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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.

6 Comments

  1. Rod says:

    No doubt Miliband’s energy price freeze will be as, if not more, popular than Blair’s windfall tax. But there is a difference.

    Blair’s tax was redistributed to those needing help, Miliband’s freeze delivers most the the wealthy – if you live in a palace you’ll save a lot more than the person living in a terraced house.

    The more interesting part of Miliband’s energy proposals relate to ‘re-setting’ the energy market. This proposal goes where Blair would refuse to tread – Miliband has rejected the free market fundamentalism which motivated much of the New Labour project.

    Quite how Miliband intends to ‘re-set’ the market remains to be seen. But now that he has questioned the supposed infallibility of the market why shouldn’t the analysis be extended to other areas of the economy and into the increasingly privatised health and social care provision?

    Miliband has presented himself with a difficult challenge – it’ll be interesting to see if he accepts it.

  2. Robert says:

    The public will also remember for how long this has been going and they might even remember who was in change of it under Brown, turns out it was one Miliband.

    Labour of course will hope the voters will have dementia and forget everything, but we do have this feeling we have been here before under Labour and they did sod all to fix it and they are attacking the Tories bit rich .

    But is labour fix going to work surely the idea of having five or six companies flogging gas and electricity was the reason it was opened up now it’s going to be ten or twelve.

    Brown’s feeble fuel package

    HOUSEHOLD ENERGY bills have been rising rapidly and are expected to average £1,400 next year. The ‘big six’ energy utilities operating in Britain put up their prices to customers by 38% this year. They also increased their shareholder’s dividend payouts by 19%, shelling out £1.64 billion. That’s £257 million more than the year before.
    Dave Rogers

    The union Unite says that since 2003, energy firms have increased their profits by 538% while raising prices by over 35% in this year alone. Many MPs and union leaders called for a windfall tax on the privatised energy companies’ huge profits.

    However, prime minister Gordon Brown decided not to repeat the £5 billion tax imposed in 1997 because he was desperate for these private companies to build new nuclear power stations and wind farms.

  3. David Pavett says:

    The populism of the energy price freeze and the anti-bank rhetoric is not an expression of a radical political stance but a substitute for it. Everyone who thinks about it know that these things will not change the basic power relations. Just look at the current energy price hikes and as far as I know the bankers are not shaking in their boots at the thought of a Labour government.

    The thing is that there are massive grounds for developing truly popular policies not as the result of populist rhetoric but as the result of a serious examination of current problems and the best way of resolving them in the interest of the great majority.

    Education is a classic example of this problem. Labour has never been able to wholehearted grasp and deal with the problem of education. It once favoured comprehensives (sort of) but was scared to upset the social apple cart by refusing state money to grammar and other independent schools.

    Labour’s education policies have ranged from downright reactionary (Labour opposed comprehensives and support the notorious tripartite school system after WWII).

    The problem is that in education, as elsewhere, the Labour leaders cannot embrace solutions that will encounter massive reaction from entrenched interests and the media that defends those interests. I have little doubt that if Labour were to argue that schools running on public money should come within a framework of public planning for educational needs (through local authorities) and that Labour’s commitment is to making every school a good a good one then it would command overwhelming support. This would relieve parents of the anxiety of worrying that their child might end up in a bad school and give them the confidence that their local school is a good one. This would have to be coupled with commitments to make local authorities approachable, open, transparent and democratic.

    Labour does none of this. Instead it goes with the neo-liberal consensus according to which educational standards can only be “driven” up by setting up an educational market with diversity of provision, competition and customer choice.

    The limitation here is not in the politics of the possible but in the narrow social philosophy of the Oxbridge-wonkland-Westminster mindset.

  4. Rod says:

    David Pavett “the narrow social philosophy of the Oxbridge-wonkland-Westminster mindset.”

    That’s an interesting point. The Labour Party do seem to be struggling to think beyond Blair. And much of the non-Labour left are unable to get beyond Marx and Trotsky.

    But both orientations strongly resemble each other in the distrust and disenfranchisement of their respective memberships.

    They seem to be running-scared before their own intellectual and political bankruptcy. They’re sure to be found out sooner or later.

  5. Robert says:

    Miliband Clegg or Cameron Jesus what a choice.

  6. David Pavett says:

    @Rod

    On getting beyond Blair or Marx or Trotsky.

    “Beyond” is rather ambiguous. It could me “reject” or “build on the basis of”

    In order to do either of these we would need (1) open and well-informed debate and (2) leaders who articulate their policies in something more than sound bite terms. Neither of those conditions is, by any stretch of the imagination, currently being met.

    People can reject or develop whatever they like so long as they give the rest of use plausible reasons for their choice so that the rest of us can agree with or question those reasons. Labour’s extreme distance from that is the proof of the shallowness of its commitment to democracy whether in the Party or in society generally.

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