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.

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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