On Populism

It is tempting to believe, after the recent local elections in which the UK Independence Party was virtually wiped off the political map, that something good has happened. Douglas Carswell, UKIP’s erstwhile sole MP, left the party earlier this year, leaving UKIP with no parliamentary presence; another putative blow to the far right’s mainstream credibility. As Nigel Farage stepped down from the party’s leadership, the mantel was passed to Paul Nuttall, who was almost immediately embroiled in a scandal over claims he was present at the Hillsborough disaster. Taken together, one might claim with some surety that these developments, all worthy and delectable as sound bites, spell the demise of UKIP’s brand of reactionary dog whistle politics, like the British National Party before them.

There is, however, a crucial distinction between the BNP and UKIP. The former represented, in the run-up to the 2010 election, a protest vote in the wake of revelations regarding MPs from both the left and right fiddling their expenses. Popular disgust with the so-called political establishment manifested itself centrally as a surge of interest in a number of smaller parties, with the SNP, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats ultimately benefiting from the electoral fallout. The BNP caught the scraps of this popular disenchantment with mainstream politics, though their brief surge in popularity failed to translate into votes. Correspondingly, Nick Griffin and his fascist cohorts have been absent from prime time TV and radio slots since the formation of the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition.

But the prime time needs a baddy, someone to act as a foil to the cautious political tightrope walkers of Radio 4’s Today programme and their tribe. In the US, Donald Trump provided this foil in spades, and is now enjoying the fruits of his success, bitter as they may be. UKIP, on the other hand, have almost single-handedly changed the direction of UK politics without winning a single seat in parliament or holding onto a council majority or mayoralty. While the party has all but evaporated in the heat of their own raison d’être, and Trump learns very slowly and very publicly that the presidency is as much a punching bag as it is the belt of the prize fighter, Nigel Farage eschews office, strutting between the pub and the podium, verily the most successful politician in the English-speaking world.

Farage’s politics are easy to understand: it is his manner of speaking in sound bites, operating within the political idiom while always pushing against the limits of what is acceptable, that makes him attractive to a ratings-hungry media. However, it is his clarity of purpose and his absolute certainty about who he is speaking to that resonates with the voting public. Theresa May understands this, and has incorporated his strategies. That is why the Tories are so dangerous: they have found a populist register in which to couch austerity as being in the interests of an ill-defined ‘working people’.

The problem with this kind of politics no longer needs discussing among the left. It is, in fact, the breadth of discussion in the vehicles of progressive discourse that is the problem. People will not vote for UKIP in substantial numbers in the coming election—not because they disagree with UKIP’s policies, but because those policies have been incorporated into the mainstream. The Conservative manifesto, for all the recent talk of it being ‘a cigar away from Castro’, is a hybrid of Tory policy since 2010 (namely austerity) and the virulent xenophobic protectionism of UKIP. The Tories have incorporated the populism of the far right, a populism that remains substantially unchallenged. This incorporation was made possible by a lack of meaningful engagement between the progressive left and the working class who are supposed to be its constituency.

The left risks becoming a debating group for the progressive middle class. The Thatcher government’s victory in industrial disputes like the miners’ strike in the 1980s signalled a trend of corporate interests waging war against workers’ rights and the trade union movement. Today we are riding the long tail of that trend. Working class communities in what used to be English industrial centres, traditional Labour strongholds such as those in the North East, have been neglected to the point of abuse by successive governments, including the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. While the liberal cabal has at times quite vocally bemoaned this state of affairs, they have yet to actually do anything about it. We cannot blame the filter bubble for this. Social media reflects the problem, it is not the problem itself.

If you visit communities where left parties have lost their pre-eminence and listen to the concerns and grievances of the individuals there, you will find a common theme: jobs. Even the question of immigration comes down to the notion that foreigners are taking British jobs. However, xenophobic austerity doesn’t produce jobs, and no government has ever cut its way to greater income equality. Progressives must be bold and confident to broaden the discourse; but this broadening will only occur when progressives themselves, not just door-stepping MPs vying for votes, interact with and listen to the working class. As long as the left speaks the language of the self-identifying middle class, in which issues like Brexit and immigration are used as classifiers of cultural distinction, the progressive movement is dead in the water.

Socialism is the movement for working people. It aspires to greater enfranchisement for workers and equality for people at every intersection of social grouping: income, gender, sexuality, race, nationality and more. The central tenet of progressive politics is the right to work, to have a good job and one that fairly and sufficiently remunerates the person doing it—and state protections should that fail. All of us on the left need to make the case for strategic investment in the country’s infrastructure, a large-scale plan that creates jobs and enfranchises those parts of the country where people feel their hands are tied—a tragic waste of talent and labour, as well as a wasted opportunity. Idle hands do the Tories’ work.