A few days ago I received an email from the Guardian: “We’re putting a panel together of writers and thinkers following the announcement that Jeremy Corbyn is planning to relaunch his image and policies as a leftwing populist. We are asking for 300 words in response to the question, “What should Corbyn’s leftwing populism look like?”. Here is the response that I, and others, provided:
Yanis Varoufakis: It’s not whether Corbyn can be populist – it’s whether he can become popular
The Sun and William Shakespeare are both popular but only one of the two is populist. Jeremy Corbyn cannot be made over into a populist any more than the bard could. The question is whether he can become popular. If some form of makeover is necessary, fair enough. But it is pure mischief to portray this as a slide toward populism.
When I scored the largest parliamentary majority in Greece’s general election two years ago, I too was portrayed as a populist. For the establishment, anyone who does well electorally by challenging its favourite sons and daughters is dismissed as a populist. But this lets populists off too lightly. A populist promises all things to all people, while preying on their superstitions and fears. In contrast, when I ran for parliament I quoted Winston Churchill in promising “blood, sweat and tears” as the price of our liberation from debt bondage and from Greece’s oligarchy. In financial terms, I did not promise a single euro to anyone making more than €700 monthly. The election outcome proved that anti-establishment politicians can gain popularity by eschewing populism.
Populism’s recent rise is due to the establishment’s inane handling of a crisis it caused. Populists need the establishment to remain relevant, while the establishment depends on the fear of populists to hang on. The real opposition is between progressives, such as Corbyn, and the never-ending feedback mechanism between the establishment and populism.
The key to success is universal respect for the concerns of those who are feeling weak, abandoned, discarded. Poorer white people must not feel that we care less for them than we do for ethnic minorities or LGBT people. If we make them feel so, we can then convince them that immigration is not the problem and xenophobia is not the solution. But this requires also an economic blueprint that breaks with austerity and secures the resources necessary to fund not only the innovators who will produce the next killer apps but also the unsung maintainers who clean sewers, lay down rail tracks and wash our hospitals’ dirty sheets.
Maya Goodfellow: Crafting a populist message rejecting migrant-bashing won’t be easy
Populism in the UK has become synonymous with the far right and anti-immigration politics. As the country lurches towards Brexit, once enthusiastically pro-EU MPs are tossing freedom of movement out of the window in a desperate bid to show they “understand people’s legitimate concerns” on immigration. In this climate, it seems almost impossible to imagine a politics that challenges this, but that’s what Labour has to do.
The term “populism”, regularly bandied about in political commentary, has a meaning well beyond Nigel Farage and his xenophobia. It should be about siding with the public against the elites. There is no reason why populism should be anti-immigrant, particularly when it is the elites (economic, social and political), not migrants, who are the cause of this country’s problems.
One of the reasons xenophobic populism has flourished is because there’s been no effective counter-narrative from Labour. Well before Brexit, New Labour pursued draconian asylum policies, while Ed Miliband promised to clamp down on migrants claiming benefits, even though the number of people doing so was minuscule. The party has been echoing parts of the rightwing populist message for too long.
It’s a tactic that is a demonstrable failure, only validating anti-immigrant politics. Instead, Labour should tackle head on the issues that immigration is used as a proxy for: anxieties about an insecure labour market, unaffordable housing and a declining sense of community. That means directing blame away from migrants and outlining an explicit anti-racist strategy, because anti-migrant feeling cannot simply be reduced to economics.
Crafting a populist message that rejects any form of migrant-bashing won’t be easy. But given the sharp rise in hate crimes and the severe economic cost of cutting migration, any other strategy would be deeply irresponsible.
Mark Seddon: Use Corbyn’s authenticity to catch the zeitgeist
Jeremy Corbyn’s greatest attribute is his authenticity. Millennials can see that, even if sections of a myopic parliamentary Labour party and the Westminster lobby can’t. So it would be pointless to “relaunch” him as though Corbyn were some kind of product, but there is every point in getting more people to hear and see him, along with many of the impressive, new members of the shadow cabinet.
I would urge Corbyn and his team to closely observe the brilliant social media campaign of another authentic leader: Bernie Sanders. He came within a breath of being the Democratic party’s presidential candidate, and who knows what might have happened had he done so.
Corbyn, like Sanders, can catch the zeitgeist. There should be a focus on a few key issues: saving the NHS from perfidious Tory privatisation; building 500,000 affordable homes with rent controls; a wealth tax; a basic universal income; restoring student grants; a huge programme of investment in infrastructure and job creation and an unremitting attack on an economic system that is impoverishing millions and is being used by the right to encourage the deprived to turn upon the even more deprived.
Under Corbyn, Labour has become a mass party, with hundreds of thousands of people with hope and enthusiasm, prepared to turn the tide. And if Theresa May attempts to cut and run with an early Brexit-focused election, Labour should firmly fight on its ground. The referendum result was a howl of protest. Voters by and large have moved on, having done what was asked of them.
Now, surely is the time for all good Labour people to come to the aid of the party. Oh yes, and its leader. With no apologies to Trump: “Let’s Make Britain Fair Again!”
Aditya Chakrabortty: Playing at populism is laughable
Jeremy Corbyn must do more than play at populism. To see why, read a recent essay by one of the great authorities on populism, Jan-Werner Müller.
Writing in the London Review of Books, Müller makes the fundamental point that, while all populists declaim the elites, not all anti-elitists are populist. “Those who draw a lazy equivalence between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump fail to recognise that populists don’t stop at protesting against Wall Street or ‘globalism’. Rather, populists claim that they and they alone speak in the name of what they tend to call the ‘real people’ or the ‘silent majority’ … Populists accuse all other political contenders of being illegitimate … They make it personal.” Trump promised to jail “crooked Hillary”, even while lining up a cabinet in which the 17 members so far announced have more money than a third of all American households put together. Populism, American-style.
So what’s populism in the hands of our Little Englanders? It means to keep schtum while the Daily Mail calls independent judges “enemies of the people”. It is to ape Nigel Farage and claim that leave voters are the “decent people”. It is to send round vans telling immigrants to “Go Home”.
Fantasists might pretend a leftwing populism would be “oh-so-different”; recent history tells us otherwise. I bet somewhere in your bank of cringe you too recall Gordon Brown banging on about “British jobs for British workers”, Ed Miliband flogging anti-immigration mugs and, yes, an Oxford- and Harvard-educated intellectual protesting plummily that he felt nothing but “respect” for drivers of white vans. Which only proved that he’d never seen one actually driving.
Such attempts at a populist style never touched the problem that still dogs Labour. Like so many social-democratic parties in the 90s and 00s, it embraced the inequality that marks neoliberalism – only to find that it blew apart its electoral base.
Playing at populism is laughable when the existential threat to Labour is how to represented a shattered working class and a middle class that is fast dissolving. A mainstream left party that breaks with the dumb centrism of the past 20 years? I’m all for it. An opposition that finally accepts our bust economic model is bust? Excellent. But a Labour leader playing the same rhetorical and tactical game as a Trump or a Farage? Give me a break. Both Britain and Labour are in too big a hole for such nonsense.
Chantal Mouffe: A left-populist approach is the only way to renew radical politics
Social democracy is in crisis all over Europe. In France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Sweden, the leaders of the centre-left parties have suffered serious defeats. They have lost the support of the popular sectors, which are increasingly attracted by rightwing populist parties.
Could social democratic parties survive this crisis or should we come to the conclusion that they are beyond repair? This is what I was inclined to think until very recently, but the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party has brought me hope that things could be different in Britain. And the recent announcement that Corbyn is going to adopt a left-populist approach indicates that he has understood that this is the only way to renew radical politics.
Refusing to acknowledge the democratic character of those demands and the need to address them has given the possibility to rightwing populists to formulate them in a xenophobic language. The only way to stop their rise is by offering a discourse able to give a progressive answer to those demands, articulating them to the other democratic demands existing in society. The aim is the creation of a “collective will” that could mobilise collective efforts towards equality and social justice. Such is the nature of a leftwing populist project and if Corbyn is able to move Labour in that direction, the consequences for the whole European left will be incalculable.
Ayesha Hazarika: Focus on the things really annoying voters
Given the rise of populism that is sweeping the world, Jeremy Corbyn and Labour could seize the moment and ride the political wave. But he needs to listen to what people are saying and tap into their hopes, fears and anxieties.
Much of Corbyn’s appeal is a leftwing populism. But he and his team need to ruthlessly focus on the things that the public really care about. That doesn’t mean abandoning his principles at all. It means following the Lynton Crosby strategy – get the barnacles off the boat. Populism is about defining yourself against the establishment, which is what Corbyn excels at.
But if Corbyn wants his leftwing brand of populism to become popular he should focus on the things that are really annoying people up and down the country; not get distracted by hobby horses but focus on the key bread-and-butter issues that make people tear their hair out. Corbyn was right to focus on social care at PMQslast week. More of that, please. Caring for older relatives is a major headache. Getting time off to take older parents to hospital appointments is also stressful.
And childcare remains one of the biggest challenges for parents – not only finding care that is good quality and affordable but the drama of how to cope when your kid gets ill and the fear of asking your employer if you can have a day off or work from home. Transport is another massive headache for people, especially with the horror of Southern rail. Labour should focus on a radical rail policy to bring down ticket prices and drive up standards.
These are the kind of basic policy ideas that Corbyn should have a laser-like focus on, because they tell the stories of people’s lives.
Rafael Behr: The challenge to transform Corbyn’s image is huge
Relaunches are mostly futile in politics. Candidates who don’t fly the first time tend to sustain too much damage in the crash landing for public opinion to give them a second go. Ed Miliband was relaunched a couple of times in the last parliament. So was Nick Clegg. Jeremy Corbyn’s team think the leftwing populist framework – the Labour leader as maverick outsider fighting an unjust establishment – is radical enough to defy the usual patterns of political gravity.
There is a certain logic: the Brexit vote indicated frustration with the political and economic status quo, for which EU membership happened to be the proxy. In theory, that anger could be mobilised behind a more inclusive, egalitarian agenda. But how? It isn’t obvious that a public mood so far expressed as reactionary nationalism, preoccupied with immigration, can be harnessed to a party that is widely associated with open borders and led by a man who is perceived to be squeamish around traditional symbols of patriotism. Perhaps it can be done. But the challenge in terms of transforming Corbyn’s image is huge. And that task must precede policymaking because all the evidence suggests people tend not to heed messages if they have no confidence in the messenger.
But aside from that practical obstacle, there are principled reasons to avoid populism of any kind. The premise is flawed and dangerous. It posits a homogeneous, corrupt political class and a unified mass whose abiding common interest is the overthrow of their rulers. The truth of pluralist, democratic politics is that there is no single, easily aligned “will of the people” but rather a complex bundle of competing interests.
A responsible democrat recognises the need to balance those interests, making difficult choices, negotiating compromises. The populist imagines – or cynically pretends – that no compromise is required because everyone’s desires can be satisfied once the wicked “establishment” is overthrown. As Brexit has shown, a populist agenda quickly unravels on the acquisition of power. It turns out there are no simple answers. Populism is a platform for endless, irresponsible opposition, not government and, as such, it is a con. Rightwing populism has coarsened and degraded British politics. It is doubtful that a left equivalent is the antidote.