Tag Archives: populism

Forty years in the making

Liberal democracy is in crisis, particularly in the UK and the USA. In the UK we are perhaps bemused at how we could have come to elect such a corrupt, cronyistic and incompetent government, and in the USA there is much debate over how the Trump lump has not gone away despite four years of Trump’s Twitter tantrums.

There is a tendency to view this as a short term phenomenon – what went wrong four years ago, six years ago, even ten years ago. In my view this has been coming for forty years. It has not been inevitable but, during the neoliberal period (roughly from the 80s till today), social forces and personal decision making have moved us steadily towards the situation we now find ourselves in.

In a nutshell, the elevation to power of Thatcher and Reagan marked the start of what was seen to be a move towards freedom, opening up societies all over the world to the liberating forces of the market. This had two sides, globalisation, an ineluctable social force beyond the power of individuals to affect, and the strategy of global elites both old and new, to use globalisation to create new wealth and power for themselves. They have been very successful. So it turned out to be a move towards freedom for some, but by no means all. The elites used liberalism as their watchword, while ignoring the principle of liberalism that their freedom is only valid in so far as it does not compromise other people’s freedom.

At the same time there has been a steady corrosion of community and democratic values, partly because the new markets require it (they don’t work without precarious labour) and partly because of media elites who found that telling lies worked, and political elites who did not care to confront them. People sold on consumer capitalism found easy answers to all the ills in their lives in the lies told them by the media. Rupert Murdoch and Hugh Dacre, among others, spent decades preparing the British public for the Brexit lie. They have succeeded in making many people’s lives precarious and hoodwinking them into blaming others for that.

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William Wallace writes…Plutocratic populism

The Anglo-Saxon version of authoritarian populism is ‘plutocratic populism’, or pluto-populism .  A Princeton professor described it, in the Financial Times last week, as ‘consisting of policies that mostly benefit the top 1%, in combination with relentless culture wars which distract from economic ideas’.  Trump is, of course, the model that he and others are describing.  But we have faced a similar phenomenon in the UK, and we need to think carefully about how to combat it here.

Money, media and loose electoral regulation fuel pluto-populism.  The US  Supreme Court’s decision to free political fundraising from the constraints that Democratic Administrations had enacted has entrenched the power of money in US politics.  Right-wing billionaires, benefitting from lax rules on foundations and favourable taxes, fund think tanks and lobbies.  The Murdoch press has also fuelled its rise, above all through Fox News, with its relentless attacks on ‘the liberal elite’, its openness to conspiracy theories and its willingness to support ‘alternative facts.’  Trump rose to political prominence through television, and has exploited social media to consolidate his appeal.

Constraints on spending in British politics have not yet broken down, but in recent elections and in the 2016 Referendum the rules have been successfully bent.  Conservative HQ sent targeted mailings and media messages to marginal seats, not accounted for under constituency expenditure.  Semi-autonomous bodies mounted media campaigns to underpin Tory messages and to influence voters away from other candidates.  Peter Geoghegan, in Democracy for Sale (2020, well worth reading), tells us that ‘College Green Group’, run by the son of a wealthy Tory MP, placed pro-SNP messages in Jo Swinson’s constituency and pro-Labour ones in LibDem target seats in the South-West, as well as similar negative messages in Caroline Lucas’s seat. 

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No Rishi! The country does not share your values

In his speech to the Tory Party conference, Rishi Sunak made a bold declaration: “We share the same values. The Conservative Party and the country.” For a start the 57% of voters who didn’t opt for the Conservatives last December will disagree. But his statement also raises a key question: what are the values that today’s Conservative Party stand for? Anyone who takes a moment to look at Johnson’s Conservatives can see that the party of statecraft, the rule of law and fiscal conservatism no longer exists.

The rest of Sunak’s speech was surprisingly brief and light on policy. One thing he did emphasise was his commitment to balancing the books. But that didn’t seem to matter when it came to getting Brexit done or when announcing huge infrastructure spending.

