Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
There is a commonly held belief that populism is the deliberate manipulation of ignorant, sheep-like masses by a charismatic leader. One who deliberately lies in order to gain power and, in turn, creates a closed, authoritarian (in some cases totalitarian) regime.
The argument continues by claiming that the offer of rapid, extreme, simplistic solutions to complex problems whips the electorate up into blindly voting for terrifying, unthought-out, unworkable policies. It asserts that votes are won by playing on the worst fears and prejudices of human nature. According to this view, numerous shocking examples of startling election results can be cited: Trump v Mexicans, Rodrigo Duterte v drug dealers, Nigel Farage v the EU and, yes, Jeremy Corbyn v The Elite.
The list is long. Now, this article could spend time exploring the semantics of what exactly populism is, or explaining “how these people have ‘gotten away’ with it”. Similarly, the establishment can occupy itself wringing its hands and frowning, tut-tutting and eye-rolling in response to the stupidity of the people who have voted for these ‘dangerous demagogues’.
There’s been plenty of all of the above – and it rumbles on. But debate about what populism is or isn’t is perhaps less important than looking at the politicians and policy makers who now suddenly find themselves on the outside. Just perhaps, current and past populist movements have an uncomfortable truth to present to us all.
Obviously, it’s far easier to take comfort in the thought that if the hordes aren’t bright enough to see the wisdom of our ongoing, statistically proven policies and social models, then they must at best be easily led – or, at worst, stupid racists. Or even ridiculous, misguided, idealistic leftists.
But, if as a politician, you really believe any of that, then you absolutely don’t deserve to be elected.
Take Vince Cable, who said recently about those who voted for Brexit: “Too many were driven by a nostalgia for a world where passports were blue, faces were white, and the map was coloured imperial pink.”
Actually, the reason for Brexit was quite the opposite: voters, often working class, have been left behind by globalisation, and have a yearning to take control. By disrespecting the electorate in this way, we fall into the trap of the same thin, simplistic mindset that we ourselves condemn. We adopt a rhetoric filled with equally thought-stopping phrases that we suppose are employed by the people and movements we claim to fear. As politicians and policy makers, it is instead worth looking at where we have failed those that elected us.
What is it about the society we have been responsible for creating that has made so many people feel that they are outsiders? Have rulers genuinely listened and responded? Have governments served with authority, or become authoritarian? Technocrats raving about the IMF and the strength of the pound in elections is not relevant to people who can’t afford their rent and, put very simply, feel that they have nothing to look forward to. The public are constantly told their lives will get worse if they don’t do what the established consensus suggests. No wonder they are cynical: to many, their lives are hard enough as it is. They struggle to keep their head above water. They are hardly going to believe a spaghetti of acronyms from the IMF, OECD, EU et al, telling them how things will be.
So the great and the good can simply accuse the likes of Farage, Trump and their cohorts of isolationist policies and pulling up the drawbridge. Or can instead realise that these populists are popular because they are products of democracy. And an authenticity. And potential radical change.
Populism is a wake-up call for us all to start listening. Genuinely listening. To people who express themselves in different vernaculars from us. To people who we might find uncomfortable, because they have different starting-points: cultural, political, historical. Populism is a call genuinely to acknowledge the public’s disappointments – their fears and, in turn, what it is to be human and real. If we don’t do so, we risk turning into separate, entrenched, predictable archetypes. In Britain, we have long championed equality and celebrated our diversity and the acceptance of the individual within our society. This has to be a reality, not rhetoric. So policy-makers must look at where (in education and on into the workplace) these ideals are no longer being genuinely addressed.
Where do people feel that their voice is being ignored or demeaned? Some sneer cynically at a political party such as the Law and Justice Party in Poland as ‘just being populist’ for offering childcare benefits that people clearly wanted and needed. A more thoughtful response is to ask: why was that policy so popular? If it was so important to people, why didn’t other politicians see this, and find a way to move swiftly to implement a solution?
No-one here is suggesting that we start killing drug dealers, as is currently being government-sanctioned in the Philippines. Indeed, I find Duterte, the country’s President, quite a scary individual, and am disturbed at what is happening – although it is worth noting that public satisfaction with his government rose at the end of last year to the highest level on record since one of the country’s top pollsters started conducting opinion surveys in the 1980s. Analysts suggest that this is because he has implemented what he promised, starting with his anti-drugs campaign; then his Build, Build, Build infrastructure projects and anti-corruption efforts – and, now, a shift to federalism. Yes, Duterte may be frightening, but he was elected because many people were already living in extreme fear. And no one else else appeared to offer solutions.
For many voters, populist candidates are able to verbalise gut feelings that people have been unable to express for themselves to a distant, moneyed, technocratic, separately-educated class that has failed them not only politically but also, as is now apparent, on a deeply personal and human level. Populist candidates offer an ‘off message’ authenticity.
Instead of complaining about how terrible all this is, now is the time to recognise that populism is a symptom of the failures of the political class. The solution is not to condemn, but to recognise that these voters are worth fighting for and should be listened to – and to develop a political philosophy that does not leave these people behind.
Just as the progressive feminists of the 1970s said that “The Personal is Political!” we, as politicians, need to remember that “The Political is Personal!”. On all levels (individual, local, national and international), policy makers need to leave what they feel comfortable with, and start genuine dialogues with people from all backgrounds and all political persuasions to find common ground.
We cannot simply sulk and accuse charismatic, popular candidates (and leaders) of using thin, simplistic cliches to con the masses or even so-called, cod-oil voter database technology, courtesy of Cambridge Analytica and the like. It is not just populists who are guilty of thought-terminating language and entrenched assumptions that they are right.
In Britain, the phrase, “lessons have been learned” is an over-used term in politics and PR. It often comes across as disingenuous – as disingenuous as we claim the populists are. It’s time for us to accept the uncomfortable truth that we, as politicians and policy makers, genuinely have lessons to learn not only from the people we were elected to serve (and each other), but also from the authenticity on offer from the populists. After all, what does populism mean but popular?