The debate about Labour’s newfound emphasis on left populism, as defined by Jonathan Freedland, reminds me of the classic scene in Spinal Tap.
When accused of being populist, one response is to ask, not unreasonably, ‘what’s wrong with being popular?’.
This is not a stupid reply, As Aditya Chakrabortty points out, the history of populism is a long one, and the meaning of the word is loaded.
Now in recent political debate, ‘populist’ is often simply the crude rejoinder to ‘elitist’. This is nothing new. I think of Aristophanes attacks on Cleon in ‘the Knights’ as a sort of historical template for the abuse of popular and populist politicians.
“Do as now you do.
Turn every question to a public stew.
Hash things, and cook things. Win the common herd
By strong sweet sauces in your every word.
For other gifts, you have half the catalogue
Already, for the perfect demagogue;
A blood-shot voice, low breeding, huckster’s tricks
What more can man require for politics”
We can point out that to be popular can simply mean, as with the Gracchi and the populares, to be seen to be on the side of the people.
Returning to the present, I’ve argued before that I don’t think Labour’s recent policy announcements are ‘left’, but I do think that they are an attempt to be popular and on the side of ‘the people’, and so in this positive sense, they are indeed populist.
So just calling something ‘populist’ isn’t a particularly powerful condemnation. On one level it’s an empty insult, on another a badge of honour. After all, apart from me, who wants to be an unpopulist?
But neither is being ‘popular’ a straightforward political good. After all, the ‘people’ can be defined in many ways. I don’t know many left wing populists who would call for the death penalty, an end to immigration and castration for paedophiles, even though all of these are likely popular policies. Godfrey Bloom, a ‘populist’ of a rather different sort, has his own enemies in mind when he speaks darkly of the out of touch elites.
The problem with ‘popular’ politics comes, first, when it looks for villains who can be blamed for ills more than for solutions that will be effective. If the villains are not really to blame, or merely punishing them will not solve the problem, they become mere scapegoats2.
Second, if the solutions that are offered do not work, or are impractical, expensive, or unbelievable, in the end, they undermine the argument for reforms that can be made. The popular becomes the enemy of the workable. If people think you can’t do it, they’re unlikely to support you trying (unless the alternative is really bad)
This leads me to the view that the challenge for populism does not lies either in its identification of problems – which is usually acute – or in a political identification with the masses, which is moral and sensible, but whether the villains it identifies are more than just convenient caricatures and if the solutions it offers are practical.
Politicians can fall on both sides of this divide. For example, one of my political heroes, Huey Long, was a smart populist when he argued that Louisiana’s people deserved a greater share of the Oil revenue from their state, and a dumb populist when he argued for a national maximum income.
In one case, the problem was real, the villains sharply drawn, the solution acute. In the other, the problem was real, the villain a caricature, and the solution nonsensical.3
In other words, the question to ask of a populist message is not to challenge motives or the desire to side with the people, but to accept both and ask ‘Will it actually work?’.
Very often the answer is yes. The minimum wage, a comprehensive health service, social security. All of these were populist and popular measures that worked.
I would not be much of a progressive if I didn’t think there were many more! One example might be on the pensions market, where Labour has been doing careful, studied work on the charges paid by consumers.
Sometimes though, the answer is no.
I tend to think that this is the case when the method is crude, the policy short term, the
promise incredible or the method for fulfilment vague, and the villain, rather than the solution, placed firmly in the spotlight. When the solution seems scared of the details, something is awry. Then the populism is merely a pleasant fantasy, not a plan. It’s just a land of Cockaigne.
It’s why, to be frank, I have some doubts about the Energy Price freeze policy. I don’t understand if our analysis is that the energy companies are profiteering, that in energy prices should simply be generally lower (The Rent Is Too Damn High!), or that poorer people specifically need more help with their bills.
Nor do I quite understand how freezing electricity and gas prices fits with our desire to increase the share of energy provided by more expensive non-carbon depleting sources. I don’t quite get how a non-redistributive, non-energy efficient, one-off policy fits with our claims for a pre-distributive, investment focussed, long termist agenda.
I don’t really mind abut such details, though. I’m not in a flat spin about a lurch to the left, as I don’t think it is one. After all, the Windfall Tax on privatised Utilities could be described in much the same way, and that did little harm and some good. However, things are different now than to 1997, as I am regularly told. We are trying to increase energy infrastructure investment, increase the share of renewables, and encourage energy efficiency and I don’t really get how this policy helps with any of that, even compared to say, a Windfall tax on profits, which could be at least targeted to priorities. (The same ‘but will it work?’ response also applies to a populist Housing pledge to , as Prof Henry Overman and others have suggested)
Rather, my concern is that we’re giving the impression of embracing populism while doing no such thing in practise.
Back in May, I argued that the choice for Labour was either to embrace left populism or pragmatism. It might be that ahead of the election we’ve chosen to embrace populist rhetoric while retaining broadly pragmatic policy. This has united the party and given a couple of dramatic hooks for campaigning.
There are three risks here. The first is that the occasional streaks of left populism do not work when enacted, or look simplistic and crude when scrutinised. this might leave us looking on people’s side, but a bit silly.
The second, us that we open the door to other, alternative populisms to which we cannot then respond (Hey, let’s cut fuel duty! Hey, let’s axe Carbon pricing – that’ll reduce bills more!)
The final issue is that creating the impression of embracing left populism, while generally retaining pragmatism might store up trouble for the future. When the next Labour government fails to nationalise railways, increase spending, increase public pay and pensions, will those who feel the Labour party has now tonally embraced a radical, popular alternative feel bound by such discipline?
This is especially important because the policies portrayed as left, are not really anything of the sort, so could have been argued for in a completely different way – a small solace in tough times, not a radical transformation, which would have possibly had the same appeal.
In other words, if we promise anchovies for an obol, what happens if we have then to have to put rent up?
- A reference to the Knights: “Senators, I wanted you to be the first to hear the good news; since the war broke out, I have never seen anchovies at a lower price!” All faces brightened at once and I was voted a chaplet for my good tidings; and I added, “With a couple of words I will reveal to you how you can have quantities of anchovies for an obol; all you have to do is to seize on all the dishes the merchants have.” With mouths gaping with admiration, they applauded me. However, the Paphlagonian winded the matter and, well knowing the sort of language which pleases the Senate best, said, “Friends, I am resolved to offer one hundred oxen to the goddess in recognition of this happy event.” The Senate at once veered to his side. So when I saw myself defeated by this ox dung, I outbade the fellow, crying, “Two hundred!” And beyond this I moved that a vow be made to Diana of a thousand goats if the next day anchovies should only be worth an obol a hundred. And the Senate looked towards me again. The other, stunned with the blow, grew delirious in his speech, and at last the Prytanes and the Scythians dragged him out. The Senators then stood talking noisily about the anchovies. Cleon, however, begged them to listen to the Lacedaemonian envoy, who had come to make proposals of peace; but all with one accord cried “Certainly it’s not the moment to think of peace now! If anchovies are so cheap, what need have we of peace? Let the war take its course!” [↩]
- On the left, we easily identify this process when it is aimed at the downtrodden or the unpopular, Historically: immigrants, Jews and Catholics – for example. We are less attuned to hearing the same echo when the people being blamed are the shadowy and the powerful – Historically: Bankers, Corporations, and rather depressingly, Jews again [↩]
- It’s also why so many of the 30s populists eventually found themselves in rather unpleasant, anti-semitic company. They needed villains. [↩]