They say they are about law and order, but have just voted to allow themselves to break international law. And Priti Patel’s speech at the weekend advocating an escalation of the hostile environment towards those seeking asylum made clear the Conservatives aren’t a party that looks out for the most vulnerable in society.

Part of the problem for the Conservatives is their own internal ideological divisions. On the one hand they have a raft of MPs in solidly safe seats who keep their heads down in public and quietly do as they are told, willingly voting for the Government every time. Some of these types also come from Lib Dem facing not-so-safe seats where their bacon was saved by Nigel Farage standing down his Brexit Party troops. 

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Contagion

Canvassing is one of those things that many of us take for granted. It is part of what we do. Occasionally a meeting on a doorstep will echo down the years, coming back into the mind and setting a scene.

Such a meeting happened to me some years ago. It was in a Labour Ward in Liverpool, at the height of the Militant Tendancy regime. I knocked at a door in a Council estate and asked the gentleman who came to the door if he would vote for us. As I anticipated, he said no, he wouldn’t. So I asked who he would be supporting, expecting him to say, ‘Labour’.

But no. He looked at me and said: ‘ I’m voting Conservative.’ I couldn’t resist and asked him why.

‘Well, they’re born to rule, aren’t they’.

It is a picture that has stayed with me ever since. An old man, probably without two pennies to his name, supporting Mrs Thatcher. It has been a puzzle that has come back to me time and time again.

And here we are, in 2019, with the Brexit party soaking up Tory supporters and members, appealing to working class voters and the Tories through Boris Johnson, an old Etonian for Heaven’s sake,  trying to capture Labour seats.

Selling the vision that Britain won the war so can ‘get Brexit done’ is an advertising slogan that has been bought in to. If it was an advertisement, the ASA would soon smack those responsible down! But, in politics, there is no standards authority.

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Class politics, race and UKIP-phobia

We should always take class seriously, especially in England, if we want to understand the society we live in and the route to a fairer and happier society. That is not the same as taking class as a key driver for the creation of a political party, philosophy or programme.

Meanwhile this doesn’t stop us taking poverty utterly seriously. I was born in the poorest part of Newcastle, spent my working life as a Methodist minister in some of the poorest communities of the North of England, and In May this year I was elected for the third time in one …

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William Wallace writes…A way to bring our national community together

I am a man of the people. You are part of the metropolitan liberal elite. They are enemies of the people, citizens of nowhere.

That’s the populist self-characterization that more and more right-wing politicians are now making. It’s an easy appeal to the ‘ordinary’ person against the sophisticated, over-educated and privileged. It works very well even when wielded by old Etonian Oxbridge graduates like Boris Johnson, or former city traders like Nigel Farage. The terms ‘elite’ and ‘establishment’ are elided, and blended with ‘liberal’, into a hostile image of people who claim superiority because of their expertise and knowledge, against those who prefer instinct and ‘common sense’.

There was a wonderful example of the genre in the Daily Telegraph of November 23rd, a letter under the headline “This ‘No Brexit deal’ by the political elite treats the majority who voted Leave with disdain” – signed by 15 Conservative peers, eight of them hereditary, three of them with peerages dating from the 17th century or earlier. If these are men of the people, I’m the king of Scotland. There was another in the Sun on Sunday, on November 25th, from Lord Digby Jones, one of the most self-important members of the House of Lords: ‘the British people – as if they needed further confirmation after what has gone on over the past few months – have been let down by the political class and the establishment elite.’ We should ridicule such claims whenever we see them.

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William Wallace writes…The politics of unreason

As 2017 begins, the politics of unreason seems to be spreading its influence across British politics and media.  Liam Fox inside the government, and John Redwood and Peter Lilley outside, are arguing that we don’t need to negotiate a treaty with the EU as we leave.  They propose that Britain simply reasserts its sovereignty, and to hell with international law, commercial and security interests, and rights of access and residence elsewhere across the EU for the 50 million journeys UK citizens make every year. (Peter Lilley, like Nigel Lawson, lives part of the year in France; you’d have thought he might have taken rights of residence into account.)  Free trade, they assert, is something that we can if necessary adopt unilaterally.  The mercantilist policies of China and India, the threats of protectionist tariffs that the President-elect Trump has been making, do not disturb their tranquillity.

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s Times  carried an article in its business section by Mark Littlewood, the director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, recommending Las Vegas as the model for post-Brexit Britain’s economy, in particular by spreading casinos through our ‘left behind’ seaside towns.  He’s as serious about this as Tim Congdon (of Economists for Britain) is when he argues that Britain’s economy can manage without an industrial base, and as the Taxpayers’ Alliance is when it recommends further deep cuts in public spending.  That’s the US Republican model they aspire to, even as Donald Trump moves away from it.  It is, of course, the opposite of what most Leave supporters thought they were voting for, and what the Leave campaign appeared to be promising.

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Predictions for 2017: How the Lib Dems can stay one move ahead

Anyone who watched politics, the Premier League or Strictly in 2016 will know that making predictions can seem like a fool’s game. As much as you might think you’ve got the future mapped out, sometimes bizarre things happen and those who thought they were in the know end up with egg on their faces. This is part of life and part of politics. However, the unpredictable nature of 2016 should not mean that we refrain from thinking ahead to what might happen in 2017. If a chess player decided that he or she had no idea what the next ten moves would bring so didn’t bother planning ahead, they would find themselves checkmated pretty quickly. With that in mind, here are my top three political predictions for 2017 and how I think the Liberal Democrats can capitalise on them.

Jeremy Corbyn will still be Labour leader come 2018

There has been plenty of speculation lately, as has been the case since day one of his tenure, about the future of the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The Fabian Society and Unite leader Len McCluskey are the latest to come out with less-than-helpful comments about him. But whatever seeming pressure there is on Corbyn, he has won two leadership elections now, surviving  the most extraordinary internal coup with a bolstered mandate from members. Forcing him out will be a near impossible job for Labour and I can’t see him resigning himself. If he was going to take the humble way out why didn’t he do it when 80% of his MPs turned on him in the no confidence vote? This means that the Liberal Democratss will likely have another year of being the only major UK wide Party united against Brexit. Banging the drum for the 48% who voted Remain, and holding the Government to account over its handling of its EU negotiations should remain our raison d’etre for now. Even if some start to see us as a single issue Party, it doesn’t matter in my view. Growing a small Party into a big one is often done by focusing on a single issue and then expanding from there. 

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Lessons (and warning) from Trump

The day after the US electoral college chose Donald Trump to be their new president, Huffington Post ran an article on his use of digital campaigning, where Brad Parscale, the digital director of the campaign explains:

We never fought for the popular vote. There was no economic reason, and there was no reason based off the system of our constitution to do so. We needed to win 270 , and to do so we needed to win in certain states, and we needed to target registered voters that had a low propensity to vote and a propensity to vote for Donald Trump if they come.

This was done by highly-targeted and personalised messages to key voters in key states.

Questionable behaviour by the FBI over Hilary Clinton’s emails, and whatever it is the Russians actually did may have contributed, but Parscale’s point is that very effective targeting gets results.

Part of me is wincing. The targeting is entirely legal, but also strains the definition of democracy — not least because Hilary Clinton had 2.8 million more votes than Trump (and roughly the same number of votes as Barack Obama had in 2012): the problem is that she had the votes in the wrong places. Most worryingly, this means that the voters-who-matter end up being a small number in a few places: marginalising the vast majority.

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Is evidence-based policy losing out to populism?

Populism always sounds good, but in the long-run it usually hurts those it is supposed to help.

In the UK, interest rates used regularly to be cut to stimulate an artificial boom before an election. This was good for the ruling political party, but the country paid a heavy price later. In the nineties, the Liberal Democrats championed the idea of making the Bank of England independent, and, in 1997, Labour implemented the policy.

As a result, inflation has been controlled, and business and international investors have more confidence in the UK. It’s no panacea. It didn’t stop serious mistakes being made over bank regulation. But, I think, it’s proved a real success.

In 1997, the Labour party proposed a National Minimum Wage. Many were deeply concerned that, by not allowing the existence of low paid jobs, this policy would price some low skilled workers out of the job market.

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