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Beware the clunking fist

Ignore the conventional wisdom. The combination of an improving economy and Gordon Brown’s sheer blo

Conventional wisdom is a poor guide to the future.

At the end of the 20th century, few would have thought that the coming decade would see the election of a black US president, a power-sharing deal between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists, and the nationalisation of some of Britain’s biggest banks.

Yet, even in the face of such unexpected recent events, we still cling to the notion of political ­inevitability. It is now widely regarded as a certainty that Labour will lose the next election, with the Tories on course to form a large majority in the Commons.

A combination of sleaze, exhaustion and economic meltdown are said to have finished off the Labour government. Gordon Brown is seen as a political corpse. The only question to be decided at the polls, it seems, is the scale of his defeat.

But once more, conventional wisdom could be wrong. Labour might look doomed at the moment, in the febrile atmosphere created by the expenses scandal, but the picture could be very different next summer, if the worst of the charlatans have been kicked out of the cabinet and an economic recovery is under way. Moreover, a number of features of the structure of our political system are likely to benefit Labour in the run-up to the next general election.

Even now, in the midst of crisis, it is not all gloom for the government. On 21 May, Labour won a council by-election in Salford, the seat of the discredited Communities Secretary, Hazel Blears, whose conduct over her home allowances has been condemned by Brown as “totally unacceptable”.

Given Blears’s role at the centre of ­Scamalot, the Labour vote in Salford might have been expected to collapse dramatically, but it held up. Meanwhile, the Tory vote dropped, as the party’s candidate was overtaken by both Ukip and the BNP.

Indeed, the Conservatives have not been doing nearly as well in council by-elections as they should be for a party on the verge of government. In one poll at the start of May, in the Rossmere ward of Hartlepool, the Labour vote actually went up, while the Tories were consigned to fifth place.

The national opinion polls are, of course, bleak for the government, but then they also were at the time of the European elections in 2004, a year before Blair’s third triumph. The average Tory lead of 10-12 per cent in recent months might look healthy, but, in truth, if replicated at a general election, it would be barely enough to win. After three successive landslide defeats, the task facing the Conservatives at the next election is daunting.

Taking account of boundary changes, they have to gain at least 112 seats to form an overall majority in the Commons. That would require a 7.1 swing, the equivalent of an 11 per cent lead over Labour in the national British vote, far beyond the scale of anything achieved by a previous Tory opposition.

It is a remarkable historical fact that since the end of the Victorian age, the Conservatives have only once turned out a government which possessed a working majority in parliament. That occurred in 1970, when Ted Heath – defying conventional wisdom and the polls – defeated Harold Wilson’s government, though even then the swing was 4.7 per cent, significantly lower than that needed by Cameron.

Every other Tory victory since 1900 has been against a dying coalition or Labour government which had lost its majority, or never held one.

Nor do all of Cameron’s target seats appear to be in fertile territory for Conservatism. On the list are places such as Keighley, Dewsbury, Derby North, Rossendale and Dumfries and Galloway. It is difficult to envisage all of them turning blue, especially if the general election next year takes place against a backdrop of improving economic news.

When the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, announced in the pre-Budget report last year that recovery could start in the autumn of 2009, he was derided for his prediction. But this could be the reality. Such a recovery would not address the appalling state of the public finances, with levels of national indebtedness far worse than at any time in our history.

Yet it is unlikely that the ­question of the national debt will be a deciding factor at the next election. People will be much more influenced by their own job prospects and personal income. Most homeowners lucky enough to be in work have not suffered too badly in this recession because of the dramatic fall in ­interest rates. There is no sign that rates will increase over the coming year.

By next year, the impact of the expenses scandal and the Smeargate fiasco may have faded. All the opinion polls over the past two years demonstrate that Brown’s ratings improve when economic questions predominate. Again in defiance of conventional wisdom, the Prime Minister’s strange political personality might assist in Labour’s revival in the months before the next election.

His combination of bullying, indecisiveness, cowardice and lack of vision have rightly made him despised by large sections of the public. Yet his strongest trait, his aggressive partisanship, currently a vice, could in future become an asset to Labour.

Every decision Brown makes is dictated, not by the national interests, but by his narrow determination to outflank the Tories. This has led him to absurdities like his notorious pledge of “British jobs for British workers”, but some of his negative campaigning may prove more fruitful.

The stark warnings about “Tory cuts” will be pounded home relentlessly over the next 12 months, and this message is bound to find a receptive audience among two key groups of voters: public-sector workers and welfare claimants, both of whom have done comparatively well from Labour rule. Together, these two groups have more than 12 million votes.

Brown’s partisanship will ensure that every aspect of the political system is ruthlessly exploited to Labour’s advantage. Labour’s turnout will be heavily boosted by postal voting, which, as a series of fraud scandals have proved, is open to corruption by agents and activists. One judge, presiding in 2005 over a case involving a municipal postal voting fraud in Birmingham, said the scale of abuses by six local Labour candidates would have “disgraced a banana republic”.

Indeed, the Labour government cynically introduced postal voting on demand without safeguards in 2000 precisely because it knew the party would be the big winner from such a flawed method. At the 2005 election, 6.5 million people voted by post. The figure will be even higher in 2010 and the misrepresentation even worse.

Similarly, the government will indulge in a wealth of feel-good propaganda over the next year, dressing up pro-Labour publicity as consultation and information exercises. Already the government is by far the biggest advertiser in the country, with the Central Office of Information holding a budget of £400m. Marketing by other pro-Labour public-sector organisations will be added to the political spin.

We can expect schools, hospitals, regeneration projects, community groups and Sure Start centres to start putting up signs at their entrances explaining how much the government has recently invested in their sites. In the same way, the £2.3bn regional development agencies, which the Tories have pledged to abolish, will have everything to gain by launching expensive billboard campaigns telling us about wonderful economic success ­stories in their regions.

Conventional wisdom holds that there will be a big anti-incumbency vote at the next election because of public disillusionment over the current House of Commons. But the opposite may be true. Sitting MPs have two great advantages.

First, their casework means that they have had supportive contact with thousands of voters. The huge increase in staffing allowances in the past decade means that they can often employ two or three assistants in the constituency working on behalf of their local public.

In the 1980s, Chris Smith managed to hang on to a wafer-thin majority in Islington South partly through his assiduity in handling an epic volume of casework, most of them housing issues that should really have been dealt with by local councillors. His winning slogan in the 1987 election was: “Everyone knows somebody who’s been helped by Chris Smith.”

This will be a theme taken up by a host of Labour MPs in 2010. The second advantage is the £10,000-a-year communications allowance, which enables incumbents to spread the gospel of their devotion to their constituents through glossy newsletters.

The changing demography of Britain will also help Labour. The phenomenal increase in mass immigration over the past decade has not only transformed the make-up of our urban society, but has undoubtedly been a significant boon to Labour. All studies show that the overwhelming majority of voters in migrant communities tend to vote Labour. Eighty per cent of black voters back the party and at least 60 per cent of Asians.

Tellingly, many of the highest concentrations of ethnic minorities are in the swaths of marginal seats in outer London, the West Midlands and South Yorkshire. According to the campaign group Operation Black Vote, as many as 70 marginals could be decided by black and Asian voters.

Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill, with its legalisation of positive discrimination in favour of minorities, will be a strong campaigning point for Labour. The influence of the ethnic vote on Labour thinking was graphically revealed in the diary of Chris Mullin, where in January 2004, he lamented how little the government had done to tackle immigration abuses. “We’ve barely touched the rackets that surround arranged marriages. What mugs we are.” Then he added a comment to the effect that there was the difficulty that “at least 20 Labour seats, including Jack Straw’s, depend on Asian votes”.

Brown’s campaign in 2010 may be desperate, cynical, even deceitful, but that does not mean it will not work. Negative campaigning has worked in the past, most famously in 1992 when the Tories’ demolition of “Labour’s tax bombshell” led to John Major’s victory and one of the biggest upsets in history. A discredited government in the fifth year of its third term can stil

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother

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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 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother