Tuesday 22 October 2013

Labour and the Uses of Left Populism

A confirmed ex-Trot your writer undoubtedly is, I have kept a soft spot for jolly old left populism. Which is funny considering Britain's Trots have only episodically had mass audiences for their wares. That is before slipping back unremarked and little-remembered into obscurity. But populism is easy enough to grasp. It's us-vs-themism, the innocent, much burdened and suffering Great British public against the crooked arch-manipulators of the political class. Such simplistic appeals have readily found audiences. UKIP, for example, have been very good at portraying equal marriage and the European Union as the sinister hobbyhorses of an out-of-touch elite. Though they wouldn't have done it without a little help from their friends in the gutter press.

Roger Liddle of the Policy Network asks if a dollop of left populism can help rejuvenate the fortunes of social democratic politics in Britain. He notes that the Tories have been effective in using it to bash social security, which is par the course. But can it be harnessed for a positive political programme that actually wants to build things (literally and figuratively), and not just turn people against each other? Roger's views are mixed. I'm a bit more hopeful.

It's not controversial to say Ed Miliband's proposed energy price freeze is naked populism. It's not without its antecedents. The bleating of the energy companies themselves and the senior Tories that have rushed to defeat them merely adds more grist to the populist mill. They say a freeze will threaten investment, despite green investment getting hacked back from £7bn to £3bn while profits have soared. But it doesn't matter, really. Even if their books showed they were in dire straits, even if there was a scintilla of truth to their bloodcurdling promise of imminent blackouts if the policy was pushed through, it really wouldn't wash. This is because there's a diffuse but palpable sense of anger directed at the energy companies. People aren't stupid - they see the prices go up and up even when wholesale prices occasionally dip. They see rampant profiteering and a bonus culture among the execs that would embarrass a city boy. It's perfect for a bit of populist tub-thumping. If only populist angles could be found for some other Labour policies, eh?

There's a but coming. It does matter who's articulating the populism. Farage is as establishment as the government's front bench. But he is positioned outside the Westminster circus and has, over the course of his political career, carefully cultivated the countenance of the outsider. He says what others fear to say. He "speaks plainly". He can look natural drinking in the pub. Ed and most of the shadow cabinet are not. They're consummate insiders and few of them have had real lives outside the Oxbridge-wonkland-Westminster nexus. And people can tell that is the case too. Ed and most of his frontbenchers would look ridiculous if they tried striking a wo/man-of-the-people pose, and there's the danger that one populist push too many could come across as trying too hard. It's potentially their 'Gordon Brown's smile'. Better to use populism sparingly for it to retain its political bite.

Secondly, as Roger points out, there is a dismal reality to contend with. And mostly the deep rooted social problems we have require complex and nuanced policy responses that require the allocation of resources (this, incidentally, is why Trotsky's 'transitional method' is such an albatross for the far left - working people don't buy its "demands" because they're insufficiently class conscious, they don't ring true because they sound fantastical). Populism cannot do complexity. Just look at the state of government now - look at the chaos in education, the DWP, the economy; these are the bitter fruits of a light-minded approach to statecraft - and that's before you get to their hard right ideological core. So for a government-in-waiting, which is what Labour is in the business of presenting itself as, populism has to be tightly circumscribed.

Let's have another but. Limiting populism does have its advantages. The energy price freeze has pulled the political rug from under the Tories, and it keeps coming back again and again to damage them. Today it's the grey blur of prime ministers past that has given them a headache. Who will it be tomorrow? But as well as grabbing the headlines and seizing the initiative, it buoys up the activists and might, just might, act as a recruiting sergeant. There's also the small matter of firming up the vote and attracting new supporters.

It is a tricky tight rope to walk, especially so for Labour where pragmatism and principle has had an fractious relationship, historically. But if the balance can be struck and kept steady over the long term, the parliamentary majority it craves is there for the taking.

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