‘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. Jobs and power would go to the ideologically compliant and freedom of speech and the press would be under severe threat. The best way to imagine a Corbyn administration is to picture a left-wing version of the Daily Mail in office.
Nor is the idiocy of the promises put forward by the new Trumped-up Corbyn necessarily a tactical blunder. Economists rightly say firms will get round his proposed cap on executive pay by buying off favoured executives and rent seekers in perks rather than cash. But which populist cares about experts? Vote Leave promised £350 million a week more for the NHS. Experts pointed out its promised saving from the EU was a straight lie, but Vote Leave still won. Donald Trump promised to build a wall and make the Mexicans pay for it, drive the bankers and special interests out of Washington, protect social security and ban all Muslims from flying to America. Trump has broken or will break every one of these promises. But he still won. Britain even had the baby man Boris Johnson, who ought to be dressed in nappies and a gro-suit, promise he could make every toddler’s wish come true, and ensure Britain could have its cake and eat it in our dealings with the EU. Far from being laughed to scorn, Mr Johnson is now Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Why should a left-winger not lie too?
Even if the overwhelming majority of the public had not concluded long ago that they would never allow Jeremy Corbyn to be prime minister, there are two reasons why left populism will not and, in my view, should not work.
First, in the democratic world, modern populism has always been nationalist and exclusive of racial and religious minorities. Whether you look at the US, Turkey, Poland, Hungary, or the dreams of the right for Brexit Britain, the story is always the same. There is the sacred ‘people’ and their foreign and domestic enemies, who are nearly always defined on sectarian grounds. The only exceptions I can see are Syriza in Greece, but it stoked enormous hatred of Germans as it tried and failed to make northern Europe bail it out, and Chavez’s Venezuela, which was little more than a racket for ruling party insiders. I do not see how Labour can turn into an anti-immigrant nationalist party. Even if it could, no one would believe it.
More importantly, a populist left would not be worth having. What is needed now is a credible alternative, which builds a coalition around a fairer distribution of wealth and power. It will have to be economically literate rather than mendacious, and explain how the wealth to build a just Britain will be created. As well as defending all the minorities and ‘citizens of nowhere’ that populists want to expel from ‘the people’, it will have to appeal to large sections of the middle class, and show that their interests do not lie in sticking with the right. It will be patriotic in wanting the best for its country, but not nationalist in seeing our allies as enemies. Rather than go to war against them, it will respect civil liberties, the rights of opponents and the independence of checks and balances on state power. Finally, rather than talk about the interests of ‘the people’ it will talk about the interest of the majority. By all means it should be as vulgar as it wants in its attacks on the mediocre and grasping who currently enjoy so much power. But unless it also creates a plausible, new version of social democracy it will not win or deserve to win. With the malicious clowns of the far left controlling the Labour party such a movement seems impossible now. But nothing lasts for ever, and the sooner people start arguing against the status quo, the faster it will crumble.
For more analysis of Jeremy Corbyn’s announcements, listen to Fraser Nelson, Isabel Hardman and James Fosyth’s discussion on Coffee House Shots: