New parties and life without populism?
Updated: Dec 28, 2018
Taken from the final chapter of the essay, the passage below looks at some of the key questions that the critique of the myths raises. What do they have in common? What would politics look like without them? How can we get to this point? And should we seek to?
Characteristics common to the three myths
The Dark Knight, the Puppet Master and the Golden Era share several traits. This is why, despite being distinct, they often end up as bedfellows. And it’s why belief or non-belief in them remains the key distinction between far and centre left. Those who believe opponents are immoral, problems occur by design, and the world is getting more right-wing tend to be the same people as each other. Likewise, those who believe opponents are merely wrong, that chaos trumps conspiracy, and that the world is getting better (at least as much as it’s getting worse).
The Corbyn project’s biggest controversies have come when the myths converge. The anti-Semitism crisis stems from a mix of Dark Knight attitudes to the Middle East and a Puppet Master attraction to conspiracy theories. Corbyn’s facilitation of Brexit fuses Puppet Master suspicion of ‘global elites’ with a Golden Era fondness for socialism in one country. The sympathy for Putin comes from a Golden Era reliance on the Cold War paradigm, and from a Dark Knight aversion to the US.
So, what are the myths’ common characteristics?
To begin with, a genuine belief in the myths stems from – and leads to – a lack of solutions. The Dark Knight stops us from engaging with opposing arguments; the Puppet Master suggests problems go unsolved because it serves elites better to ignore them; Golden Era seeks refuge in the answers of the past.
The myths compensate for this lack of solutions with a deep, potentially dangerous, sense of urgency. Believed in together, they allow counter-productive or extreme measures to make sense. If you think someone immoral has forced their way into the cabin of a train, and that they’re now going to drive into the buffers, somehow killing everyone apart from themselves, then anything is justified. It would be logical and, indeed, moral, to kill them.
However, the most noticeable characteristic which the Dark Knight, the Puppet Master and the Golden Era share is the purity of purpose they bring. Each myth comes with a sense of just conflict, after which everything will be better: goodies versus baddies; the people versus ‘the establishment’; the good old days versus a bleak future. They depend, for their survival, on an enemy, an oppressor or an impending dystopia.
What would the populist left do, after all, if we fulfilled the goals of a philosopher like Rawls? A true progressive should look forward to the point when there’s no Dark Knight to clash with because we’ve persuaded them; when there’s no Puppet Master because the left wields power, and no sense of decline because we’re living in a Golden Era. But the lesson of history, from times when we’ve been closer to this situation than we are now, is that the populist left doesn’t toast the progress made. The myths remain prevalent. And if an oppressor or dystopia doesn’t exist, one is created. Hence, the array of phantom menaces currently on offer – be it ‘transphobic’ ‘centrists’ or ‘neoliberal’ plutocrats.
In this respect, the myths conjure not a possibility of utopia, but a mirage of one – an oasis we can’t get to. This condemns the left to a future of being ‘alternative’ rather than radical. Like goths or punks or hardcore football ultras, we’re defined by what we’re against, and become a niche and exclusive subculture. If everyone started dressing like us or supporting the same team, our identity would be lost. Hence, the populist left doesn’t just oppose the status quo; it’s reinforced by it and, in a sense, needs it.[i]
This explains why the 1994-2010 Labour project was always doomed to split the left. As ex-Blair aide Peter Hyman notes, the New Labour aim wasn’t to be merely “a good opposition party,” but to attain “political hegemony: winning power and locking out the Tories to ensure that the 21st century was a Labour century with Labour values in contrast to a Tory-dominated 20th century.”[ii] This would have required the far left to become comfortable with the political mainstream being a left-of-centre one, and with the establishment being progressive. The power of the myths means this could never happen. Hence, rather than being forceful but constructive critics of the Blair-Brown premierships, the approach was to disown these governments entirely, and construct ways of believing they were as right-wing as the Tories.
Politics without the myths
In criticising the myths which prop up left populism, I’m advocating pluralism. Some call this ‘centrism’. I’ve chosen not to use that term, because the way it assigns an ideological position – a mid-point on the spectrum – is unhelpful. It allows right and left populists to claim ‘centrists’ stand for a particular set of policy positions (usually a blend of cosmopolitanism and ‘neoliberalism’), whereas what we’re really describing here is a mindset. This mindset strives for objectivity and reason, rather than dealing in conspiracy theories or seeking to dominate and destroy opponents.
It’s thus possible to be a left pluralist or a right pluralist; even to be a communist pluralist or an isolationist/nationalist pluralist – if your politics are democratic, flexible and based on persuading rather than condemning. It’s true that our populist myths are most prolific at the furthest ends of the spectrum, where politics tends to be more instinctive or sentimental. But there’s no reason you couldn’t be a far left pluralist. I myself support ideas that are a long way left-of-centre – e.g. 90% or 100% taxes on unearned wealth – while remaining a pluralist.
Whereas populists pride themselves on emotional authenticity, pluralism is founded on intellectual integrity. Pluralists have the integrity to know that what we think isn’t what everyone thinks; that our values don’t automatically come from a place of greater morality; that we can’t attack a policy without having an alternative; that there’s no perfect solution, held back by elites; that we can’t cherry-pick only the aspects of the past that overlap with our values.
Populists regard this as a careerist devotion to public opinion. Tony Benn, for instance, distinguished between authentic ‘signposts’ and opportunistic ‘weathercocks’.[iii]
But this isn’t remotely what pluralism is. Instead, it’s a position which attempts to achieve perspective and be honest with itself. Indeed, when you look at those presently posing as authentic ‘signposts’, from Farage to Corbyn, what they all share is a dishonesty about the choices on offer. Tories on the Brexiteer right, for example, may be acting in ways that are true to some deep, ‘authentic’ sense of sovereign pride. But the ‘pro-cake and pro-eating it’ answers which they advance are lacking in integrity. What kind of ‘signpost’ points to a destination that doesn’t exist?
The same goes for those on the populist left, who rely on the idea that you can wish a socialist idyll into existence. Using the myths, they claim that anyone who asks how you’ll do this is a stooge or sell-out, who opposes equality and fairness in principle.
Without the three populist myths, we’d have a politics based on this pluralism. This goal has been closer and further away at certain points. But it’s rarely, since WWII, felt more distant than it does today.
A truly pluralist politics would deliver the things British politics is crying out for: a grown-up and consensual climate; respect for the range of needs and values running across the population; a debate based on argument and persuasion; the ability to address the challenges of the future (and the deeper factors underlying populism) etc. On the left, we’d gain the rationality and impartiality to be taken seriously, and thus to promote ideals based on Rawlsian fairness, and policies designed to deliver egalitarian-internationalism.
However, a question remains: do we lose something by dispensing with the myths? What would politics look like without them? One of the arguments made by populists is that the only alternative to their approach is a technocratic and passionless form of decision-making – the end of democracy itself, even. The fear is that, by expunging the myths, we hand the keys to the bean-counters.[iv]
It could even be argued that British party-political democracy is reliant on the Dark Knight, Puppet Master and Golden Era. The two sides, red and blue, sit facing each other, as if in combat, and seek to play up the goodness of their own position and the badness of the other side’s. The opposition is explicitly given the role of insurgent, developing lines of attack which pretend the government’s job is easier than it is. This relies on suggesting the country is getting worse under the incumbent.
The cut and thrust this creates can drive change – helping avoid a politics which is inaccessible and designed by committee. Maybe, by eliminating the myths, we reduce democracy to cost-benefit deductions and SWOT analyses – reliant only on the expert witness and the professional technician? Perhaps, some might say, we’d reached this point by 2010, and it was this which triggered the rise of populism over the subsequent decade.
The attitudes of populists towards Tony Blair are an interesting example here. The references to Blair throughout this essay have generally been positive, for the reason that – although I don’t share all his views on policy – he was among the most pluralist Prime Ministers the country has seen. Blair eschewed the populist myths, presenting an approach which was consensual, comfortable with change and serious about the challenges of government.
This created a project which was electorally successful for a time, and which has significant policy achievements to its name. Yet the anger now felt for Blair can’t be dismissed. Among left and right populists alike, his name prompts near-hysterical anger – a pantomime villain status best summed up by George Galloway’s small-budget film, The Killings of Tony Blair. Blair himself refers to this as an “unholy coalition” of the Guardian left and Mail right.[v]
Given Blair’s politics are fairly ‘moderate’, the strength of feeling is striking. Opponents of course have their stated reasons for the hatred, be it Iraq or immigration. But you can’t help wondering if part of it is a reaction to Blair’s ostentatiously pluralist approach. By refusing to engage with the myths, he gave nothing whatsoever to those who wanted tribal politics or anti-establishment rhetoric; he made little pretence of being ‘on your side’; he would rather be ‘right’ than ‘good’.
He’s therefore become an aloof and isolated figure – respected by some but loved by few. People identify with Blair far less than they agree with him, and the agreement – when it comes – is grudging. His belief that there could be a politics without constant attrition and sentimentality led the left to regard him as an unprincipled ‘weathervane’, and the right to see him as a detached globalist.
Maybe we see, in the response to Blair, a risk inherent in pluralism: that it appears clinical and devoid of feeling? That it ignores key aspects of human nature, even? That politics needs more friction than Blair’s style allowed? That the myths are necessary to democracy?
There are three things to say about this view.
The first is that it’s partly true. As a press officer for Labour candidates, I often slipped into using the narratives without thinking. The problem with the Dark Knight, the Puppet Master and the Golden Era is that they’ve become articles of faith for populists.
But the myths have always, necessarily, played a small role in the political toolkit – to underscore a point or invoke a sense of jeopardy. As former New York Governor Mario Cuomo famously put it, “We oppose in poetry, we govern in prose.” By eliminating the myths altogether, we’d potentially take all feeling out of politics, promoting head over heart and science over art.
The second thing to say, however, which directly counters this, is that encouraging the myths means making peace with irrationality. It means accepting that decision-making might be wrong or counterproductive – formed on the basis of falsehoods. The myths are the enemy of honest and democratic forms of politics.
This may seem unimportant. Better, perhaps, to have a spirit of romance which engages people, if the alternative is a bloodless pluralism. Yet policy decisions have genuine meaning and impact. Getting them wrong harms the population – especially the most vulnerable. To allow the myths in is, potentially, to say we’ll tolerate more unhappiness and suffering in return for a livelier debate.
I don’t know how completely we must remove the populist instincts. But it seems there’s a balance to be struck between the visceral and mindless populism we’re currently seeing, and its potentially over-clinical counterpoint.
Beyond this, there’s a third, larger thing to be said about the fear of the technocrats taking over, which is that pluralism still allows, by its very nature, differences in values. This is why pluralism doesn’t equal centrism, ‘neoliberalism’ or any other populist caricature.
It is true that a genuinely pluralist debate would more quickly filter out dishonest arguments. The Brexit right, for instance, would not – when challenged on the facts – have Puppet Master ‘saboteurs’ to fall back on, or halcyon myths about a Golden Era.
They’d have to be honest about the pros and cons of EU membership, weighing up the things they don’t like (loss of sovereignty, higher migration) against the things they do (prosperity, security) and conclude that its worth jeopardising the latter to stop the former. It seems likely that fewer would do this than currently support Brexit. But if they did then that diversity of opinion is to be welcomed.
The same goes for Bennite policies. If these could be proposed in genuinely pluralist way – honestly advocating siege economics or blanket non-intervention, for example, without resorting to the populist myths every time the questions got too hard – then so much the better.
The point is that a pluralist politics wouldn’t stop a range of values from existing, or funnel all policies in a single direction. In this hypothetical world, left pluralists would be openly championing progressive values (community, social justice, equality, etc), and right pluralists would be advocating conservative ones (self-reliance, personal responsibility, tradition, etc). Pluralist supporters of other ideals – e.g. green values – would also be making their case.
The debate would therefore contain the friction necessary for a dynamic democracy. All sides would be arguing for different goals, but doing so with integrity, presenting genuine choices about realistic courses of action.
The British party system is a massive, complicating factor in getting to a pluralist politics. First Past The Post rewards tribalism not pluralism. And this means it’s struggled to accommodate globalisation, a process which has asked existential questions of both main UK parties. As we saw in the Isolationism to Interconnectedness shift, this creates tensions between isolationist Golden Era believers and interconnected non-Golden Era believers in both camps, especially in light of Brexit. At present, you have four main groupings (not counting smaller parties): Brexiteer Tories, globalist Tories, ‘siege economy’ Labourites and internationalist Labourites.
Hence, temporary common ground has established itself between globalist Tories and internationalist Labourites – the sides of the respective parties who are most supportive of ‘open’ policies. Both sides oppose leaving the EU, and tend to represent the pluralist wings of their parties – being suspicious of the narratives which feed isolationism. On certain issues they now have more in common with each other than with isolationists in their own parties.
Once some sort of settlement has been established, which accepts (or rejects, once and for all) the realities of the modern, interconnected world, this common ground will disappear. But its existence, for now, has led some to propose a ‘centrist party’ in support of ‘open’ approaches – with names like David Miliband, George Osborne and Nick Clegg mentioned.
This idea is wrong from the outset.
For starters, it is unsustainable, thanks the different core values of the internationalist Labour and globalist Tory groupings. The former are progressive, the latter conservative. Chuka Umunna and Anna Soubry, for example, went into politics for different reasons. They may be united for now by their commitment to an interconnected world. But, as the final diagram in the Isolation to Interconnectedness chapter suggested (replicated below), the likelihood will be that so-called ‘centrists’ diverge once ‘open versus closed’ ceases to be an issue. (The success of Macron, which is sometimes the riposte to this, represents an approach which is both hard to replicate and difficult to sustain).
The idea of a centrist party is also flawed from a PR perspective. It would look and feel like an elite project, run by ‘citizens of nowhere’. And it would play into the stereotypes put forward by populists, whereby technocrats turn democracy into a one-party system.
In this respect, a centrist party would in fact be at odds with the pluralism that feeds it. Pluralist objections are the true basis for opposition to populism, after all. But were a centrist party to be as successful in driving out populism as its supporters hope, it would amalgamate most of politics – from David Lammy through to Ken Clarke – into a single movement obeying a single whip.
Ultimately, while pluralism points towards openness and realism, which in turn points to certain policies, it’s a mindset not a value system. A mindset may create a better environment for cooperation between value systems. But it’s not the foundation for a party of its own. The true aim should be for several pluralist parties, all with different values – able, between them, to represent the diversity of opinion across the country.
Even within these parties, there must remain policy differences. Within Labour, for example, the dynamic between far left and centre left has often been based on a productive interplay, between different interpretations of the same values.[vi] Figures like Robin Cook robustly asked if the compromises of New Labour were the right ones, without succumbing to populism.
Yet despite being wrong about the answers, supporters of a centrist party are correct to feel the present situation is unsustainable. It’s become clear that Corbynism isn’t a pluralist movement; that it won’t even permit a broad church within Labour, let alone be able to govern a diverse country in a complex world. Something has to give.
The ideal alternative to a centrist party would, of course, be that left pluralists drive populism out of Labour, reclaiming the party through debate. This would involve making the sorts of arguments set out in this essay, and championing Labour as a left pluralist entity: radical but not extreme. Rather than the Owen Smith strategy of 2016, which pretended the chief problem with Corbyn was electability, this would take on the falsehoods, folklore and dogma underpinning post-2015 Labour.
However, many Labour ‘moderates’ are pessimistic about the possibility of this. The populist myths have achieved such a grip on the imagination of the party membership that they allow Corbyn supporters to ignore the most glaring truths. There’s understandable scepticism about the chances of Labour being won back by a sophisticated, rational debate.
Thus, although the creation of a centrist party is a bad idea, I don’t regard a split of the populist left and the pluralist left – a split of Labour – in the same way. The argument made by Corbyn supporters is that this would let the Tories in. Yet for many on the pluralist left, Labour has sunk so far into dishonest and extreme populism that a Tory government is barely any worse.[vii]
The point is that a new party, if created, shouldn’t be a centrist one, or even acknowledge it’s any closer to the supposed centre. It should be an unapologetically egalitarian party. It should argue that Corbyn’s populism has undermined Labour’s social justice credentials, taking the movement into reactionary territory. It should state that a genuine progressive alternative is needed. It should embrace optimistic narratives, give others the benefit of the doubt, rediscover the ‘language of priorities’, and ditch the pledges of populism. Faced with accusations that they’re ‘Red Tories’ or ‘Conservative Lite’, those who make this case should retort that that they’re the true radicals.[viii]
This is clearly an even riskier strategy, electorally, than a centrist party, because it would take on left populists on their own turf. It would need to reclaim the Labour brand, and challenge what it is to be progressive. In doing this, the new party would have to hit the ground running. You’d require a large number of MPs to resign the Labour whip and stand on the platform of ‘True Labour’ or ‘Real Labour’. They’d need to trigger rolling by-elections, fighting them on the basis of a clear, progressive alternative to Corbyn’s distortion of leftism. They’d need to explain where the real differences lie, trusting themselves to win these by-elections, and giving other MPs the courage to do the same. The whole thing would need to be done rapidly, en masse, so that this new movement quickly became Britain’s main left-wing party and primary opposition.
Another way to do this – which is perhaps even further from the realms of reality – would be for a centrist party to be created, comprising left and right pluralists, but to be formed on the explicit understanding that it was a place of temporary shelter. This alliance could hold for a short time, as a placeholder. The initial aim would be to secure a parliamentary majority of pluralists, and then to change the electoral system to Proportional Representation, and split into two separate parties.[ix] This would require a large amount of coordination and trust, and would rely on more MPs leaving the Conservatives than currently look willing to. But it could happen if a Rees-Mogg style populist was elected Tory leader.
Either way, a centre party isn’t the answer. At least two pluralist parties must emerge, to cater to the full range of values and opinions. This challenge is larger, even, than the idea of a single, centrist party.
What a left pluralist movement stands for – whether it’s a reclaiming of Labour or a new political grouping – is the next question. I obviously don’t have all the answers to this, but an emphasis on equal rights, equal opportunities and fair outcomes offers its philosophical basis. In particular, Rawls’ focus on ‘justice as fairness’ is important. The concept of fairness isn’t just a by-word for equality in this context (although high inequality blights fairness), but a proxy for a broader, more sustainable, socialist vision.[x] A fair society is one where there’s no prejudice, where opportunities are equal, and where economic relationships are reciprocal.
The idea of fairness also offers a platform that could appeal beyond Labour’s base. A sense of fairness stops some from voting Labour on economic grounds, because they feel Labour rewards freeloaders. Meanwhile many traditionalists avoid voting for left-wing parties, which they see as unjustly privileging certain groups.
We may think these right-of-centre voters are working on a false premise, and indeed, their ideas of fairness are hardly Rawlsian. But one version or another of fairness nevertheless governs their politics – and their aversion to the left. By establishing a platform which made the case for a truly just society, many essentially fair-minded people could be persuaded of the left’s merits.
In policy terms, there must be two focuses in particular, as discussed in Chapter Twelve. The first is to embrace multilateral and transnational platforms, seeking to enlarge global institutions and bend them in a progressive direction – and aiming to do this more radically than Labour has managed in the past. The primary routes to a Rawlsian world are the egalitarian-internationalist, multilateral methods that someone like Piketty advocates.
The second step is to champion approaches which are competent on security and confident in celebrating Britain’s identity. A sense of pluralism underpins this, because it’s about accepting that others place value on different things. But so too does a sense of community and shared values.
These policy emphases build on the ideas of someone like Clement Attlee, who supported aspects of world government, while embracing the parts of British patriotism which give us confidence and a positive connection with others. A combination of security, social contract and sustainability can create an ethos which appeals to fair-minded voters with a range of values.[xi]
Another part of this is about democratic engagement. So far, we’ve seen lower levels of deference without – partly thanks to the timidity of decision-makers – greater involvement and participation in the hard choices that exist. Brexit, for example, was plainly not a grown-up evaluation of pros and cons, because politicians never allowed it to be. More engagement is needed.
This could be supported by policies seeking transparency about decisions, including measures like hypothecation or ID cards, to build trust in the tax and immigration systems, respectively. This would create the faith in the system needed to do progressive things (i.e. raise taxes or take more refugees).
The wish-list above is a sketch not a blueprint. I don’t pretend it’s all that original. But the point is that even the policies suggested can’t be debated while the left remains in the thrall of populism. Nor will the left must be trusted by electors to deliver objective fairness of any description. The populist myths must be dispensed with so that Labour – or whatever left pluralist party replaces it – is seen as a just arbitrator: competent, forward-looking, and impartial.
A final point is about right pluralism. Left pluralists should welcome anything which brings British conservatism back to a pluralist place. When we look at the antics of Boris Johnson or the queues to watch Rees-Mogg speak, the urgency of this is obvious. The right is at least as poisoned by populism as the left.[xii]
It’s not that we necessarily need a pro-EU, ‘One Nation’ or ‘liberal conservative’ movement (although it’s true these stances would be easiest to accommodate with pluralism). There could easily be a Leave-leaning, socially conservative or uber-Thatcherite form of pluralism. Rather, right pluralism needs to promote values which are different to left pluralism, but which can still be held up as a thought-through, transparently-presented ideal.[xiii] This would require right-wingers of whatever hue to accept the legitimate existence of differences of opinion, and to make their goals correspond with reality.
Thus, right pluralism doesn’t have to be philosophically perfect. But it needs to be coherent and constructive enough that it stands for more than the ragtag set of oppositions, utopias, gut instincts and wistful recollections which comprise right populism.[xiv]
My stress on the need for right pluralism is partly self-interested. For one thing, a split of the left would probably require a split of the right to electorally counter-balance it. For another, left-of-centre values are most likely to succeed if they’re competing on a playing field governed by logic, not instinct. I tend to think left pluralism beats right pluralism, but left populism loses to right populism.
But beyond this, a right pluralist party is essential in a democracy, as an alternative to left pluralism. At present we don’t have anything close to this creative tension. We have two discrete populist entities, with neither seeking to genuinely engage with the other.
Times columnist Daniel Finkelstein, one of the strongest anti-populist voices on the right, argues that “cults, populists and revolutionaries” all fail in the end because[xv]
they keep purging themselves until there is no one left… They die having never identified the voice of the people, because there isn’t such a thing… The people live varied lives, and have varied interests, and have conflicting beliefs and competing rights.
I won’t speculate further about what right pluralism looks like. But in Finkelstein’s acknowledgement lie the clues about how Conservatives can drag their politics back from the brink.
Political scientist Robert Reich identified four defining political parables:[xvi] ‘the rot at the top’, ‘the mob at the gates’, ‘the benign community’ and ‘the triumphant individual’. The matrix below plots these onto a grid of right and left populism and pluralism. It identifies the parables with which each are most comfortable.
There is major overlap, of course. Politicians of all four leanings use all four narratives at points. But the matrix depicts the ‘home ground’ of each political strain. For example, Clement Attlee’s emphasis on ‘Winning the peace’ was a near-perfect instance of the left pluralist, ‘benevolent community’ parable. And much of Thatcher’s language evoked ‘the triumphant individual’.
The core difference between the populist and pluralist parables is about conflict. Both ‘the rot at the top’ and ‘the mob at the gates’ rely on an enemy to be overthrown or beaten – after which the parable will, in theory, no longer apply. ‘The benign community’ and ‘the triumphant individual’, by contrast, are sustainable as a long-term ideal. Of course, both latter narratives could become unsustainable – if triumphant individuals pulled the ladder up behind them, for example. But the narrative premises of both are workable on a permanent basis. They have positive answers to the question ‘What happens after the book?’ They don’t rely, for their existence, on a ‘rot’ or a ‘mob’.
These latter two parables would, in an ideal world, be the respective defaults of left and right pluralism. And the two populist parables could be retired, except for rare moments when a specific event rendered one of them true.
There is, after all, a creative interplay between ‘the benign community’ and ‘the triumphant individual’. Both explain how different people see the world and themselves within it. And both operate as a brake on the other, guaranteeing that a benevolent society doesn’t suffocate innovation, and that a triumphant individual doesn’t trample the rest.[xvii]
Looking at the four parables also helps the pluralist left to think about the questions raised in Chapter Three, to do with ‘grand narratives’ and what Macron calls “democratic heroism.” The problem we’ve consistently faced is that, when it comes to populism and pluralism, the devil has the best tunes. The Dark Knight, the Puppet Master and the Golden Era may be flawed explanations of the world, but they remain seductive. Without alternatives to them, we on the pluralist wing of the left risk becoming marked as technocrats.
But in the parable of ‘the benevolent community’, we start to see a narrative which might replace the three myths and underscore left pluralist policies. A ‘benevolent community’ account of things could focus on stories of personal redemption and rehabilitation; on camaraderie and democratic respect for others; on shared history and connection to place and people; on the bridgability of divides; on bravery, second chances, potential, opportunity and indifference to background; on fairness, tolerance, rejuvenation, teamwork, the enjoyment of the good times and much else beside. These narratives may sound vacuous. But they’re no more so than the myths I’ve spent this essay critiquing. And they have the advantage of not demonising others. They correspond better to the complex societies of 21st century Britain than anything populists offer.
By looking at issues in these ways, we on the pluralist left can start to see a way out of our present rut. We can demonstrate that there’s greater fulfilment in constructing something good than in agitating against something bad. And we can show that there’s a richness in human society, and in its people, stories and ideals, which goes beyond the crusader mentality which the myths invite.
At times, I envisage a future, ten or so years from now, where those currently on the pro-Corbyn left have finally taken the steps needed to bring about change, and got into government. Perhaps they’ve quietly retired the Dark Knight, in favour of a broad electoral coalition, and maybe they’ve ditched the Puppet Master too, and engaged with the realities of power. Perhaps a figure like Matt Zarb-Cousin is running communications, and maybe MPs like Clive Lewis are in the Cabinet. Perhaps people like myself have been won back round, by these individuals’ departure from populism.
And then, four or five years of power afterwards, in 2030 or so, I envisage the development of a left populist movement, in opposition to this Labour government. This will happen despite any decent progressive achievements, as soon as some fudge or failure has provided the opening. I imagine a young Owen Jones type, maybe just twelve or thirteen right now, leading the accusation that these figures are right-wingers and cynics, unfit to lace the boots of Keir Hardie or even of Gordon Brown. And I see the whole project being undermined and destroyed.
This is the future of the British left, unless the populist narratives are debunked. A slow, generational cycle, of left populists attacking pluralists as sell-outs, discovering that politics is harder than they thought, maturing into pluralists, and then being attacked by the next round of left populists – with Labour holding power for just five or ten years in each of these 30-year cycles.
Many pluralists who are still in the Labour Party have made their peace with this inevitable, three-decade pilgrimage. But perhaps, if we get to the root of the populist narratives, we can find a better and quicker way.
Ultimately, history is littered with romantic and sometimes violent left populists, from Robespierre to Che Guevara, who have believed in the Dark Knight, the Puppet Master, or the Golden Era. They’ve mistaken struggle, uprising and loss for egalitarian progress, and in the process they’ve done harm – or, at least, done less good than they could have.
Their populist approach represents not the fulfilment but the deferral of a utopian dream: a style of politics which offers purpose and struggle, but does little to make things better for ordinary people. To move towards pluralism is to decide that, rather than it being a mirage we enjoy the prospect of, we want to see a ‘benevolent society’ achieved in the flesh – and are willing to recognise it when it arrives. This society can never be perfect. But it can be as equal and fair as is possible – a meaningful achievement, instead of an entity at the end of a rainbow.
[i] In an article on the use of intellectual language by the left, campaigner Ellie Mae O’Hagan concedes that “because leftists are opposed to the status quo, our movement is prone to functioning as a counter-culture.” Yet she justifies this on the basis that “The words we use are signifiers of who we are as people – which tribes we belong to… In some ways, that’s intentional: the whole point of the left is to oppose the mainstream and shift society in a new direction, and in that respect we want to be different from the ordinary.” The assumptions are those of the exclusive avant-garde, far more at home opposing the mainstream than changing and occupying it. Others on the populist left admit roughly the same thing: “If Labour politics were an American high-school drama, some on the right of the party must have felt as though they were once the jocks and the prom queens, but have been suddenly usurped in the pecking order by the emo kids and goths they used to pity or mock.”
[ii] Hyman adds, “If Labour could be in power for a serious amount of time, then the country would, we believed, change for good; not a burst of socialism for one time (if that), but changed institutions and values…for all time.” Others note that the true aim of New Labour – and explanation for its cautiousness – was to enable the party to “gain office and hold it for a decade or more, as opposed to the abrupt, short-lived Labour governments of the 1940s and 1960s/70s.”
[iii] Tony Benn described his famous distinction as follows: “I admire anyone who speaks their mind whatever their party and divide politicians of all parties into two categories: the signposts who point the way they think we should go and the weathercocks who haven’t got an opinion, until they’ve studied the polls, focus groups and spin doctors. I have no time for weathercocks and prefer signposts even if I think they point in the wrong direction.” The definition is inadvertently a Dark Knight, binary one, because it assumes there are only really two positions a person might authentically take: Bennite and Thatcherite.
[iv] Some self-proclaimed centrists have made the case for this explicitly – with the likes of Ian Leslie arguing that we need expertise and “cool logic.” Yet the truth is that a truly rational form of public decision-making is very hard. One study finds that, “most of the time, the voters adopt issue positions, adjust their candidate perceptions, and invent facts to rationalize decisions they have already made.” ‘It Feels Like We’re Thinking: The Rationalizing Voter and Electoral Democracy’, Christopher H. Achen, Department of Politics and Center for the Study of Democratic Politics, Princeton University, 2006. (See also Democracy for Realists and The Political Brain).
[v] A Journey, p.274
[vi] Blair himself says of his premiership “We were throughout always conducting a debate with a perpetual drumbeat of opposition from those who thought New Labour was a betrayal of our principles. I never resented that debate. I cheerfully engaged in it. I enjoyed it.”
[vii] One ‘moderate’ Labour member writes that “I went against my principles and voted for a man who I believe should be a pariah to the liberal-Left. A man whose past comments, stances and associations, should have ruled him beyond the pale of mainstream political discourse... I was not anti-Corbyn just because I did not think he was electable. I was anti-Corbyn because I hated his politics.” Another activist, who left Labour as a result of Corbyn’s approaches to Russia, Assad, Europe and anti-Semitism, writes that “If all a new party does is stop these people from reaching number 10 and forces Labour to change radically or face perpetuity in the wilderness, it will have succeeded.”
[viii] The final section of Steve Fielding’s recent working paper looks at this question, arguing that Labour’s social democrats need to “publicly assert the unique value of the Labour tradition of which they are part” and “angrily reject the terms ‘centrist’ or ‘moderate’.” ‘For the many not the few: Labour's social democrats and Corbynism’, Policy Network, Steven Fielding, June 2018, p.10-12.
[ix] Chuka Ummuna is one of the few politicians who has alluded to the incompatibility of pluralism and First Past The Post: “I am instinctively a pluralist and not overly tribal in my politics so have some sympathy for the case being made,” he says, but complains that “we have to suffer under FPTP, which necessitates each of the main parties acting as a coalition of the views of a broad range of voters on each side of the political.”
[x] Indeed, a rough academic proxy for this idea of fairness would probably be the concept referred to by evolutionary psychologists as reciprocal altruism. Made famous by certain filmed experiments, the idea is that the concept of mutual give-and-take – ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ – activates humans’ sense of morality far more than notions of equality for its own sake.
[xi] Various figures on the pluralist left have made the case for socialism of this kind – where you build upwards from core security needs (referred to by one as the ‘centre-ground attitude’) or blend international solutions with a willingness to “speak for England”.
[xiii] Hugo Rifkind writes that “The Tory division on Europe is not just a division about Europe. It is also a division between ideologues and technocrats, flair and prudence, headbangers and bean-counters.”
[xiv] Arch-populist Nigel Farage, for instance – whose approach the Conservative Party increasingly apes – has no internally consistent ideal, and no view of what the world should look like once he’s agitated his way to Brexit. It’s striking what a forlorn and purposeless figure Farage cuts, now that their goals have been achieved and their focal point for conflict and opposition has been removed. Ukip as a party cannot answer the question of what it stands for beyond hostility to a set of imagined enemies, and fondness for a hallucinatory past. Likewise, the Leave campaign is proving to be a similarly vacuous project, displaying no vision at all for Brexit Britain now that we’re leaving and there isn’t a straw man to rouse anger against.
[xv] ‘Populist cults like Ukip always end in failure’, The Times, Daniel Finkelstein, March 2017. Finkelstein also describes the blackmail of the party’s populist wing, and looks at the descent into anti-Semitic, “puppet master” myths on the right.
[xvii] The productive tension between the myths is important because ultimately we should approach democracy on the basis that there is no ideal society. Many philosophers, for instance, argue against ‘ideal theory’, and call for the passion of idealism without preconceived ideals. A situation of engagement between two pluralistic ideals seems like the most workable basis for a society becoming as good as it can – without ever reaching the hubristic state which claims that an ideal has been achieved.