A New Populism? Talk Like You Mean It

There have been growing calls for a new populism – but we have one already. Unfortunately it has delivered first Brexit and now Trump. It is clearly just not the sort of populism we like.

It doesn’t take 20/20 hindsight to see how this has happened. If you simultaneously create a thirst for material things whilst dissolving the mortar in the walls of society, it is not surprising   that there is profound change and instability.  The desire to own and the push to sell Council and social housing is an example.

Then technology makes the thirst become unquenchable – those material goods become ever more alluring, desirable, essential, cheaper.   This is not a new process.  In 1987 the British  labour movement had already  grasped  what was happening – ‘What do you say to a docker who earns £243 a week, owns his house, a new car, a microwave and a video, as well as a small place near Marbella? You do not say, let me take you out of your misery, brother.’  said trade union leader Ron Todd.

But although the risk  was  recognised,  the trend  continued and was in many ways accelerated until we end up  with inevitable  dissatisfaction (because  you can never have too much “stuff”) ,  and hyper-individualisation,  with the most important  relationship  being  that  which each individual has with the internet.

The alienation that comes from this dissatisfaction and absence of community, or is borne of straight-forward unfairness in society, pushed many to vote against “the establishment”. A prevailing view is that it was the “left behinds”  that  account for both the shock election results of the year.

What supreme and incontrovertible irony. The Brexit and Trump victories reinforce the factors and structures that widened social inequality and depressed social  mobility.  There will be no “catching up”

So what is to be done? You might say it is too late already. From Black Lives Matter to racist, fascist, murders,  have we passed the  point of no return? Are old notions of community, collectivism and progressive populism  are dead.  If that is not true, it certainly feels that we are teetering on the brink.

Despite some common features, the US and UK are very different political theatres. For us here I think the solution has to be some truly bold political thinking to seize both initiative and imagination.

In policy terms, we are surely going to need to go to where people are rather than where we would want them to be. The people have spoken on Brexit and it would be wrong to ignore that.  So we come up with a progressive Brexit programme that acknowledges the referendum result as paramount,  but  engages the public in  the necessary  discussions about, for example,  public service resourcing  in post-EU UK.

We need to rethink organisation and engagement too. Progressive collectivist and populist ideas are simply not reaching many, especially  young  people.  The excellent TUC report on young core workers shows how things have changed and why this demographic has little option but a “living for the weekend” lifestyle.

We also recognise that people feel policy is made too far away from where they are, so we must  look to an expanded programme of devolution accompanied by electoral reform.

Jonathan Pie says it best in his latest contribution:  We can make these changes and pull ourselves back from the brink.  But it will take sustained self-discipline, stamina and determination. The starting point is to understand just how difficult it will be.

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