One heartening consequence of recent events in the US was the decision by Corbyn’s team to re-launch him as a populist politician. In my view this could be a very smart move on their part if done correctly. Here I intend to outline how I think it should be done for maximum success. I also thought it would be useful to define it, both populism in general and left wing populism in particular. The concept seems to cause great confusion amongst metro liberals so some clarification might be helpful before they start confusing everyone else too.
In general terms a populist is someone who bases his appeal on the desires of the general populace rather than those of the political, cultural and economic elite. Such politicians’ outpourings consequently tend to make those elites cough and splutter with outrage but it doesn’t matter because their power base stands outside those elites.
Furthermore, as elites are by their nature arrogant they find it hard to conceive that a lot of people hold different opinions to them, and this only increases their outrage when the electorate don’t follow the script. What’s more, the fact that populists are confident they have an independent powerbase means that they feel free to respond to elite anger not with backtracking or diffidence but with defiance and indeed amplification of their original point. Finally, because they are not trying to impress the dinner party set, the language they use tends to be direct, straightforward and lacking in nuance.
To sum up, Populist politicians: Base their appeal on the general populace, not elites. Make elites angry. Are unapologetic in the face of that anger. Use simple, direct language.
It is right wing populists who have made most of the running in recent decades, because the political pendulum has swung rightward generally and because the elites they offend are of the cultural variety rather than the more powerful economic ones.
Reagan, Thatcher,Trump and Farage are all examples of successful right wing populists. When members of the bien pensant class try to tell them that they “can’t” leave Europe, or cast slurs on racial groups, or let hunger strikers die, or provoke the Soviet Union they simply shrug or argue back. The bien pensants cough and splutter in impotent outrage, the politician looks strong and decisive and his supporters are strengthened in their resolve to vote for him.
A left wing populist is far less common these days and perhaps for that reason the concept causes considerable confusion amongst the liberal elite. As demonstrated by this hilariously clueless Guardian panel a lot of them seem to think it means right wing populism, but coming out of the mouth of a Labour politician. They think it means Labour taking a hard line on things like immigration and crime. Indeed, deliberately or otherwise, many of Corbyn’s detractors on social media are misunderstanding the concept of “Corbyn copying Trump” to mean copying his racism, sexism and xenophobia.
In fact that would not be Left Wing populism at all — that would be right wing populism regardless of the colour of the politician’s rosette. Nor was this ever proposed for Corbyn.
So what is left wing populism? Well, it means copying the presentational style of right wing populists — clear, direct, combative, unapologetic — but to promote left wing policies not right wing ones. Furthermore these policies are aimed at appealing to the man in the street, not the pompous Westminster cognoscenti. Corbyn’s recent proposal to cap executive pay is a good example of this. Elites both liberal and conservative responded with blimpish outrage that Corbyn would dare go near such a taboo subject.
In true populist fashion I very much hope his response will be to shrug and say “well you would say that wouldn’t you, you greedy bastards”. Then carry on.
This could play very well for Corbyn. The more he bases his appeal directly to the people, the more uncomfortable elites will be with it and the more they will try and talk it down. As with Trump, the elites will try and make out that such utterances have completely destroyed his credibility (as happened with the executive pay cap idea). As with Trump, the elites could be in for a shock when they discover that Corbyn is speaking directly to the people’s concerns, not theirs, and that the people rather like it.
PITFALLS Nevertheless there are a couple of pitfalls that Corbyn must watch out for in taking this approach, which we will briefly examine here, before finishing with a list of proposed policies that might fit well with a left wing populist platform.
Firstly, Corbyn must pursue this approach with iron in the soul and absolute conviction. It is not enough to have the policies, he needs to believe in them, believe they will sell, and promote them in that clear, direct, unapologetic form of language mentioned above.
This is where previous Labour leaders have fallen down. The highly confused Ed Miliband sometimes came out with populist policies, but then having announced the policy he didn’t do anything with it, didn’t really defend it, didn’t really have the courage to explain the populist principles behind it. The most notable example was his proposed freeze on utililty prices. This briefly had an “electrifying” effect on politics when first announced. It blew the whole issue of greedy free marketeering (taboo since the days of Thatcher) wide open. It briefly moved the overton window leftwards, and forced the Tories briefly on to the back foot as as their Ministers flailed around trying to find a way to argue against the policy without seeming to defend corporate greed.
But then, Miliband didn’t really make a big thing out of the policy, just let it hang there, didn’t defend it vigorously and didn’t go out of his way to make it clear that he was taking a stand against corporate greed. The Tories claimed it would just cause electricity suppliers to whack up prices before the freeze came into effect, Labour spokespeople looked down at their desks and the policy fizzled out so that come election time the public weren’t really aware of it.
Furthermore, most of the poses that Miliband struck were not populist ones so populism did not become part of his identity and he spent most of his time addressing elite concerns.
Michael Foot suffered from similar problems. Famously, he ran for election under a markedly left-wing manifesto, and many of the policies in it could be described as populist. The problem was that his delivery was not populist at all. His delivery when discussing his programme was always very intellectual, diffident, and concerned with the fine detail of the policies rather than the broad principles behind them. In interviews during the 1983 election he came across as an out of touch, ineffectual old schoolteacher or university Professor, rather than relating his policies back to peoples’ everyday concerns as he easily could have done.
Claiming that Foot lost in 1983 because he wasn’t left wing enough is fun way to wind up Tories and Blairites but at the same time, I actually believe it.
Corbyn has more of a track record than Foot of mastering the populist style. He did it often before becoming Labour leader, for example in his famous anti-Gulf war speech in the US in 2003, or very effectively in this clip here:
Unfortunately, in his first 18 months as leader he did often seem to lose this populist touch. Whilst always coming across as reasonable, thoughtful and humane in his interviews and speeches, his delivery did too often resemble that of Foot: diffident, academic and somewhat rarefied. Furthermore, too often he allowed himself to be cowed by eruptions of elite anger rather than telling that elite where to stick it.
There was much harrumphing in the PLP and Establishment press, for example, over the suggestion that the republican Corbyn might not attend his Privy Council swearing in or might not kneel to the Queen. Corbyn responded to these mutterings with a discreet silence, I suppose not wanting to be quoted either criticising the Queen or praising her. The result, however, was that he looked indecisive and his opponents were given free rein to intepret his actions and mindset as they saw fit.
What he should have done was frown in puzzlement and say “What? You want me as a grown man to kneel in submission before another adult on the basis of ancestry?? C’mon, it’s 2016!”
Or during last year’s attempt by the PLP to oust him from the party leadership there was at one point a furious outcry raised from the PLP camp about the fact John McDonnell had labelled the plotters “F — -ing useless”. In a piece of stunning, if typical, arrogance the coup plotters saw themselves as beyond criticism while demanding the right to be as critical of their party leader as they liked.
Corbyn again responded to their protests with silence. McDonnell at first tried to say he was only joking and then apologised. A populist would again have snorted and said “Oh for goodness’ sake what a bunch of precious snowflakes! These are people who have openly attacking me in the media all Summer! Get out of the kitchen if you can’t stand the heat”
That said the early signs emanating from Corbyn’s populist relaunch are that he has fully understood how to deliver populist policies in a populist language and I very much hope he can continue and amplify it.
This brings me to the second major pitfall that Corbyn must avoid: being blown off course. The establishment reaction to the new style has been that contradictory mix of anger and derision with which they often respond to left wing threats. They have mocked the general principle of what they call “copying Trump”, tried to make out that his relaunch had turned into “a shambles” when it had not and got angry over his proposal to cap executive pay. There was even an hilarious and desperate attempt to claim that the executive pay proposal would be an electoral disaster for Corbyn, as if the man in the street is just gagging to leap to the defence of overpaid fat cats.
Corbyn, of course, must ensure that he responds to both the anger and derision by simply ignoring it and carrying on. Or even by addressing it directly in blunt populist language. As noted at the beginning of this piece ignoring elite anger is one of the essential hallmarks of populism because it demonstrates a direct channel to the people rather than elites. We should remember that Trump in the US was constantly being mocked and constantly the subject of elite anger for the things he said. The elite, too arrogant to realise not everyone thought like them, on several occassions thought Trump had “blown it” with his latest outpouring. Trump shrugged, ignored them and carried on, eventually winning the Presidency. Corbyn must do the same.
Just to re-iterate quickly, I am talking about copying Trump’s style here, most definitely not his substance. With regard to that substance it is quite possible to make a left wing populist case for policies that are the very opposite of right wing populist ones:
On immigration: don’t let greedy employers use immigration as an excuse to weasel out of paying you the wages you deserve
On War: Don’t let a bunch of corrupt, clueless old men send your sons to die overseas for no good reason.
