IN DEFENCE OF POPULISM
Populism poses such a threat that David Cameron has had to go to the US to tell them, for a fee, how it ruined his plans for a better Britain. It may once have been the precursor of reform In the US. Now its global and a threat to the political elite which imposed the policies which exacerbated the populist drive spreading round the world. We need to understand it yet the commentariat see it as a turd on the table of Downton Abbey. In the US its portrayed as a Trumpian disaster slightly less dangerous than nuclear war. In Europe it endangers the blessings of the Euro and ever closer union and produces opportunities for a new Hitler.Even several.
I can agree that populism has its dangers. It's tide can carry the man on the white horse or the one with yellow hair, to triumph over safer and sounder hands .In power populist prophets either become dangerous or betray their supporters to turn like Orwell's pig, Napoleon who turned into a nasty human. Insofar as its the bar room braggadocio of easy answers and loud talk, populism is impossible to implement. Watch how Trump, having won by denouncing Goldman Sachs and Wall St stuffs his government Goldman staff and Wall St Republicans
All that provides fun for academics and the commentariat who are always right after every event Yet for the practical politician, and particularly for the Labour Party, populism poses more immediate problems. It won't go away and we either understand that and adjust to it, or fail the protesting people.
Look at how it emerged. Post war politics were a game of two halves .In the first, the Never had it so good years , full employment, a welfare state and steady growth raising the living standards and household incomes of the people shaped an affluent era in which the only symptoms of populism were protests at immigration from Smethwick's electors and Powell's dockers. Both condemned but both allayed by restrictions on Commonwealth immigration.
For those at the bottom of the heap the second half of the game were the never had it so bad years of globalisation, neoliberalism, austerity and EU membership all of which ended full employment, curtailed welfare, replaced job security with the gig economy and damped the year by year improvement in household incomes and living standards. No wonder a new populism emerged among those left behind .No wonder either that the liberal elite, who'd benefitted from the changes found so little response to their sermons about the benefits of globalisation and immigration and their assurances that the pain would be worth the gain with a long term good which somehow never seemed to come.
Labour, the cause of a good deal of the misery and the source of many of the sermons must recognise that the populist surge comes from what should be Labour's people: those at the bottom of the heap, those not educated enough to access the joys of a middle class life style, those left behind by economic and social change and those suffering from the rigours and pain of austerity, globalisation cuts and the end of full employment. They don't think that the blessings for the well off will trickle down to them They need help now and no one else will provide it if Labour doesn't
This not only changes the name of the game but the game itself relegating Labour's people to the uphill side of a loosing team. This happened for three reasons Margaret Thatcher's neoliberal follies, combined with membership of a European union geared to serving the purposes of more powerful competitors, have undermined our industrial base and a manual working class which was shrinking anyway Government reduced the protective power of the people's defenders, the trade unions, the council estates, the mutuals and local government in order to serve wealth, big business, finance and London. Labour ceased to serve those at the bottom of the heap to win the support of those further up. No wonder politicians began to chant "We're all middle class now" But we weren't.
How do we respond to this new world which Labour helped to create? Blair, Mandelson and the third way brigade proposed to take Labour's traditional vote for granted, win respectability by accepting the Thatcherite programme and reach out to the growing middle class and the south .As a result in power we delivered too little to our people, more to finance. We declined to restore union rights and kept them on a tight leash to pursue more esoteric causes. Instead of class and equality we preferred feminism, ethnic justice, foreign aid, rights, environmentalism , consumerism and Euro enthusiasm with a welcome to immigration thrown in
Labour has always been a coalition of proletarian populism, some of which is inevitably ugly, and middle class aspiration but in recent decades the latter has triumphed over the former. That makes it difficult for the party to change tracks.In Parliament and party, horny handed sons of toil and trade unions have made way for more women, ethnic groups, middle class kids on the make and apparatchicks and chaps who'd done an apprenticeship in Blairworld. All are more presentable, house trained, younger and nicer but middle class in life style and less in touch with the world of the underdog. Women took over the mining seats The party placed trusties in plum seats and a debilitated outside party accepted the imposition. Youth and gloss were more important than proletarian identity. The result was a party less in touch with its basic support and their world ,which was taken by surprise when Scotland rebelled, UKIP stole Labour votes, and the people rejected an EU Labour had come to see as part of God's plan.
Describing populism is much easier than dealing with it. Denouncing it as wrong will only exacerbate the alienation and the feelings of impotence which built it in the first place.It arises because both parties have failed to deliver the growth, the full employment and the steady improvement in incomes and .living standards those at the bottom of the heap expect and had had in previous decades. Instead they've got sacrifices which fall primarily on them.
Yet dealing with the dissatisfactions of the people left behind is not only expensive but involves a major change in national priorities .It requires us to compensate the people who've lost out to globalisation. It means making its beneficiaries pay a fairer share . We need to boost the parts of the country which have suffered rather than concentrate all blessings on London and the South east Either we rebalance the economy and run it in a way that satisfies the mass of our people rather than serving the interests of the monied elite, or we face the alienation and dissatisfaction which we'll then have to excoriate as nasty populism.
Why not learn from history? The never had it so good years of post war growth shifted the social balances from wealth to people. Economic policy was managed to compensate them for the sacrifices of war and the suffering of depression. When neoliberalism shifted the balances back to wealth, a culture of richesse insultante developed and the life of the people became harder as they lost the power to help themselves or even live a comfortable life .Instead of being protected, compensated and helped through the impact of globalisation its victims were punished by austerity while the benefits went to the grabbers and the greedy. When ordinary people are sacrificed to the needs of wealth, banks and financial institutions and condemned to watch as high salaries and big bonuses are showered on those at the top of the heap, its a little unrealistic to expect gratitude.