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Left-wing populism? Don't hold your breath

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

Ed Miliband addresses the TUC rally on 26 March 2011.
Ed Miliband's message: don't get your hopes up. (Photo: Getty.)

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.