On “Big Government”: Greedy employers often try to duck their responsibilities to their workers and customers. We will make sure they can no longer do so by properly regulating them.
On Monarchy: You really think it dignified for one adult to kneel before another on the basis of birth?
and so on.
A left wing populist style can even be used to counter right-wing populist arguments, for example when opposing war is denounced as treachery or terrorist sympathising. This right wing tactic has in the past been sadly effective in muting or limiting anti-war sentiments from Labour politicians, including Corbyn. As a populist, though, he should simply fire back “Oh don’t be so ridiculous, do you really think people are stupid enough to fall for that these days?”
BENEFITS If Corbyn can avoid the pitfalls listed above, a populist strategy can have many strategic benefits.
As well as aligning himself with the general population against elites, it will make him look strong and decisive when elite outrage fails to push him off course.
It will also ensure that Labour finally has a strong, clear message, an easily identifiable brand. This is of course something that the marketing wonks on the Blairite wing of the party are always blethering on about. Ironically, though, their type of confused, not-quite-Thatcherite, triangulating Centrism is absolute anathema to providing a strong, clear message. Left wing populism actually would provide it, although it is one that would horrify the clueless Blairite establishment and their paymasters.
The end result would be that Labour had a programme and ethos which the public could easily understand and summarise in a sentence or two. They could then make a voting decision based on this programme rather than on who is better at public speaking or who had “a good week” in the election campaign, as they did with Brown and Miliband.
As well as these medium term strategic advantages there is a long term benefit too relating to the promotion of left wing values within this country. As noted in previous articles, the merits of left wing policy positions are actually pretty inarguable. It is actually pretty difficult to argue against them on moral grounds without making yourself look evil. The right therefore have developed a number of tactics to counter this, which have sadly proved quite successful over the years.
The first of these is to say they agree with the policy in principle, but it would not work in practice and then raise some silly, “practical” reason not to implement it. We have already seen this in the objections to Miliband’s proposed energy price freeze. In fact we see it any time any proposal is made to limit corporate power in Britain “Yes I don’t like what they’re doing either but if we stop them they’ll leave and the economy will collapse”. This line of argument is used by Conservatives but also commonly by right wing Labour people looking for an excuse not to change anything.
Secondly, they try to shut down any discussion of the substance of left wing ideas by writing them off as “student politics”/”sanctimonious”/”humourless” and nonsense like that.
Thirdly, they work up a head of incoherent, artificial outrage about left wing policy proposals in the hope that this will make any further such proposals taboo (this is what occurred in relation to Corbyn’s salary cap proposal)
These tactics have sadly stymied the progress of left wing principles in recent times.
As we have seen, populist policy presentation does not let itself be affected by squeals of outrage from the Establishment and responds to such outrage by re-affirming and amplifying the policy. This would force right wingers to debate the proposals on their merits, rather than on some silly criteria like are they student politics.
Ignore fake right wing temper tantrums and they are left with no other option than to say they oppose the policy and explain why. Often, this will make them look pretty foolish. Force right wingers to debate left wing policies on their moral merits and you will leave them nowhere to hide.
Britain (and America) is ready for proper left wing policies again, and it is only habit and the reactionary delaying tactics listed above that have prevented them thus far.
Populism could be the battering ram to finally push through these obstacles.
To conclude here is my proposed left wing populist policy platform:
1) Make it illegal to ban unions in any workplace. 2) Repeal imposition of Employment Tribunal Fees. 3) Ban time limits on being able to take Employers to Tribunals (ie it can be done from the Day the worker commences his employment with the Company) 4) A law to dictate certain provisions that all Employment Contract must contain to protect workers. 5) Reversal of spending cuts mirrored by a reversal of Corporation Tax Cuts. 6) Closing of Tax Loopholes 7) Make Accounting firms criminally liable for tax evasion. 8) Nationalisation of Rail and Utilities 9) Increased banking regulation 10) Removal of profit motive from Public Service Provision (ie end outsourcing) 11) Stop sending our soldiers to die overseas on the instructions of US Imperialists 12) A Bill of Rights guaranteeing basic civil liberties (including the right to strike) 13) Reduce back to three days the amount of time a person can be detained without trial. 14) A Bill of Rights for Animals, ending of Animal Experimentation, Increased penalties for Animal Cruelty and increases prosecution powers for RSPCA. 15) Rent Controls.