Why the centre left doesn’t understand populism

A recent report by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change is worth a read. It analyses in some detail the published research on the political swing towards what some (including this report) still insist on calling ‘populist’ parties.

A couple of things are worth discussing about this report.

The first is the continued use of the terms ‘populist’ and ‘mainstream’. In a world where, in France, the ‘mainstream’ parties disappeared in the last election and where, in Italy, so-called ‘populist’ parties combined received some two-thirds of the vote, it’s a peculiar sort of stuck-in-the-past perspective that still uses these terms.

It may reflect exactly why the supposed ‘mainstream’ is disappearing. Politicians and parties – let’s call them of the old school – still consider themselves the mainstream, even as the world has moved past them and left them behind. It’s a particular sort of blindness to change.

The second is that the report calls for a revival of the centre-left – one that is particularly Blairite. This is another kind of myopia. It follows on from the previous conviction that we, the mainstream, were and are right all along. All we need is to tweak our policy platforms to take into account the grievances of some voters and we can win the argument.

One only needs to look around to see that the centre left is in what may well be terminal decline. It seems unlikely that a few tweaks to a Blairite platform is going to get anywhere.

Finally, reading through the report made me wonder just how far it is possible to get by studying responses to polls and focus groups in such detail. Of course they are important. The report analyses them in detail and pulls out important lessons. But I couldn’t help feeling that, somehow, we’re still not quite getting to the bottom of the visceral drivers that are transforming contemporary politics.

My own reading of the situation (with no numbers or detailed research to support it I hasten to add) is that people are looking for radical system change. Housing, immigration, inequality, low wages, identity – all these are factors driving a general discontent, maybe anger, with the system.

But somehow I wonder whether addressing these issues directly through policy can have the desired effect. Or whether the response would be that not enough had been done; or whether other issues would just pop up to take their place. In other words, is the proposed approach merely trying to treat the symptoms rather than the cause.

I suspect that what is needed is something or someone that gives people a feeling of renewal. Out with the old and in with the new – and it almost doesn’t matter what the new is. It is somewhat ironic that Blair himself was an agent of such a feeling of renewal when he was first elected.

Maybe the voters’ dissatisfaction has not yet turned to destructive anger. Maybe the new insurgent parties and movements are acting as a safety valve – showing that a different approach is possible. And, maybe more important to its effectiveness, the new approach is not coming out of the mouth of ‘the mainstream’.

I enjoyed reading the report. But I doubt that a revival of the traditional centre left is on the cards.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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