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Will 2014 be the year of the populist party?

16 January 2014

10:44 AM

16 January 2014

10:44 AM

With Ukip widely expected to win big in May’s elections, 2014 may well be the year of the populist party. Not easily categorised as left or right wing, populist parties across Europe pit the good, honest, ordinary voter against the out of touch, liberal, mainstream political elite. The populists claim to represent the former against the latter, an authentic and honest voice in a world of spin and self-interest. Nigel Farage is not the only one to be surfing the wave of widespread disillusionment, with politics in general and politicians in particular.

In Italy, Beppe Grillo straddles both left and right. The popular comedian and blogger ran on a vehemently anti-establishment ticket, selecting his candidates online and refusing to give any interviews to the Italian media, communicating instead through his own blog. Despite going against every P.R. rule, one in four Italians voted for his Five Star Movement last year.


Populist parties are keen on social media, and — as I explain in my forthcoming IPPR essay — they are increasingly good at it. Social media is an alternative to the mainstream media, which many supporters of populist parties strongly distrust. The short acerbic nature of populist messages works well too. Beppe Grillo used social media to quite devastating effect; the most Followed and Liked politician in Europe by a mile, he mocked Berlusconi as a ‘psycho sex dwarf’. Of course, all the while, inside Grillo’s Trojan Horse were exhortations for his supporters to form local meet up groups, discuss politics, get out and vote and ask friends to do likewise.

In the UK, the levels of mistrust in political institutions is every bit as high as the rest of Europe. Until now the populist storm has avoided us, but the roof might be about to come off. In 2011, George Galloway won the Bradford West by-election with an eye-watering 36 per cent swing from Labour. Similar to Grillo, Galloway himself credited much of his success to Twitter, as a way to circumnavigate the stranglehold the main parties have on local and national media, and the might of their established local presence and organising force. Although not social media fanatics, UKIP managed around 25 per cent in this year’s local council elections, and is expected to do even better in next year’s European poll.

The future belongs to the party that can respond to concerns that people have in a way that makes sense to them, without tipping into unhealthy populism: and using modern communications and technology to understand, connect, respond and mobilise. This will make for an increase in ‘shock’ results in the years ahead that will jolt some life into a stuttering democracy, making the whole system more chaotic, but hopefully also more dynamic, diverse, and open.

The full version of this article will appear in the forthcoming essay collection Democracy in Britain, Essays in honour of James Cornford to be published by IPPR in February.

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Show comments
  • Daniel Maris

    We need more populism. We had 50 years of elitism and it gave us mass immigration, welfare dependency, and huge youth unemployment. None of that would have happened had we had populism.

  • asalord

    England rips itself apart as it embraces right-wing politics.
    Yet another reason for people in Scotland to vote for independence.

  • dalai guevara

    Again an article in which Beppe is described as “anti-establishment”, when all he is really is *anti-bankster*. Why this repeat disinformation as dished out by Daniel Hannan and now you?

    • Chris

      Same thing.
      Media-finance-political liberal elite establishment.
      You can’t separate them.

  • dmitri the impostor

    ‘Not easily categorised as left or right wing’

    The inadequacy of your descriptive categories is not our problem, think tanker.

  • Denis_Cooper

    I’ve no idea what could have been going on in Stephen Collins’ brain when he drew that stupid and disgusting cartoon depicting an evil-looking Nigel Farage blowing up our national Parliament with a bomb.

    It’s the three old parties which have been gradually undermining our parliamentary democracy, not with a single explosive episode but chipping away at it year after year, salami slicing, while UKIP is setting out to reverse the harm they have done; so what possible justification can there be for a vile representation of its leader wanting to destroy our Parliament when exactly the opposite is true?

    “Nigel Farage’s populist party looks set to disrupt Westminster in 2014”
    You mean, disrupt the cosy pro-EU anti-democratic cartel of unpatriotic old parties which has come to dominate in Westminster.

    • sfin

      Bravo! Both Blair (Iraq) and Heseltine (Europe), to my knowledge, when challenged that their views, were out of kilter with the majority of the electorate, responded along the lines of:
      “I am not elected to follow a populist agenda – I am elected to exercise judgement”
      This is not democracy by any stretch of it’s definition.

    • Daniel Maris

      Probably think of that twit who names his website after Guy Fawkes, while claiming to be pro-democracy.

  • Kitty MLB

    Regardless of some who want to hide away from the reality of their voters
    and hide behind a false image of ‘ Cameroon Togetherness’- and will
    only listen to voices that agree with them.
    The year 2014 will be the year of a party of the people.
    Might I add that I am a Tory .
    Cameron has taken away the identity of a once great party.
    They are all ( The three main parties) a effervescent hodgepodge
    of cloned PR creations who represent themselves, not the electorate,
    political pygmies forever in the shadow of the political giants of the past.
    The electorate will look for principles, understanding, loyalty and gravitas
    elsewhere if they cannot find it within their own party.

    • sfin

      Excellent post! UKIP will welcome you.

      • Kitty MLB

        Thank you.

  • sfin

    Why do establishment wonks call parties like UKIP “populist” as a derogatory term?

    By “populist” they mean a party which sets out to do what the majority of the electorate want them to do. Another word for it, in English is “democracy”.

    People all over Europe are, at last waking up to the reality of what “representative democracy” actually means in practice.

    It isn’t “vote for me and I will represent your views” – it is “vote for me and I will do what I want on your behalf”.

    UKIP has my vote and I would urge all conservative minded people to look at their manifesto and vote on it. Don’t vote “tactically” or through fear of letting in Red Ed. It really doesn’t matter which of the social democrat parties in Britain get destroyed after the next election – Labour, LibDem, or the one currently calling itself ‘conservative’.

    • Pip

      Maybe we would be better off just referring to LibLabCon as the Unpopular Parties from now on.

  • johnslattery

    Just what is a ‘populist’ party? And perhaps you would care to explain what you mean by the mealymouthed phrase ‘unhealthy populism’? What is unhealthy about giving people what they want?

    • OriginalChris

      Agree, John S. Populist seems to be Barroso lingo and is meant to be derogatory. The use of this term is sloppy, and I am glad that the author of the article at least acknowledges that “populists” come from across the political spectrum, something I believe the eurocrats refuse to acknowledge. They are determined to keep up the nomenclature of “fringe party” “extreme right” and so on, when, of course, UKIP is no such thing.

    • swatnan

      You could have asked Hitler that; Nazism was unhealthy populism.
      Populist Parties play to people’s worst and selfish instincts.The 3 mainstream Parties try not to, but they don’t always succeed.

      • johnslattery

        What “worst and selfish instincts?”

      • sfin

        Unfair comparison, in my view. Nazism was based on fear and whipping up public hysteria – very similar to the ‘Diana grief fest’ that new labour and it’s close control of the media whipped up in 1997 – which was an open undermining of the monarchy and national protocol and tried to paint those of us who were not inclined to join in as unfeeling monsters.

        • Kitty MLB

          Indeed, very well said.
          Mass hysteria, the Lefts favourite weapon when attacking
          individuality, manipulate everyone into being the same,
          and ‘ feeling everyone’s pain’- even complete strangers ! we even had Cameron hugging huskies- I saw that as a warning !
          Never mind it could have been worse, we might have had a
          president Blair.

      • Chris

        Nazism was socialism.

      • Elptique

        Really? OK. Beppe Grillo advocates Renewable Energy, the progressive elimination of Waste (as in Garbage), Sustainable Transportation (abandoning of fossil fuels), Working Remotely, Water and Energy out of private hands (the very British idea of the Commons), Income as a birth right, a Clean Parliament (out all those with a felony judgment, omnipresent in the Italian Parliament).
        Populism? Common Sense, perhaps and very much overdue!

    • David Kay

      “populist” is a word marxists use to describe those who believe in democracy

      • LaszloZapacik

        There have been loads of populist Marxists, e.g. Hugo Chavez. Or the Occupiers – what could be more populist than “We are the 99%”?

        • David Kay

          you make a valid point, perhaps i should have qualified my post by saying “in the context of EU politics” or “in the West”

          However, i wouldnt say the occupy movement was populist. For example, soap wasnt very popular with them lazy left wing anti-capitalist fascists. To me they were just the usual rent a mob protest against anything rabble.

          The police should have thrown bars of soap at them before firing a water canon at them. Then released the attack dogs. Clean protesters dont pass on disease to police dogs that have cost the tax payer a lot of money to train.

      • sfin

        Short, sharp and to the point Mr Kay – I know you were an infantry marksman – I suspect your bayonet work was also up to standard!

  • HookesLaw

    it os of course easy to be populist as Ed Miliband has discovered, and you only need to look at the way the QT audience is always primed into knee jerk applause.

  • Bluesman_1

    “…jolt some life into a stuttering democracy, making the whole system more
    chaotic, but hopefully also more dynamic, diverse, and open.”

    Aah yes!

    The crashing sound you can hear citizen is the current set of vermin closing ranks.