Comment writer Zoe Olukoga considers where the voice of opposition comes from today, and how necessary it isWritten by Redbrick on 18th February 2017
Populism Will Not Save Labour
Commentator James Cox says Labour should be more concerned with its message, not its messenger
It would be fair and accurate to say that there is currently a wave of anti-establishment feeling in Western politics. The established parties are being combated by this new populism tapping into people's fears due to the varying effects of globalization. Brexit, Trump, La Pen, Bernie, and Corbyn have all advanced as a result of their portrayal as the voice for anti-establishment. A voice against the 'elites'. Corbyn’s aids have let slip that they plan to re-brand and relaunch their leader as a left-wing populist. They plan to have him on more television and radio shows and will attempt to mobilise their huge (and young) membership base to cause a campaigning revolution. But what does all this actually mean?
Populism is both an old and a new concept in British politics. Whilst a definition is hard to pin-down, most populist movements have been defined by anti-immigration or anti-Europe sentiment. ‘Right-wing Populism’ has long been an ideological cornerstone for parties such as UKIP and the BNP and has proven largely successful. This form of populism has grown from the fringes and is now one of the most prominent schools of thought in British politics. James O’Brien defined populism as ‘telling people exactly what they want to hear, regardless of the truth’: an antithesis to liberalism. It favours rhetoric over facts, of majority rule over minority interests, and ideology over pragmatism.
With Labour sinking in the polls, it is perhaps a shrewd move to reposition themselves and tap into populist sentiment. They believe that victory can best be achieved by utilising Corbyn's image as an ‘unpolished conviction politician’ fighting for the little guy against big business and vested interests. One would imagine they would be taking cues from Bernie Sanders failed presidential bid as a way of framing Corbyn as the voice of change and of fairness.
“The referendum has forged a new dividing line that will come to define the political discourse for a generation: Leave or Remain; Populist or Liberal; isolationist vs internationalism
Corbyn is, in my opinion, not the man to lead this change of message. Populist leaders are typically charismatic and tough, not qualities often attributed to Jeremy Corbyn, who has admitted he is never happier than when stuffing envelopes. With an increased media presence as part of the plan, it will be interesting to see how Corbyn reacts to more critical pressure and scrutineering by independent and, occasionally, hostile journalists. Corbyn has been protected by his aids, keeping a relatively low profile and avoiding audiences who don’t instinctively agree with him, and still his performances have felt lacking. It will be interesting to see how he copes under this new sense of pressure.
The main problem for Labour isn’t messaging, but message. The referendum has forged a new dividing line that will come to define the political discourse for a generation: Leave or Remain; Populist or Liberal; Isolationism vs Internationalism. Gone are the days of the pendulum swinging from left to right. Unable or unwilling to take a stand on this new spectrum - to have an opinion on immigration controls or a referendum on the deal - Labour runs the serious risk of finding itself redundant. Instead they stand petrified of losing the North to UKIP and the South to the Lib Dems.
The old Liberals disappeared into the wilderness because they were unwilling to be the voice of radical change and were replaced by a Labour Party with a strong message and a clear purpose. Corbyn may be able to tap into the mood, but without a purpose he risks planting another nail firmly in the Labour coffin.