In his later writing, the great political scientist Peter Mair anticipated the development of party systems in which a “partyless populism” of mainstream parties, denuded of members, appealing from the crumbling ramparts of the state to an inert electorate, would coexist with a “protest populism” of challenger parties, mobilising discontent with responsible, established politics into new forms of insurgency, whether radical left, nativist right or plain anti-political. He was right – in the past decade, much of this has happened in continental Europe. Populist parties have surged almost everywhere, facilitated by proportional electoral systems, while mainstream parties have lost vote share, members and sometimes even power.
In contrast, in the UK and the US, challenger populism has entered directly into the bloodstream of the established politics. Despite an increased fragmentation and pluralisation of politics, the internal party selection processes and electoral systems in each of these countries have produced populist insurgencies within the two leading parties, as well as outside them. In the US, the Democrats have absorbed this insurgency and managed it, while the Republicans have been convulsed. The converse is true in the UK: Labour, the Democrats’ historical ally, has been rent apart, while the Conservatives have smoothly consolidated power after a clinical, if briefly turbulent, regime change.
Jeremy Corbyn’s improbable leadership of the Labour Party cannot be understood without reference to this frame. He won the leadership, and will retain it, not because prelapsarian Bennism has suddenly become politically relevant, but because a relatively small but significant proportion of the electorate has rejected the mainstream centre left, in both form and content. It disavows austerity and foreign wars, and associates New Labour with hollowed-out, unprincipled managerialism. The opening up of Labour’s internal democracy to new members and registered supporters has allowed hundreds of thousands of these voters, as well as a lesser number of assorted sectarian-left groupuscules, into the heart of the party. This is a left populism erupting within the mainstream, not safely channelled outside it.
In their political practice, Corbyn’s supporters use classic populist discursive motifs, substituting “grass roots” and “party members” for “the people”, and “Blairite” for “Westminster” or “Brussels elite”, in the dualisms that structure populist political antagonisms. In common with other populist forces, they mobilise grievances against professional politicians and bureaucrats, and prefer plebiscitary decision-making to representative and hierarchical mechanisms. They are adept at using digital tools, not only to campaign, but to create and sustain political identities, both on and offline. Theirs is a Facebook and flash-mob politics, with pungent effects.
Corbyn has also pioneered a form of uncharismatic populist leader. In the conventional Weberian mould, practised in recent years by the likes of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, the populist leader figure is a charismatic demagogue who claims to give unmediated voice to the authentic will of the people (the best radical-left example is Pablo Iglesias of Podemos, who practises an astute populism that draws on post-Marxist theory). Corbyn does precisely the reverse: his appeal to his supporters is couched in a lack of ego and the dissolution of the leader figure into the collective movement. The more rambling and incoherent his speeches, the more unprofessional his office management, and the more unkempt his appearance, the more authentic he becomes. He is a figure on to which his supporters can project a host of virtues and aspirations. Consequently, attacks on his lack of leadership ability just bounce off him. He is not an anti-political leader, harvesting contempt for established politicians, but an anti-leader figure.
Unfortunately for the Labour Party, this style of leadership does not travel well in the wider electorate. Corbyn is not building a social movement or counter power for the left that will command broad popular support. The days of mass parties, deeply embedded in the culture and institutions of the wider society, are long gone, and cannot be reinvented, digitally or otherwise. That is not to say that Corbynism entirely lacks social roots. It yokes together the expressive politics of a middle-class, middle-aged and liberal left, tired of compromise and the hard slog of governing, with the energy and discontent of a youthful population that has lost out badly in the post-financial-crisis era, its life chances stunted by debt, low wages and crimped access to affordable housing. Both of these groups are cosmopolitan, outward-facing and strongest in urban, educated Britain, which is why the left does well in the cities and university towns, but struggles in the post-industrial heartlands of the working class and fares catastrophically badly among older and socially conservative voters.
Social class reduction on the Corbynite left renders it analytically and politically insensitive to the politics of culture and identity, as well as to the new electoral cleavages of demography. That is why it has no answers to Scottish nationalism and the English Question, and appears to have such a limited grasp of how to respond to an ageing, security-conscious electorate. Given the bases of his support, Corbyn should have been alert to the trauma that the Brexit result would elicit, but rather like an unconscious desire forcing its way into polite conversation, he blurted out his residual Euroscepticism by calling for Article 50 to be triggered immediately after the June referendum.
The summer’s leadership election was rancorous, but little else. It was not a contest of ideas. It did not generate any insights into how the left might meet the challenges of the 2020s. It did not lay the foundations for political renewal, so much as consolidate the grounds of division within the party. There is worse to come.
Yet there are prospects for a revitalised social democracy. Western economies cannot subsist for ever on a diet of low interest rates and quantitative easing, and let all economic leadership fall on the shoulders of central bankers. The political space once colonised by social (and European Christian) democrats of actively managing capitalist economies in the common good is opening up again, in ways that have not seemed possible since the collapse of the Keynesian settlement in the 1970s.
In the UK, Brexit will force the construction of a new political-economic settlement between the social classes, economic sectors and nations of the UK. It is fraught with danger, but also potential. The left could both have a voice in that process of national reconstruction, despite its current marginalisation, and use Brexit – unwished for and as damaging as it might become – to develop its own account of the economic and political priorities for Britain, marshalling new coalitions of support behind them.
That will remain a distant prospect while Labour and other progressive parties remain so enfeebled. The ghosts of the 1930s, when Labour was split and impotent outside local government, still rattle around in the collective memory. But new points of unity may emerge: around an investment-led economic strategy for tackling the UK’s productivity deficit, housing shortages and regional imbalances; or on democratic reform and the federalisation of the UK; and, of course, continued strong ties to Europe. Social democracy, often consigned to the dustbin of history, has been renewed and revived before, and may be so again.
Nick Pearce is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Bath
This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.
This article appears in the 15 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times