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Go fourth

John Prescott, Alastair Campbell, Richard Caborn and Glenys Kinnock call for the party and its suppo

EXCLUSIVEIf the polls and pundits are to be believed, within two years or so, David Cameron will be prime minister and the Conservatives back in power.

People should cast their minds back to the mid-Nineties, when the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock held commanding poll leads and won great by-election victories. The same lesson is there for both parties in the subsequent re-election of the Tories in 1992. For the Tories: not to assume that poll leads automatically translate to seats. For Labour: never to give up, never to bow down before fatalism or the self-serving hope of opponents in a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The only real answer to the pollsters' question, "If there were a general election tomorrow, how would you vote?", is: "There isn't one." A lot can happen between now and then.

There is, however, one enormous difference between 1992 and now, and it is this difference to which Labour has to be particularly alert. In that election, and the one which followed in 1997, the big issue was the opposition party, Labour.

Were we fit to govern? Had we changed sufficiently to win back the trust of the people? Had we really thought through the policies, and did the sums add up?

A combination of a highly effective political organisation, and a media that largely followed its strategic lead, ensured that the only party under real intense scrutiny was ours.

Yet now, with the Tories well ahead in the polls, when it comes to real scrutiny, it is as though they didn't really exist.

Labour needs to rediscover the passion that gave us victory in the first place, to defend our record with pride

If most of us were to stop people at random in the street, and ask them to name three things that David Cameron would do as prime minister, it is not an insult to the public to suggest most would struggle to answer.

Likewise, most people would struggle to name more than two or three current members of the shadow cabinet. The people who would run our schools, hospitals, roads, armed forces are virtual unknowns outside the Westminster village.

This is not merely the result of a media bored with the story of Labour in power and keen for a new set of characters to populate the soap opera that passes for media debate on policy. It is also the result of a deliberate Conservative strategy to avoid policy, avoid facing the difficult decisions that politics ultimately requires you to make, and go along with the media game of making Gordon Brown the only story in town, preferably with as negative a slant as can be found.

There is no point in moaning, however. We have to do something about it. Not just the Prime Minister, not just the cabinet or the MPs, this includes anyone who understands that Britain is best served by a fourth-term Labour government, not a return to a Conservative Party scared to bring forward policies of substance because its MPs and members have not changed sufficiently to embrace anything other than the style and froth Mr Cameron is very good at.

That is why we are urging people to sign up to a new campaigning organisation, Go Fourth - Campaign for a Labour Fourth Term - a campaign dedicated to supporting the fight for the re-election of a Labour government and committed to the same principles and values that have won us an unprecedented three consecutive victories.

We passionately believe this party needs to get off the back foot, out of its despondency, and start campaigning on our proud record of government so we can take the fight to the Tories.

It's not going to be easy - we need to work harder than we've ever worked, campaign better than we've ever campaigned and reach out wider than we ever have.

To this end, the campaign's main aims will be to:

Proudly defend the record of the Labour government since 1997;

Actively support the government in promoting policies that will build on our successes;

Encourage greater participation in the Labour Party;

Highlight the damage a Conservative government will do to Britain.

Anyone who supports these four aims, and who believes Britain's best interests will be maintained by a Labour not a Tory government, is welcome to join our Campaign for a Labour Fourth Term. We are looking beyond politicians, or those who are normally active in the political debate, to a wider support. When we launch in six weeks' time, we'll spell out just how we can all come together to take on the Conservatives.

There were those who believed, when Labour lost the 1992 election - having been so far ahead in the polls, only to see that lead erode - that we would never get power again. Five years later, we were elected in a landslide.

Our opponents then pointed out that Labour had never secured two full successive terms in power.

When we won another landslide, some felt it would not be possible to win a third term. Yet, even after all the difficulties raised in the debate over Iraq, Labour did win a third term.

A fourth term, once unthinkable, remains a real prospect. More than that, it is vital to the future of Britain.

The Tory party has had to accept many of the changes Labour has made for the country. But while Britain has changed for the better, we should never forget that the Tories opposed the changes needed to make those improvements. And any analysis of their policy prospectus shows an unchanged party that has little understanding of the role of government in helping people face the challenges of modern life.

"Time for a change" is their only cry. But change to what? That is a question that the Campaign for a Labour Fourth Term will help the country answer.

The change would be to an outmoded, old-fashioned, elitist party determined to take Britain back to the days when the country was run by and for a privileged few, not for the many.

We are proud of what Labour has achieved for Britain. And we are determined to do what we can to stop the country going back to the Conservatives.

Rightly in politics, there is an enormous focus on the party leaders. But the fight cannot be won by them alone. Labour needs to rediscover the passion that gave us victory in the first place, to defend our record with pride, promote our policy agenda with confidence, knowing that we are alone in having thought through policies to meet the great challenges of our time.

Now is the time to get back on the campaign trail. So let's get knocking on the doors, fighting on the web and tackling the Conservatives through the media.

The Tories are still the same old Tories; offering the same quack prescriptions and easy options. We've beaten them three times already, so let's go for a fourth and stop them gaining a victory they have done absolutely nothing to deserve.

So, if you believe in fairness, equality and social justice, it's time to stand up and be counted.

It's time for you to join us in our Campaign for a Labour Fourth Term.

John Prescott is the former deputy prime minister; Alastair Campbell is the former director of communications and strategy for the Prime Minister's Office; Richard Caborn is MP for Sheffield Central; Glenys Kinnock MEP represents Wales in the European Parliament

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party

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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

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The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

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The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party