pay for a massive increase in NHS spending.

But that policy would never be anywhere near the manifesto of any of the so-called ‘populist’ politicians who have emerged across the world in recent years, indeed quite the opposite.

Instead, if we truly want to define what populism is about, there’s a scene I always think about from The West Wing, featuring our favourite fictional President, Jed Bartlet, or second favourite if you’re even more of a Matt Santos fan.

Bartlet’s aides are debating whether he should use the word ‘torpor’ in the speech he will make as he launches his bid for a second term in office, on the grounds that many people listening to the speech may not know what that word means.

The President sweeps into the room and says: “They can look it up”. But then, more importantly, he tells the aide who is complaining this: “It’s not our job to appeal to the lowest common denominator. We have to raise it.”

And when I think about the populist politicians that we see around the world at present, what we realise is this: they are self-evidently not trying to raise the lowest common denominator; they are not even trying to appeal to where the lowest common denominator is now; what they are doing instead is desperately seeking to plunge the lowest common denominator ever lower.

They are seeking not just to appeal to the basest instincts in humanity – greed, selfishness, hatred, fear and violence – but to normalise and justify those instincts.

And they are seeking to take us back to an age when those instincts found a false legitimacy in the ideologies of racial superiority, nationalism, isolationism and ultimately fascism – ideologies which we wrongly assumed had been left in the past.

And obviously no-one exemplifies this more than the hero of all populists, Donald Trump, the second anniversary of whose inauguration will fall tomorrow.

It seems strange to look back on that day, and the week that followed, where the big row was about the White House’s false claims about the size of the crowd in the Washington Mall. And for those of us who thought that Trump was just a contemptible, bombastic joke – an example of what would happen if Boris Johnson ever got into No10 – that was all the evidence we needed.

But then, two weeks later, on the same day Theresa May held his hand at the White House, Trump signed his executive order banning hundreds of millions of Muslims from entering the US, and it was suddenly clear that this was no joke; that this was in fact deadly serious.

Two years on, and here we are, with Trump now on the cusp of declaring a fake state of emergency to force through a nonsensical solution to an immigration crisis entirely of his own invention, partly in order to end the record-breaking government shutdown, but mainly so he can say to his support base: I delivered you the wall I promised, just with you paying for it, not Mexico.

If it looks like the desperate act of a desperate President, that is exactly what it is and exactly what he is. And so, at this halfway point of his first term, Trump’s presidency stands at the crossroads in more ways than one, as by extension does America.

But I believe it goes even wider than that. Because to my mind, as goes Trump, so goes populism, both in its rise and in its eventual fall.

Looking back to 2016, his election did three crucial things in terms of its influence on other democratic countries around the world:

– First and most predictable, it gave a comfort and legitimacy to existing leaders of a populist, autocratic bent – the likes of Duterte, Netanyahu, Orban and Erdogan – to go further and further in that direction, in the sure knowledge that if ignoring the rule of law was good enough for the so-called leader of the free world, it was certainly good enough for them.

– Second and most pernicious, it has paved the way for a series of Trump imitators seeking to follow the same populist route to power, from Bolsanaro in Brazil to Salvini in Italy, with the High Priest of Populism, Steve Bannon, boasting that dozens of other similar candidates are being groomed by his dark and dubiously-funded forces all across the globe.

– And third, most pathetically, it has prompted political leaders even in the most thriving – and theoretically liberal – democracies to embrace the rhetoric and tactics of Donald Trump in a half-baked attempt to tap into the same populist appeal, from Scott Morrison’s baseball cap act in Australia to Theresa May’s nonsensical attempts to force parliament into accepting her Brexit deal, by posing as the champion of the very people who she will not trust to endorse that deal through a general election.

And let me note, those three categories I mention just refer to what are in theory democratic countries. They do not even touch the sides of the impact that the resurgence of populist politics has had on countries where democracy has ceased to function in any meaningful way, from Russia, Venezuela and Honduras to Egypt, Uganda and Cameroon.

Now those of us on the left could look at all of that, despair at the direction the world is going in, and conclude that we are heading for a prolonged period where – even in this country – the challenge we face is not defeating populism, but simply surviving it, waiting for the tide to turn, and ensuring that – in the meantime – we try and rise above it, rather than sink to the level to which populist forces are dragging our politics.

But as I have said, I believe the strength of populism is at a crossroads and the direction of travel is deeply uncertain. Yes, it could gather pace and momentum, and spread ever wider. But it could also falter and weaken, and retreat into the distance, where it has been since the Second World War.

And I do not just believe that the latter outcome is more likely, I think we are already seeing the signs, and again, they are best viewed through the prism of Donald Trump.

I spoke this week to Emily Cain, the Executive Director of EMILY’s List, the Washington-based organisation which exists to talent-spot, select and fund progressive, pro-choice female candidates against incumbents who are anything but.

And Emily reported to me the astonishing rise in women who have come forward since Trump’s election to stand for office at every level of American life, so appalled have they been by his policies, his attitudes, and his style of government. Part of a pattern that has also seen increased engagement by young people in politics, and increased numbers of minority ethnic candidates standing for office.

But let us be brutally honest. None of that would matter if Donald Trump was able to turn out the same blue-collar, working-class, mainly white voters, who delivered him victory in 2016 in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Not racists, not xenophobes, not nationalists, just ordinary working people. Ordinary people who voted for Clinton and Gore and Kerry and Obama in the previous six elections. But who now feel that they have been ignored and left behind. People who’ve seen their jobs evaporating, their living standards declining, and their towns dying in front of their eyes.

