The Labour leader's victory is part of a global shift to a more populist politicsby Tim Bale / September 14, 2015 / Leave a comment
Jeremy Corbyn’s victory has to be seen not only as a major advance for a Labour left that once looked entirely moribund. More worryingly for some, it also presents a huge opportunity to influence mainstream politics for much a harder, previously non-Labour left whose adherents, until this summer anyway, seemed destined to end their days fighting each other and trying to leverage widespread public misgivings over Britain’s overseas military adventures into significant support for a radical alternative on domestic and foreign policy, the last gasp of which looked like being George Galloway’s Respect.
The power of populism
Corbyn’s victory can also be set in an international context. Most obviously parallels can be drawn, both ideologically and in terms of their respective capacities to inspire new and previously disconnected people into electoral politics, with hybrid movement/parties such as Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos.
But there are also less comfortable comparisons that can be made with parties supposedly located on the other side of the ideological fence—the radical right parties that have been shaking up politics-as-usual for some time in France, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden, to name just a few of the countries in which they’ve made their mark.
What both sides of the divide share, of course, is populism: their pitch to the electorate is essentially a claim to represent “the people” and to sweep aside “the elites” who have sold them out—be it to “neoliberalism” (if they’re on the left) or “cosmopolitanism” (if they’re on the right). The same populist message is currently being pumped out across the Atlantic too, be it from the so-called socialist Bernie Sanders or the hyper-capitalist Donald Trump.
Lessons of the past
Whether that approach can actually work for a mainstream political party is less obvious—it would be a surprise if, in the end, the Democrats go for Sanders or the Republicans for Trump. But, for good or ill, we have something of a domestic case study here in Britain.
Between 1997 and 2005, the Conservative Party spent much of its time trying to press all sorts of populist buttons—to no great effect, electorally speaking. Its experience is worth thinking about for anyone interested in how Labour might…