Left-wing populism? Don't hold your breath

Why "the cuts" aren't as big an issue as we'd like to think.

In my opinion, the emergence of a "left-wing UKIP" - a successful, left-wing populist party in Britain - is unlikely. But what are the chances of "a left idealistic populism refusing to accept the pragmatism of office . . . a possible wider 'no cuts, no austerity' movement", as suggested by Anthony Painter? There are a couple of significant hurdles the anti-cuts movement today that would be tough to overcome.

Firstly, and I am sorry to say it, for most people "the cuts" plural are not as big an issue as you, I, and everyone on the left would like them to be. People are worried about the changes to the NHS. Cuts to social security, and particularly to disabled people, are building up a reservoir of disgust. And councils up and down the land have faced localised save our services-style campaigns. But the missing ingredient is a diffuse consciousness that links all these up, despite the best efforts of the lefter-leaning trade unions and the far left. The cuts are necessary and there is no alternative - to borrow a tired old mantra.

Unlike UKIP, whose rise as the de facto "none-of-the-above" party owes a great deal to the rabidly right wing press, an anti-cuts left populism will not monopolise the acres of media coverage our band of "loonies, fruitcakes and closet racists" commands. Straight away, they're at a disadvantage. Secondly, the workplace and community-rootedness of the labour movement is not what it used to be. With the deliberate smashing up of whole sectors of industry, and the deliberate policy of allowing the winds of globalisation to howl virtually unfettered through the British economy has ripped away the sort of class-based organising capacity that facilitated the emergence of new left/workers' parties across the continent, for instance.

A poll tax or 10p tax moment could change things very, very quickly - but not even this incompetent shower are dumb enough to go down those roads. Organisation can very occasionally be short-circuited and jumpstarted by consciousness if an issue is significantly weighty. And, as you might expect, the political dynamics that condition the viability and potentiality of social movements alternate with the switching of governments. Which, as Anthony notes, makes the government's refusal to take advantage of low interest rates to borrow money now to invest all the more unforgivable - low rates aren't likely to avail themselves in two years time.

I'm not forecasting a "crisis of expectations" in the next Labour government. After all, the two Eds are going out their way not to get anyone's hopes up, about anything. Nevertheless there are significant revenue-neutral measures Labour can enact to get the economy going and forestall populism, whether it's of the left anti-cuts variety or the right's EU/immigrant-bashing. The mansion tax/10p tax trade off is a welcome first step in the direction Labour needs to be heading. The reversal of this government's corporate tax subsidies and restoring the 50p tax to pay for VAT cuts would put money in people's pockets. Scrapping the public sector pay freeze (and implementing strict salary ratios within it) would do the same too. Most important Labour needs to start thinking now about root and branch reform of workplace law to counter and roll back the seemingly unending trend toward casualisation and part-time working. If you want to rip out the appeal of populism, if you want to get people spending again, and, crucially, you want people to get more involved in community-type things, like joining the labour movement and supporting the Labour Party, then you need many millions more to enjoy security and stability in their everyday lives.

Populism is, in many ways, the politics of despair. Labour has it within its gift to counter that, and it need not empty the exchequer.

Ed Miliband's message: don't get your hopes up. (Photo: Getty.)

Phil Burton-Cartledge blogs at All That Is Solid and lectures at the University of Derby. He tweets as @philbc3.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times