Labour's remodelling of its leader as a left-wing populist is doomed, but only because he's not doing it right.
(Photo: Stefan Rousseau PA Wire/PA Images)
It might have come as a bit of a surprise when Jeremy Corbyn announced his big 2017 resolution last December. New year, new me: out with the old mild Labour leader you once knew; from now on he would turn himself into a left-wing populist, leading a mass revolt against wealthy interests and the choked tedium of politics as usual.
People are angry, and they lash out. They're fed up with everything. In their frustration they end up supporting the unacceptable – Ukip, Brexit, racism, the Liberal Democrats: cruel and dangerous things that are putting us all in danger. What we need is a Labour party that can capture all that energy and turn it towards something good. So Corbyn's remodelling sounded nice enough, but it was hard to know what to really make of the idea, or what this new populist tilt would actually consist of.
After all, Corbyn's opponents had already been painting him as a kind of radical, semi-deranged populist for a long time: a far-left firebrand, whipping up a follower base of donkey-jacketed folk fans and spittle-slurping anti-Semites; someone who has far more in common with the political extremism of a Donald Trump than he does with the grand, stately, tedious tradition of British parliamentary politics. His rise to the party leadership already had all the accoutrements of populism: the overflowing rallies, the slightly spooky mass engagement, the wholesale rejection of plasticky political clones like Liz Kendall or Owen Smith. Where can you go from there?
Now, we've found out. Last night, Labour's new Brexit policy was announced: the party is "not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle", even if it means that Britain loses its place in the European Single Market.
It's a strange kind of populism, this – one that mostly involves deeply alienating Corbyn's popular base (for much of the Left, Corbyn's firm refusal to indulge in the soft, simpering racism of "reasonable concerns" and abstracted migrant-bashing is the main thing that distinguished him from his enemies in the party) while essentially bringing him in line with the official stance of a Tory government. To patch things up, he announced in a Radio 4 interview this morning that he would call for a maximum wage cap on high earners – a decent policy, and one he's actually proposed before, but also something that seemed to be ad-libbed, in a flailing attempt to stave off the inevitable question about when he would resign. "I can't put a figure on it," he said of the cap, but it would be "a fairer thing to do." Not exactly a stirring, impassioned call to justice echoing through the hearts of the many. What went wrong?
Left populism is a nice idea, but in a way this muddle was probably inevitable; its advocates have often failed to consider what populism really is and how it really functions.
Populist politics aren't just politics that aim to energise a large sector of the population; they function by constructing a notion of "the people" – a certain group within society whose interests are appealed to against the interests of some enemy other. "The people" don't come to us readymade, but are interpellated by the populist; you become a member of the people by not being a member of whatever group the populist is railing against.
The easiest other to construct is a foreign other, which is why so many populist politicians end up appeasing racism and xenophobia, frothing up nativist rage against phantasmal Russian hackers, Chinese profiteers, European bureaucrats or ordinary migrants just trying to get by. But there are plenty of other targets: in the slow grinding dystopia of Brexit Britain, this role has been imposed on "metropolitan elites", a strangely amorphous group that also seems to include basically all ethnic minorities, but who are absolutely not part of The People. A left populism could just as easily go after corrupt politicians, conniving civil servants, bosses and bankers, the ruling elite who have been strip-mining this country's institutions, getting rich while we all suffer.
It's a good line. But it's not enough.
What populist politics requires most of all is an act of transgression on the part of the populist leader. As Ernest Becker points out, "the leader allows us to express forbidden impulses and secret wishes […] there are leaders who seduce us because they do not have the conflicts that we have; we admire their equanimity where we feel shame and humiliation." Populism means a politics that smashes a taboo, that says what was previously unsayable, that binds together its people through their collective violation of a social norm. When Donald Trump was recorded boasting about his pussy-grabbing, it caused outrage, but it didn't stop him winning. It was a deeply pathetic bit of masculinist boasting – but for a lot of even more pathetic American men, the great impotent horde, it became a point of identification. They, too, would like to grab them by the pussy and not feel ashamed. In Britain, the situation is still worse: our most secret desire is to go to the pub in an ill-fitting suit, sink a pint of ale, puff on a fag and be a bit racist. And so, rising up from the tar-clogged miasma of the general unconscious, is Nigel Farage.
But as Marxists and Freudians know, our secret inner transgressive desires don't come from ourselves alone. The unacceptable unsayables that people like Trump or Farage delight in saying are always socially determined; as anyone who's spent time around small children has learned, you can make someone want something just by telling them they can't have it. Liberal politics forbids overtly sexist statements while continuing to encourage generalised and unspoken sexism on every level; it rails against naked racism, but it's very happy to entertain racism when it's dressed up in the suit and tie of Perfectly Reasonable Concerns About Immigration. The dangerous radical populist anti-politics of the far-right, the people who say what must never be said, only gain traction because these people keep getting invited to say what must never be said on live TV to an audience of millions. This makes things very difficult for Corbyn's attempt at left-wing populism. The political order has already chosen the kind of anti-politics it wants, and it's blaming everything on migrants and minorities. Not bankers, not big business, not the people who actually rule our lives.
There is a left-populist strategy that works, though, and it's class politics. So far Corbyn's avoided it; his populism is a mishmash of the usual Labour party pieties and a slide into Ukip-lite nativism – because that's what all the other populists are doing, because that's what the people have been told not to want. He should reconsider. Saying that income caps would be "a fairer thing to do" is vague and abstract, a populism that isn't really very popular. Saying "the ruling class are your enemies, they're taking everything away from you and giving you nothing in return" might be different. It's actually transgressive; it's actually saying what decades of polite liberalism has taught us not to say. And at the very least, it's true.