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9 July 2017

The Rise of the Outsiders: how populists shattered the status quo

Author Steve Richards says mainstream parties have been forced to reconsider where the centre lies.

By George Eaton

At the start of 2007, as a global economic boom continued, the age of ideological struggle appeared to be over. In Britain, party leaders only seemed to come in one model. Tony Blair and David Cameron – as well as Nick Clegg, who would become the Lib Dem leader later that year – were young and economically and socially liberal. In much of the West, the defining question was no longer which party could change the system but which could best manage it. Politicians competed on an ever-shrinking pitch.

This soon proved a false dawn. The financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 dispelled the illusion of perpetual growth and revived dormant conflicts. In the years that followed, those left politically homeless by economic or social liberalism found alternatives: Syriza and Podemos surged in Greece and Spain; Labour elected an unambiguous socialist as leader; the UK voted to leave the EU; Donald Trump entered the White House. In country after country, the presumed “centre” did not hold.

Steve Richards, a broadcaster and former political editor of the New Statesman, assesses these convulsions in his new book. In a hyper-partisan age, Richards is notable for writing sympathetically about professional politicians and the tortuous dilemmas and trade-offs they face. “The gap between the way elected insiders are perceived and the reality of their neurotic, tentative hold on power is darkly comic,” he observes. But though Richards avoids the default cynicism that mars some commentary, he does not hesitate to deliver tough judgements.

The Rise of the Outsiders is also the story of the fall of the insiders. In a two-part section entitled “Choosing to Be Powerless”, Richards assails, in turn, the mainstream left and right for accepting the economic status quo. The left did so out of “defensive expediency”: “They did not believe that they could win elections by putting the case for government.” The right did so out of “assertive ideological self-confidence”.

When the crash came, the centre left under­estimated the scale of change required and the political fury the living standards crisis would unleash. “Like characters in a film noir,” Richards writes, “they chose to move towards their doom, even though they had already been exposed to the dangers of doing so.” He draws an insightful comparison with the 1970s, when Harold Wilson and Edward Heath failed to recognise the exhaustion of the postwar consensus and Thatcherism claimed the future.

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After the 2008 crisis, Ed Miliband sought to be both “radical” and “credible” but was judged by voters to be neither. The shock of the first Tory majority in 23 years (and a change in the Labour leadership rules) opened the way for Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent. Labour’s recent advance contrasts with the enfeebled state of social democrats in France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands: prog rockers in a punk age. After topping the charts with “the Third Way” in the 1990s, they have struggled to reinvent themselves as tastes have changed.

The centre right, largely owing to its perceived economic competence, has fared better (most notably the nuclear-proof Angela Merkel). But, as Richards argues, the small-state ideology of Conservatives and Republicans created the conditions for populist revolt. Though the Brexiteers and Trump had no principled commitment to economic interventionism, their opportunistic collectivism (“£350m for the NHS!”; “$1trn for infrastructure!”) resonated with voters left cold by the market. By casting themselves as “outsiders”, Trump (a pampered plutocrat) and Nigel Farage (a smug stockbroker) escaped “ideological incarceration”: “They are not on the far right; they are on the outside. Serious, probing debate becomes almost impossible.” Liberals have little defence against those who bring a gun to a knife fight.

Richards’s analysis is persuasive but his book lacks the distinctive features necessary to make it a landmark work. Though it draws on anecdotes acquired from decades in the trade, it is short on original reporting and interviews. Broad economic trends are covered but more forensic use could have been made of data. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times recently compiled an economic metric showing that the G7 countries most adversely affected by the crash (and buffeted by globalisation) were Spain, the US, Italy and the UK, while the least affected were Germany, Canada and Japan – such insights are invaluable in explaining populism’s contrasting fortunes.

Richards’s conclusions are relatively optimistic. The outsiders, he notes, have forced mainstream parties to reconsider where the centre lies and to question their economic assumptions. Liberalism’s monopoly on political thought has been broken. Rather than assuming power, mainstream politicians must now fight for it (as Emmanuel Macron did in France). In these volatile times, elections are competitive once more.

And though populists can appear “intimidatingly strong”, they are “transparently weak”. When they acquire office, they invariably disappoint expectations. Trump’s approval ratings are crumbling and the “hard Brexiteers” have been denied the electoral mandate they sought. Faced with the same constraints as their reviled opponents, they become trapped.

The outsiders, then, contain the seeds for their own destruction. One can only hope that, when they finally blow themselves up, others are not caught in the blast. 

The Rise of the Outsiders: How Mainstream Politics Lost Its Way
Steve Richards
Atlantic Books, 320pp, £18.99

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This article appears in the 05 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania