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How to Defeat the National Populists
Jon Bloomfield and David Edgar look at how progressive parties can overcome the rise in national-populism by offering real progressive change
Xenophobic nationalism is on the rise across Europe. Wars – Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Syria, Ukraine – force millions to flee their homes; the climate crisis accelerates; famines, poverty and insecurity permeate the African continent; while across Europe, working class living standards stagnate. These are the conditions in which populist parties of the hard Right can thrive.
Parties with their roots in fascism assume a new guise – Meloni in Italy, Le Pen in France, the Swedish Democrats, the True Finns; demagogues appeal to the certainties of the past – variants of faith, flag and family. Ethno-nationalism flourishes with its hatred of those considered ‘outsiders’. As the post-war cordon sanitaire which discouraged mainstream right-wing parties from dealing with the far-right has crumbled, many conventionally conservative politicians are shedding their post-war commitment to the values of liberty and equality and looking to cosy up with this hard right. Spain, Holland and France could all soon follow the recent examples of Italy, Finland and Sweden, while German CDU leader Merz floats the idea of regional collaboration with the neo-Nazi AfD. And, of course, in the United States, the hard right has got its hands firmly round the throat of one of the two major parties.
The intellectual narrative of the 4Gs – Goodwin, Goodhart, Glasman and Gray – discussed in our previous article fits into this wider picture. They each have their distinctive nuances but taken as a whole, their anti-European, anti-woke nationalism rolls the pitch for an English variant of the national populism that is increasingly dominating the Conservative Party. Given momentum by the Brexit referendum and the 2019 General Election, the transformation of the Conservatives continues apace. Their headlong rush into the arms of the Farageist, Trumpist right was on full display at their party conference.
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The objective common to all on the populist Right is the permanent rupture of the alliance developed in the mid-20th century, which both defeated fascism and civilised capitalism. This progressive/working-class affinity brought about most of the great reforms of the 20th century, from the American New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement, from the British welfare state to the social reforms of the 1960s. By the 1970s, the alliance between social liberals and economic interventionists was firmly in place: most obviously in Scandinavia, but in Britain, America and more gradually across Western Europe, making social-democratic parties the natural political home both for workers and supporters of progressive movements, from peace and civil liberties to feminism. Its break-up has been the major blow to the progressive agenda in this century.
The populist Right has been consciously tearing up the old alliances. Liberals, progressives, greens and socialists need to offer an alternative. The achievements of the mid-20th century cannot be simply updated. A new era offers new challenges but the basic alliance can be repaired and its core principles applied in modern settings.
Replacing Neo-Liberalism with Industrial Intervention
The starting point must be a clean break from the neo-liberal credo and subsequent austerity that ruptured the old coalition. The unique global circumstances of the 1990s presented a moment when it was plausible to believe that capitalism had abolished its own contradictions. Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ with its contemptuous dismissal of the traditional working class as ‘old labour’ represented a clear departure from the core beliefs of conventional social democracy. Blair’s evangelist endorsement of hyper-globalisation was most clearly expressed during his Labour conference speech in 2005: “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer…The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, open, willing and able to change.”
With the economic growth of that era, most Social Democratic parties in Europe followed the new path. For a while, it led to significant electoral success. However, the financial crisis of 2007-8 showed that New Labour and its followers – as well as the Conservative Establishment and the billionaire press – had got the economics and sustainability of modern capitalism wrong, mistaking a temporary phenomenon for a permanent one. Capitalism remained an unstable system, susceptible to ‘boom and bust’, generating huge discrepancies and inequalities, which the post-World War II settlement with strong trade unions had kept in check.
The populist Right leapt onto these failings to advocate a retreat into nationalist bolt-holes and a search for scapegoats, most often those with a different coloured skin. The attack on neo-liberalism is the strand of the 4Gs story that has the most potency. In contrast, ‘Third Way’ advocates remained in denial for a long time (Blair and Ed Balls still are) and only gradually acknowledged its failings. Across the EU, until the climate emergency and COVID, most social democrats stayed wedded to the anti-Keynesian, monetarist tenets of the Maastricht Treaty and the Stability and Growth Pact. In the UK those like Rachel Reeves, now Shadow Chancellor, were at best muted in their recognition of the Third Way’s shortcomings.
One half of the orthodoxy is now being shed. As the failings of neo-liberalism have become starker, the centre of gravity in economic debate has moved left with the need for state intervention increasingly accepted. The EU led the way in 2020 with its unprecedented €750 billion green recovery programme ‘Repair and Prepare for the Next Generation’. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) reversed four decades of Washington consensus and gave their seal of approval to public investment strategies. With its Inflation Reduction Act, the Biden administration is demonstrating that Keynesianism, industrial strategies and active government are back. Reeves, after a high-profile trip to Washington, has followed suit with her ‘New Business Model for Britain.’ An interventionist industrial strategy centred on the transition to a low-carbon economy offers a distinct break from New Labour.
A significant strand of Conservatism has abandoned neo-liberalism, not least – as the collapse in Conservative support after Kwasi Kwarteng’s hyper-neo-liberal budget demonstrates – because it is so unpopular with the public. It’s said that, over the last quarter of a century, the left won on social issues (feminism, racial integration, LGBT+ rights) while losing on economics. The rise of national-populist interventionism represents a surrender of economic territory to the progressive left.
Tackling Wealth Inequalities and Restoring the Public Realm
However, while one wing of stifling neo-liberal doctrine has collapsed, fiscal orthodoxy (monetarism) remains. Jeremy Hunt calls for balanced budgets; Germany’s finance minister, Christian Lindner, argues for the retention of the EU’s regressive Stability and Growth Pact; many progressives baulk at calling for a new social settlement that would tackle the gross inequalities, wealth disparities and high-carbon excesses that have escalated across the West.
Here Starmer and Reeves display a stultifying caution, pandering to financial convention rather than addressing the rampant wealth inequalities generated in the neo-liberal era; indeed, ruling such a challenge out. This move can only hamper the implementation of their green industrial strategy. The French economist Thomas Piketty has laid out the framework for what could be done. The UK and its European neighbours remain rich countries where revenue could be raised to put the public services back on a proper footing, lift the social safety net and pay for green housing renovation and job support programmes. To give one simple example, “increasing tax on capital gains so it applies at the same marginal rates as tax on income would raise around £8bn for the Treasury.” In combination with other measures suggested by the Tax Justice network and the UK Wealth Tax Commission, far greater sums could be raised.
Aside from the occasional generalised rhetorical flourish, national populists have proved eloquently silent on practical proposals to address inequality. In office, indeed, Trump gave a huge tax cut to the rich. Matthew Goodwin talks endlessly about ‘the new elite’ of university graduates – many of whom are saddled with debt and facing a precarious future – but never proposes taxing the wealth of the real elite. Here is the terrain on which to repair the progressive coalition, quickly restore the public realm and expose the empty claims of national populists to be on the side of the working class.
Healing Geographic Divides: A Covenant for Towns
A progressive alternative to the national populist agenda should aim to unify rather than divide. One of the most consistent and pernicious strands of their thinking sets the ‘bohemian’ metropolitan cities against the ‘common-sense’ inhabitants of older industrial districts and coastal towns; in David Goodhart’s populist parlance, setting cosmopolitan university-trained ‘anywheres’ against the rooted ‘somewheres’. This deliberately divisive schema runs like a coal seam through the writing of the 4Gs. It picks on genuine trends in modern capitalism and turns them in a reactionary direction.
The progressive response should promote urban and regional development agendas that address the structural failings of the neo-liberal era, particularly in former industrial heartlands. The reality is that post-Fordist models of development are geographically uneven, with the higher skilled jobs being concentrated in the larger metropolitan cities with more extensive IT, universities, and better transport connections. In consequence they have been able to compensate for the loss of traditional manufacturing jobs more easily than their neighbouring industrial districts. Across Europe, the big cities have been growing, sucking in young talent from neighbouring towns and the countryside.
Only government intervention can check these trends and inaugurate a genuine ‘levelling up’ agenda. Superficially, the Johnson Tory party abandoned its Thatcherite, “on yer bike” instruction in favour of assuring towns and villages that help was on its way. As that promise – particularly on transport as with the HS2 fiasco – is increasingly seen to be empty, progressives can and should stand up for the places where Labour was born. A ‘Covenant for Towns’ could lay out a set of facilities, capacities and policies which any town in 21st century Britain should expect. Inspired by the concept of the 15-minute city, the goal would be for all citizens to be in walking distance or a short bus ride from a doctor’s surgery, dentist, library, park, food and clothing stores, newsagent and café. Core institutions would include a vocational college, with its sporting, cultural, educational and library facilities open to the general population and a hospital with an A&E department. In addition, the Covenant could address the deeply unpopular and demoralizing decline in many town high streets – including their abandonment by popular chains like Marks & Spencer. Devolved planning powers would encourage new start-ups of industrial and retail companies encouraged by rent subsidies and council tax discounts, perhaps by young artisans and entrepreneurs who might otherwise leave towns for cities. Andy Burnham’s recent promotion of technical education for the industrial towns of the Greater Manchester city region is one example of what could be done. Labour’s Preston model demonstrating how local procurement can aid economic regeneration at the same time as contract compliance can be used to achieve social objectives is another.
In addition, there are lessons to be learnt from Britain’s cities. Because of the perceived failures of Labour local government in the 1980s, the party hesitates to trumpet its successes in encouraging culture, education and sport-led economic regeneration in cities like Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and cities of culture like Liverpool and Hull. The astounding improvement in inner-London education (once regarded as a basket-case) is an example of how progressive policy in the public sector can achieve results, in this case particularly for girls.
Further, it might be time to rehabilitate some of the policies of Greater London Council. Its policies of promoting economic planning, contract compliance and bottom-up democratization by financing community groups are now being implemented successfully in places like Preston. Many of the measures first put into practice in London councils – including promoting the rights of under-represented groups – are now the common sense of the age.
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Promoting the Just Transition
Summer 2023 has confirmed for all but the delusional the alarming reality of the pace of climate change. Heatwaves, forest fires and mass floods have scarred the Northern Hemisphere from Alberta via Athens to Beijing. There are welcome, if belated, signs that the major powers are beginning to respond. The latest report on renewables from the authoritative International Energy Agency shows that renewable capacity expansion – primarily wind and solar – is expected to grow by almost 2,400 GW from 2022-2027, an 85% acceleration from the previous five years. The shift to electric vehicles is accelerating quickly too, with global sales increasing by 55% in 2022, with China in the vanguard.
National populism is unable to respond to the challenge. Some, like Lord Frost, remain in denial; cynics and sceptics like John Gray deride the green movement and claim it is too late to stop climate change; the Sunak government retains a notional adherence to net zero targets but is now busy issuing new oil and gas drilling licenses and – alongside some of his more right-wing MPs – “backing the motorist”. A new government will have to dramatically change course.
A progressive agenda is not difficult to chart. A new government could end the Tory ban on on-shore wind farms – the cheapest form of energy; make renewable energy obligatory on all new housing and commercial developments; and facilitate the speedy expansion of solar. Across the three main vehicle manufacturers – the US, China and EU – electric vehicles are now the only game in town. A new government could accelerate their roll-out in the UK with investment in the crucial battery giga-factories, vastly increased charging stations and measures to facilitate home and on-street charging.
The insulation of buildings and the shift from gas boilers to electrical heating will be the biggest challenge. The UK has the oldest and draughtiest housing stock in Europe. Of its 28 million homes, 17 million (60%) are below ‘Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) Grade C’, the standard for measuring energy efficiency. Labour's Green Prosperity Plan has committed a Labour government to insulating 19 million homes and creating a million new jobs within a decade, yet recently has been backtracking on its timetable. This retreat has been accelerated by its response to its failure to win the Uxbridge by-election, allegedly due to the extension to Outer London of a new daily charge on older polluting vehicles. The populist Right and its outriders have been using the issue to mount a renewed drive against any concerted action on climate change.
A robust response is needed. The truth is that the transition from a high to low carbon economy is complicated. The Johnson story of a painless transition was always Boris baloney. But all serious proponents of a Green Deal have argued for a socially just transition with the costs borne by those most able to bear them. That is why, rather than rethinking the ULEZ policy as Keir Starmer requested, it’s right for Sadiq Khan to propose a more generous car scrappage scheme in London. It is why a new government would need to offer generous and extensive grants, as occurs in Germany and France, for all households, and has now been proposed by the Green party, so that a wholesale programme of house renovation can be undertaken. This is a once in a generation opportunity to renew the nation’s housing stock, establish warm, more comfortable homes with lower running costs and in the process create hundreds of thousands of good jobs. It’s a programme that would also contribute enormously to a serious levelling up agenda.
Defending Social Liberalism not Identity Politics
If the economic policies espoused by national-populists represent a surrender, then their social conservatism runs in the face of a great, civilising success story. Liberals, progressives and socialists can and should defend the social gains of the last 50 years, beginning with the social reforms enabled by the Wilson governments, and proclaim the benefits of our more mixed, open society. In defending and expanding these gains, progressives are going with the grain of public opinion. In contrast, national populists are often promoting attitudes which have a declining influence with the bulk of the population.
However, defending the rights of women, people of colour and the LGBT+ community should not lead progressives down the cul-de-sac of identity politics and cancel culture. The hard Right and its pundits waging ‘a war on woke’ – the 4Gs prominent among them – have been very effective at poking at the Left’s weak spots. And the hard Right keeps receiving a helping hand from different parts of the progressive spectrum, which often seem to prefer attacking their own side rather than focusing on the opposition.