They backed Trump partly because he offered a series of explanations for their problems ranging from cheap Chinese imports and cheap migrant labour to Washington elites who could not care less about their plight, and cared more about an issue like climate change than they did about working class jobs.

And it is a speech for another day, but what does it say about politicians who downplay the very real and urgent crisis of climate change to play up alternative crises that don’t exist over immigration and tariffs.

But going back to those voters in Wisconsin and elsewhere, yes they backed Trump partly because he offered them explanations for their problems, but they backed him primarily because he also offered solutions. And whether it was tariff barriers or border walls, or just the awful myth that because he was a successful maverick outsider, he would somehow shake things up and do things differently, these were solutions that people in those communities grasped, as a drowning man will grasp at even the thinnest branch.

And the reason I think Trump is at the crossroads, and America is at the crossroads, and by extension populism is at the crossroads, is that those voters – the voters who delivered Trump power – are starting to make up their mind about whether he has delivered for them. Making up their mind about whether they still believe in the explanations he offered them for the problems they face, and whether they still believe in his ability to produce the solutions he offered to those problems.

And the signs are positive as to how their minds are tilting.

In the midterm elections in November, all three of those states I mentioned – Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania – had Democratic majorities in the popular vote, and all three states elected Democratic governors.

And I believe when voters in those three states, and others like them across America, look even deeper at what Trump has actually done during his time in office, and the extent to which his economic and tax policies have served only to make the richest even richer, they will not just feel let down, they will feel betrayed, and they will not give him another chance.

And as I said earlier, I believe as Trump goes, so populism goes. In country after country, people will start to see that the populists do not have solutions – they only offer empty rhetoric, empty promises, and lies.

Because it is one thing to trade on the politics of fear and division and disillusionment when you are challenging for office and offering change, but it is quite another to do so when you are the leader in charge and can only offer more of the same.

That is what Trump is discovering, as is Scott Morrison in Australia, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines: all facing declining approval ratings. And that is what will happen in due course with the likes of Salvini and Bolsanaro.

And I truly believe, that once enough of these snake-oil salesmen have been exposed, and particularly when Trump is thrown out of office after one term, the model of leadership they have exemplified will lie utterly discredited.

But we need to be clear about one thing. While Trump and his imitators may disappear, the disillusionment and anger into which they have tapped will not. Because the very real social and economic problems which have led to that disillusionment and anger have not disappeared.

Voters who so emphatically rejected business as usual by voting for these populist candidates will not meekly return to business as usual or embrace the timidity of centrist politics. They still want answers and solutions, and they will not go back to being ignored or dismissed.

If we want evidence of that, we need look no further than France, where I spent this Christmas talking to ordinary people who – while they would never dream of barricading the streets in Paris or smashing up luxury cars – were nevertheless parading their gilets jaunes in their car windscreens as a symbol of solidarity with the protests and dissatisfaction with a government which they thought was refusing to listen.

So here is both the challenge and the opportunity for the progressive movement in Britain, in America, and all over the world.

Because if we remain true to our ideals and radical in our ideas, we can offer those people and those communities solutions that will actually work, just at the point they are turning away from the snake-oil populism that has failed them.

And at the heart of our offer is a fundamentally different proposition. Where every populist relies on a strategy of divide and conquer, our strategy is based on the idea of building a society and an economy that genuinely works for everyone, regardless of wealth, education, age, race, gender or geography.

A strategy that works for towns as well as cities, for manual workers as well as professionals, for school leavers as well as graduates, and which addresses the neglect of both the young and the old.

I believe the detailed policies set out in Labour’s 2017 manifesto took us a long way down that path, but if we want to truly embrace this challenge and fill the void left by populism with positive solutions for all those disillusioned communities, we must go further next time round, particularly when it comes to developing effective policies for our towns and for the needs of older people.

And in closing, and to bring this speech full circle, I am sure it was not lost on any of you that everything I said about the appeal of populist leaders to disillusioned voters, and the disappointment those voters now feel as the solutions they were promised turn out to be lies, all applies equally to where we currently find ourselves on Brexit.

But that is exactly why I believe so strongly that what we need to fight for at this stage is a general election. Not just because it is constitutionally the right thing to do. But because we in the Labour Party need the opportunity to set out our full stall to the British people, especially those who feel ignored and left behind and not listened to.

We need to show them that we have the policies for our economy, our public services, and our country as a whole which will make a genuine, positive difference to their lives, in a way that the poisonous snake-oil sold by Farage, Gove, and Johnson could never do.

And if we cannot get that election, if we cannot change Theresa May’s disastrous deal, and we end up campaigning for a public vote instead, as per the policy we agreed at our party conference, we must still make the offer of change the central part of our argument to the British people, rather than repeating the dreadful mistakes of the official Remain campaign in simply offering to protect the status quo.

Because in the lingering aftermath of the financial crash ten years ago, people still want answers and solutions and change.

And if – as I believe – the populist response to that challenge is at the crossroads, and rapidly taking the downward path towards failure, ignominy and irrelevance, then our progressive politics must stand ready to take its place.

And if we remain bold, and brave, and radical and continue reaching out to every part of our society, we can not just succeed where populism has failed, but we can show a lead for the entire world in taking our country to higher ground.

Emily Thornberry MP

Emily Thornberry is the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury and Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade


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