‘Populism’ is a useless word. By definition, anyone who wins an election is more popular than his or her opponents are. According to this logic, John Major and Barack Obama must have once been ‘populists’, which does not sound right at all.
When we use ‘populist’ today, we should mean something more than popular. The label covers movements of the nationalist right, which claim to speak on behalf of ‘the people’ against immigrants, cosmopolitans, and multinational institutions. Their most distinctive feature is their contempt for the checks and balances of complicated democracies. From Law and Justice’s Poland to Trump’s America, they attack judges, journalists, opposition politicians and parties as ‘enemies of the people’ – a ‘people,’ of course, only they represent. If you think it can’t happen here, listen to the snarls of the right-wing press and Tory politicians in the Iain Duncan Smith mould against the judiciary, civil service, diplomatic corps and any public figure who challenges them. Conservatives who have sneered with good cause against the ‘special snowflakes’ of the student left have proved themselves just as willing to censor and ban, and just as ready to bellow that critics are not merely wrong but illegitimate.
Why shouldn’t Jeremy Corbyn do the same, and ride to power as a kind of Trot Trump? Corbyn, McDonnell and the rest of the hard left faction are such abysmal politicians no one asks what Britain would be like if they won. You should, for it is always a mistake not to think about what the consensus deems unthinkable, as recent events have shown.
If you agree that what matters about populism is its illiberal refusal to accept pluralism and checks and balances, the far left is just as intolerant as the far right. Anyone, who knows it would predict that a Corbyn government would not tolerate an independent civil service or judiciary.