A sharp riposte to personalised, exclusionary identity politics has come from Kenan Malik who argues in his book Not So Black and White that the notion of ‘cultural appropriation’ denies empathy and solidarity; ‘white privilege’ is divisive – “it’s not a ‘privilege’ not to have to face discrimination or bigotry; it should be the norm”; while the call to ‘stay in your lane’ fractures social solidarity. The racial disadvantage which all people of colour share – in the criminal justice system, the immigration bureaucracy and aspects of health and education – should not be a barrier to solidarity among working people of all colours, which national-populists are so eager to undermine. At a moment when the hard Right are busy stirring up divisions and cultural wars, progressives need to speak out about those who unwittingly help the Right. Building any coalition needs compromise and a relentless focus on the main opponent.
Confronting the Brexit Hot Potato
Brexit has been and remains at the heart of the national populist story. Matthew Goodwin still claims that “Brexit ushered us all into an incredibly exciting and entirely new era in our national history.” Yet, quite quickly and with no political prompting, the general public has seen through the moonshine. It is waking up to the realisation that there are few opportunities from Brexit and that in the 21st century, every country in Europe is reliant on close cooperation with its neighbours.
Even the Sunak government is making stealthy retreats from its previous claims of Brexit’s virtues. Over the summer it “indefinitely” postponed plans for the adoption of a new UK safety mark for manufactured goods. Instead, UK businesses will continue to use the EU’s scheme. And the government again delayed border checks on animal and plant products coming from the EU. Both retreats confirm that it remains a bad idea to erect trade barriers with your nearest neighbours.
Political parties know that after the 2016 referendum and the 2019 General Election result, re-joining is not on the political agenda. But that should not mean that public policy should be frozen by the recent past. Progressives can challenge the untenable premises of a hard Brexit and change the terms of the UK’s political debate on Europe. How can this be done?
· Firstly, on the economy the opposition parties should state unequivocally that they have no intention of de-aligning from the regulatory framework of the Single Market. There will be no race to the bottom on industrial, environmental or social standards. This will create the conditions where a new government can discuss revising the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) so that a new economic partnership with the EU can be explored that would benefit both parties.
· Secondly, Ukraine has shown the need to add a defence component to TCA. NATO as an alliance for military operations is not a substitute for on-going cooperation on defence, weapons procurement and security issues with the EU. Formal engagement within the TCA would give the UK a solid framework on which to work with the EU on security.
· Thirdly, on a range of research, educational and social issues – the Horizon programme, Erasmus/ Leonardo exchanges, travel rules – a new UK government would need to repair the Brexit damage and strive to restore mutually beneficial relations.
These ways to change the framing of political debate can be signalled now. Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy has made some welcome moves in this direction, Yet his statement that ‘reconnecting Britain to Europe will be a top priority of the next Labour Foreign Office’ will only ring true if Labour modifies some of its self-imposed red lines and is prepared to tackle the imperial illusions of a section of the electorate. They should be confident that there is a growing electoral majority that wants the UK to develop close cooperative relations with its European neighbours.
A Real Pluralism
On economics and social reform, there is a progressive agenda to deliver. Rather than cower and be intimidated by the populist press, its intellectual guardians and boot-boy rabble-rousers, progressives should be confident in their values of openness and fairness, equality and solidarity. But we need to consider how to achieve this fairer, more equal, inclusive and green society, politically.
This won’t be the work of a single party, either here or across Europe. In our more variegated societies, pluralism will be the key to any successful progressive project. It will require the decentralisation of political power, the cooperation of a range of parties in the House of Commons and assemblies and councils across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. As the changes will need to be democratic as well as just, it implies the introduction of a proportional representation voting system for general elections similar to that already used in Scotland; the wholesale reform of the currently unelected second chamber; and the reform of local government finance so that, as in Germany, all councils are guaranteed a share of tax revenues to enable them to respond to local priorities.
It also requires the active support and integration of single-issue campaigns into the mainstream political process; and the wider engagement of civil society organisations ranging from Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace to Kick It Out and the National Trust. Together they can help to create a progressive wave to sweep away the corrosive fear generated by the populist Right and move the country into a positive future.
The hyper-globalist dreams of the 1990 neo-liberals are fading fast. In many places they’re being replaced by a nationalist Right, promoting division, exclusion and reaction. Yet, despite the howls of the populist right, narrow nationalism and insularity goes against the grain of the times. The 21st century is an age of ever-increasing international communication; growing social diversity where more and more people live in a country in which they or their parents were not born; where the climate increasingly reminds us that ‘no man is an island’; and where, despite the emerging dangers of protectionism, there exists more international trade and exchange than ever before. These are the objective conditions that require nations to be open, outward-looking and cooperative if they are going to shape the future. Progressives should be confident that their values chime with the times.
Jon Bloomfield is a writer, environmental practitioner, and author of Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham. David Edgar is a playwright and commentator, whose recent work includes an autobiographical solo show, Trying it On. In the 1980s, both were on the editorial board of Marxism Today