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12 December 2016

What do the new, right-wing populists mean for our future?

It is this year's cruellest political irony that the people who most support the populists are the least "future fit".

By John Harris

“Are you future fit?” asked the posters. Ten days before the EU referendum, I was at a graduate recruitment fair in Manchester, where the ratio of Remain to Leave voters seemed to stand at roughly 15:1, and just about everyone I spoke to had an essentially optimistic view of the future. When I asked one twentysomething for his advice to people worried about immigration and set on voting to exit Europe, he replied without missing a beat: “In general, I’d say: ‘You know what? We live in the 21st century. Get with it.’”

I then spent the afternoon in the pinched and windswept north Mancunian neighbourhood of Collyhurst, where there is no kids’ playground, a solitary football pitch has long since disappeared under waist-high weeds, and the only cashpoint charges £1.85 for withdrawals. Here, the polarities were reversed: I could not find a single Remain voter, many stereotypes were defied in front of my eyes (one of the most thoughtful Leave supporters I met had come to the UK from Malawi 15 years ago) and the people I spoke to framed their support for Brexit in terms of being on the wrong side of just about every social and economic divide. The most memorable comment I heard was from a woman on her way home from the Asda that was a ten-minute bus ride away. “If you’ve got money, you vote In,” she said. “If you haven’t got money, you vote Out.”

These two kinds of voter did not tell the whole story of the referendum. The Leave side won by adding “left behind” people to the millions of more affluent, Tory-inclined voters who would have supported leaving the EU in any event; and in Scotland, plenty of residents in post-industrial areas joined with liberal city-dwellers to give the Remain side a majority. Nonetheless, at the core of both Brexit and electoral politics across the West, there is now an aching division: between those at ease with modernity, and a swath of people who have a more uneasy, often downright hostile take on where the world has ended up.

In the UK, the clearest shift of 2016 happened on the right. The Conservative Party is once again worthy of its name: after all those years of David Cameron and George Osborne lecturing the Tories about the need to modernise and cast their eyes to the future, Theresa May has evidently decided to go with the 52 rather than the 48 per cent, from which all else follows: Brexit means Brexit, grammar schools are back in favour, and the government is pushing its rhetoric on immigration way beyond liberal boundaries.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party is confounded, still thinking of its old working-class base as its “core” vote even though it is increasingly rooted chiefly in metropolitan, liberal areas. The upshot: thanks to the opposing approaches to Europe favoured by those two electoral camps (and also to Jeremy Corbyn’s and John McDonnell’s lifelong antipathy to the EU), Labour is unable to say anything coherent about the defining UK issue of the age – which leaves it silent.

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In the party’s old English and Welsh heartlands, there is a vacuum. It will not necessarily be filled: in many post-industrial places, there is no automatic reason why people will not do what they have been doing for the past 20 years, and either stop voting or wearily backing Labour with ever-decreasing enthusiasm (as Pink Floyd once put it, hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way). But with the Ukip and Brexit donor Arron Banks cheered by Donald Trump’s ascent and ready to start his self-styled people’s movement in 2017, the beginnings of a working-class realignment may be on the way. It may well be assisted, moreover, by one of the inescapable elements of Brexit: even if it is as “hard” as Banks and his ilk want, the process will take time. In the past few weeks, I have talked to plenty of working-class Leave voters already convinced that everything is taking far too long and that, given the chance, the fabled liberal elite will stitch them up. Herein lies the Big Right populist opportunity.

But in one sense, the people who want to grab it are not in the right place. Banks and Nigel Farage are classic southern English Thatcherites, whose electoral failure so far is not only down to the crookedness of our voting system, but also traceable to their awkward cultural-political fit with many of the places that they want to represent. In that regard, the election of the Liverpudlian Paul Nuttall as Ukip leader answers a call: his affinity with Old Labour areas is obvious, though how he and what remains of his party fit into Banks’s new vision is unclear.

Whatever, the point stands: truly successful populism is rarely so keen on the small state and unfettered capitalism as Brexit’s free-marketeers would like. Look at the hard-right parties that have so disrupted politics in Scandinavia: the Sweden Democrats, True Finns and Danish People’s Party. Their shared credo is anti-immigration and pro the welfare state: a political sweet spot evident in the successes they have scored in the “left behind” areas of their countries.

In the US, something comparable sat at the heart of the biggest global story of the year. Not that liberal bleeding hearts like to confront such awkward facts, but as Hillary Clinton piled on votes in liberal redoubts on the east and west coasts, Donald Trump clinched his win in such Rust Belt states as Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio. And he did so because of his clear message on the iniquities of free trade deals, and his emotional rhetoric about America’s decline, which spoke loudly to people and places laid low by deindustrialisation. On one level, this is nothing that new: interventionist, anti-market populism has an American heritage that goes back over a century. But in the context of 2016, Trump’s politics represent a profound rupture. For a long time, the Republican Party used the cultural politics of white racism, gun ownership and all the rest to sell doctrinaire free-marketry to many of the people who were its victims. With no little cynicism, Trump has retained a sharp flavour of the first ingredient but moved sharply away from the second. Yes, he wants to cut corporation tax sharply; but equally, he is an avowed protectionist, and his people talk about a Rooseveltian programme of infrastructure-building, along with the necessity of using government to revive US manufacturing. It may all come to nothing: for now, the critical thing is that electorally it has proved so successful.

Which way out for the left? As evidenced by his comeback interview in the New Statesman (25 November), Tony Blair leads a set of voices that seem to take seriously the idea of jettisoning the old dream of a progressive politics rooted in the working class and inventing a new, liberal “open” politics to avenge the rise of “closed” populism.

Those who still want the left to reunite its two estranged camps face a job of reinvention and political renewal so huge that it will probably take decades to accomplish. You could just about make the argument that in twenty or thirty years’ time, when socially liberal people now in their teens and twenties have the political whip hand, today’s clunking populism will be a distant memory, and the liberal left will once again be dominant. But that is a long way off, and whatever their internal contradictions, the new populists will make no end of trouble. While they do, the economic turbulence let loose will favour only the resilient and economically confident, and highlight this year’s cruellest political irony: that the people who most support the populists are the least “future-fit” of all.

John Harris writes for the Guardian

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This article appears in the 06 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump