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Left-wing populism is on the rise - and may take Ed Miliband to No10

Would-be leaders of the left are harnessing a mood of angry populism. It’s better as a way of getting elected than as an approach to government

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

A spectre is haunting Europe — and knocking on the door of Downing Street. It has installed a president in France and a mayor in New York. It is causing mayhem in Spain and Greece and insurgency in Scotland and it may yet halt Hillary Clinton’s march to the White House. This idea — left-wing populism — is a radical, coherent and modern response to the financial crisis and the hardship suffered since. It is being effectively harnessed by Ed Miliband, taking him within touching distance of victory. And it may well become the creed that guides the next five years of British government.

The Labour manifesto that was published this week is a response to the new populist mood. It buries the pragmatic ‘New Labour’ era which sought to appeal as much to employers as to workers. In its place comes the politics of division: a Britain of tenants vs landlords, rich vs poor, even Premier League vs small football clubs. Miliband’s agenda is mainly about what he’ll do to business, not what he’d do with government. He’ll break up banks, interfere with pay and make it easier for workers to sue their bosses. Miliband stands before us, catapult in hand, promising to slay these corporate Goliaths.

Not so long ago this would be seen as a quixotic revival of 1970s socialism, and a form of political suicide. But even Miliband’s critics must now admit that the creed is not only just populist but popular — and winning elections elsewhere. The Tea Party of the American right is now on the wane. The rising force in western politics is the populism of the left — which is (to paraphrase Blair) about the politics of anger, not the politics of answers. A new angry brigade is emerging, and Conservatives underestimate it at their peril.

When Ed Miliband ran for leader, unkind souls mocked him for his wonkish phrases: the ‘pre-distribution’ of wealth, or denouncing as ‘predators’ companies he did not like (energy firms, banks, etc). But no conservative was laughing when Bill de Blasio was elected mayor of New York on a very similar ticket. He told a ‘tale of two cities’, of an inequality created because politicians had ‘too often catered to the interests of the elite — rather than the needs of everyday New Yorkers’. Just like Miliband, de Blasio recited a list of villains — from ‘large, well-connected corporations’ to ‘unscrupulous landlords’. To the Clinton-era New Democrats, this was an excruciating leap backwards, but de Blasio demonstrated that it is now the future: he won 73 per cent of the vote. In London, an overjoyed Diane Abbott declared that de Blasio ‘won by breaking every rule in the New Labour playbook’. He was invited to address the Labour party conference last year, hailed as living proof that populism can win elections.


Now, for the general election, Miliband is using the same tactics — list the villains and shake your fist at them. ‘When the knock on the door comes from the big six energy companies,’ he said, ‘when the banks send a message asking for a better deal for them, when the tax avoiders turn up demanding that the Inland Revenue turns the other way, or when the phone call comes from Rupert Murdoch — who do you want in Downing Street?’ This is Miliband’s campaign: the 50p tax and the Mansion Tax are not important because they raise money. Their purpose is to identify bad guys and highlight his intention to confront them. It’s the new class war.

There is more demand for mad-as-hell fist-shaking nowadays — not due to the crash, but to the recovery. It’s quite true that Britain has record employment, zero inflation and strong economic growth. But polls show that most people either don’t believe the economy is recovering or don’t expect the recovery to help them. Salaries are still far lower than before the crash, and property prices seem hopelessly out of reach. The basic promise of the free market — that if you finish school and work hard, you’ll find a home and be able to raise a family — no longer holds.

Things are even worse in the eurozone. In the old days, if Spain had economic problems the peseta would plunge — and the world would help it recover by buying more of its goods or by holidaying there. But under the euro, Spain needs to carry out ‘internal devaluation’ in the form of eye-watering cuts. Youth unemployment has soared, as has anger with the entire system — and the demand for change.

Early last year, a politics lecturer named Pablo Iglesias set up an anti–austerity movement. Within two days, he had the 50,000 signatures needed to run for the European Parliament elections. Four months later, he had five MEPs; now he leads one of the strongest forces in Spanish politics. Iglesias, like de Blasio, puts his success down to the traditional left being trapped in the centrist Blair model. And this, he says, has ‘opened up the European scene to new political phenomena’.

Anyone who thinks that British voters would never be this excitable should consider recent events in Scotland, where Labour seems to have collapsed in the space of six months. The SNP looks on course to take 50 of the 59 seats it’s contesting and its leader, Nicola Sturgeon, says she could never support a Labour budget that would impose any cuts (even as Britain nurses the biggest deficit in Europe). Miliband, for all his leftist credentials, has lost out in Scotland to a party that denounces him as a right-wing sellout.

As François Hollande has demonstrated in France, left-wing populism is better at winning elections than it is as a governing force. He had to abolish the 75 per cent tax rate after it raised no money. His general anti-business approach sent job creation into deep freeze, as you might expect. De Blasio has been sensible enough not to follow up on his wilder rhetoric; he ended up approving the charter schools that he denounced when running for office, for instance. Voters seem not to mind, and his re-election looks almost certain. Miliband may follow his example.

The Conservative answer to rising concern about inequality has been to ignore it. This has been a grave error. Michael Gove has been fighting a lonely battle for Conservatives to develop a response; he now describes inequality as ‘the great social and political challenge of our time’. From school reform to tax cuts, he argues, the Tories are the true progressives, the true radicals out to level the playing field. But with a general election less than three weeks away, it’s too late to make this case now. It must be the Conservative party’s next mission — in government, or in opposition.

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