This piece was published in the Fabian Review in September 2016
Social democratic parties are crumbling all across Europe. Insurgent political forces are on the rise, from left to right. The US establishment was shaken to its foundations by the populist campaigns of Trump and Sanders, and new movements have also been making waves in southern democracies like India.
Knee-jerk elitists dismiss all populism out of hand, but this is short-sighted folly. Progressive giants like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Bobby Kennedy and Nye Bevan were passionate populists. Today’s economic and social insecurities demand a practical radicalism equal to their example. The frontlines of twenty-first century politics will be increasingly defined by competing populisms: even Theresa May’s Tories are getting in on the act.
European politics is being transformed by these forces. In austerity-ravaged southern Europe, the left have made the most progress, from Greece to Portugal and Spain’s Podemos. In central and northern Europe the right are ahead – governing in Poland, in pole position for the Austrian presidential re-run as well as in the Netherlands, and flourishing in both France and Germany.
Here in Britain, lightning has struck three times in the last two years. The Corbynite movement, the SNP takeover in Scotland and the Brexit insurgency each tapped into different social forces; but all shared anti-establishment DNA, familiar from my own experience of networked campaigning.
The global hollowing-out of Third Way and social democratic forces was decades in the making. Undertows came from the fragmentation of employment and social identity, growing inequality, and declining trust and deference. Political programmes suffered from timidity or triangulation. Campaigning and organizing decayed. Scandals tainted reputations, and leadership became increasingly technocratic and out of touch.
The financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent stagnation shook the foundations of the Western order. It undermined status quo politics, sowed sparks of anger and dissent, and incubated a new generation of movements. These insurgencies are now coming centre-stage.
The campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders illuminate similarities and differences. Both set themselves up as outsiders, tilted at a corrupt politics and a rigged economy, and claimed to be more authentic and trustworthy than their primary opponents.
Trump dominated the national conversation and decimated his primary opponents through aggressive, personalised media campaigning. By contrast, earlier this year I went on the road with the Sanders campaign to see them building a grassroots movement of millions, who powered his campaign with a flood of small donations, phone calls and doorstep conversations. The new right are often more ruthless at media cut-through, while the new left dominate movement-building.
Sanders and Trump also illuminate the continuing importance of leadership. Trump’s appeal to his party base has not translated into a winning general election strategy. Bernie’s strength was partly down to public approval ratings which far outstripped Trump or Clinton, in particular among independent swing voters; but his weakness among black Democrats proved his undoing. Yet while Sanders lost, he has radicalised Clinton’s economic agenda and changed the Democrats for a generation.
The most effective of the new political movements weave together grassroots organizing with broadly appealing leaders and professional media campaigning. Italy’s Five Star Movement is an impressive, if troubling, example. It has cultivated new political leaders and embraced direct democracy, recently won the mayorships of Rome and Turin, and is neck and neck with centre-left Prime Minister Renzi’s Democrats. Its values and its centralised management remain murky. Many around UKIP talk of copying the Five Star playbook to target Labour’s heartlands.
Popular competition will clearly be fierce in the coming years: the left has no monopoly on new politics. Beyond this leadership election outcome, Labour’s scattered factions must find a path to combine movement organizing with effectiveness and broad appeal.
The Corbynites stepped up their game during the campaign and proved effective at mobilising their base, including through crowdfunding on Crowdpac. But neither they nor their opponents have yet produced an electoral offering strong enough to beat May’s Conservatives.
How can Labour build a pluralistic winning coalition – in particular in England – and reach people who have voted in the past for Brexit, for the Tories or for UKIP? In the new politics, credible leadership, effectiveness in communications and campaigning, and a well-tuned strategy remain essential. No matter how many passionate activists you have, they need a compelling offer to put to voters.
While the Smith campaign embraced economic populism, it failed to mobilise a mass campaign or break the Westminster mould. It is past time for leaders right across Labour to begin practicing the new politics. They can engage with members and supporters or build bridges with Momentum, but they must also build other movements and channels to engage the diverse coalition needed to win.
Nationally and locally, Labour needs to renew its leadership and turn outward to the country. The opportunity was missed to involve millions more in this leadership contest. In future the doors should be flung open. More parliamentary selections also seem likely in the coming years: but in place of retro reselections, the party could experiment with more open primary contests to involve voters at large. The new politics needs to turn toward the future and the public, starting now.