What Ernesto Laclau can teach us about the Brexit Party

The political theorist’s ideas perfectly capture Nigel Farage’s vapid brand of populism.

 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In his attempt to capture the largest share of “the people”, Nigel Farage has left his old outfit behind. His Brexit Party is currently leading the pack, frequently by impressive margins, making it the foremost competitor to the main parties in the European elections. Part of its success hinges on Farage’s shrewd calculation of detoxification

Ukip’s thuggery has escalated under its new leader Gerard Batten. Where it once strove to appear moderate, the party’s darker characteristics are now a proud flag. Farage’s abandonment was a shrewd calculation to rid his image – and his movement – of Ukip’s toxicity.

Argentine political theorist Ernesto Laclau, who spent the majority of his career at the University of Essex, captured the logic that underpins the Brexit Party’s recent success. Laclau was well known for his work on political discourse, and how this related to successful populist movements. In a 2006 paper titled “Why constructing a people is the main task of radical politics”, Laclau laid out a compellingly simply theory: politicians invent ideas, and people unite around them.

The Solidarnosc movement in Poland became a case study for Laclau’s theory. Solidarnosc (“Solidarity”) began as a workers strike and captured swathes of the population with a vague idea of reform. Its miscellaneous supporters – trade unionists, the anti-Soviet left, the Catholic Church and democrats with varying demands – united to fight for free elections.

The movement’s ensuing campaign for a self-governing republic free from Soviet repression was a clear example of what Laclau termed a ”signifier”, a symbol around which all these groups could coalesce. It was vague and broad enough to become a catch-all for a myriad of interests. without presenting a concrete policy agenda. 

As Laclau foresaw, the success of populist movements depends on a symbolic signifier that can unite varied demands under a single umbrella. The Brexit party’s empty signifier is Brexit, uniting a variety of voters under its banner; Farage loyalists, grassroots Conservatives, George Galloway, and the Communist Party. Its genius lies in its simplicity: an ideologically empty home for those angry at what they perceive as a Brexit betrayal by corrupt elites.

The party has transcended left and right and avoided boxing itself into a particular constituency or voter demographic. Ukip, on the other hand, no longer has a unifying signifier. Under Batten’s leadership, it has hardened into repository for far-right conservatism. Its candidates include the misogynistic Carl Benjamin, Mark Meechan, a frequenter of racist online forums, and racist tweeter Keith Cubar.

Meanwhile, the Brexit Party’s line-up of doctors and veterans scream normalcy, and help wash the poison from Farage’s platform. But the history of its leader still festers. Farage’s speech at the party’s launch was hate fuelled – yet nobody else seems as capable at simple, emotive politics.

To defeat right-wing populists, you must understand how to create your own unifying signifier to construct or catch the greatest share of your own “people”. For other electoral contenders in the European elections, what would those look like?

Right off the bat, Change UK should have always called itself the Remain Party. “Change UK” is a shrivelled Blairite relic. The Remain Party could have been a catch-all for the 16.1 million Remainers, but many will go to the polls completely unaware of what Change UK means, because it means nothing.

That Change UK has failed to capture public imagination is evidence of the right’s success at projecting authenticity through empty signifiers. Hardline Remainers are more likely to flock to the Lib Dems, only because they know who they are.

Labour’s difficulties are more complex. Its support spans both Leave and Remain constituencies, so it is bound to upset one or the other. But going by recent analyses, it didn’t suffer backlash from either Leave or Remain voters in the local elections. The party’s greatest danger is appearing like it has no plan, because the plan is difficult to explain.

If the leadership wish to stick to their guns, a unifier akin to “Get On With it”, in the context of winning security for businesses and workers alike, would be more effective than attempting to explain the intricacies of the Customs Union or six tests

And what of the Tories? Not even Laclau himself could advise them.

For now, the savviest of the hard right in their sparkly new outfit are miles better at the skill of constructing a “people” through their audacious, homogenising simplicity. So long as others flounder in equivocation, the threat of Farage’s supremacy will hang over the European elections.

Jade Azim is a writer and political commentator. She tweets @jadefrancesazim