The rise of populist radical left parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain pose something of a challenge for academic observers of politics. Our understanding of populism per se has almost certainly been overly influenced by the fact that, before they (and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement) came along, we spent most of our time applying the concept to the radical right. We also became so used to arguing that populism plays on essentially cultural, rather than material, anxieties that it may be hard for us to adjust to the fact that sometimes it can still be about the economy, stupid – which certainly seems to be the case in southern Europe right now.
But these are trivial problems compared to the serious, and possibly existential, challenges which parties like Syriza and Podemos pose to mainstream parties, especially on the centre left. Should the Labour party in Britain be worried not just on behalf of its fellow social democrats but on its own account too?
Given the tendency of British politicians (and the media that covers them) to spend more time weaponising overseas events than actually analysing them, there is one obvious danger Labour faces. This is the fact that any opposition on its part to ‘austerity’ (whatever that actually means) will see it tarred by its opponents and their friends in the media with the same brush as people who can all-too-easily be portrayed as hopelessly unrealistic and dangerously incompetent.
But in some ways this is the least of Labour’s worries. More problematic is the possibility that some of those whose support it will be seeking at the general election will look at what is going on in Greece and Spain with a degree of admiration and even envy. After all, here, at last, are political parties daring to fly in the face of ‘neoliberalism’ and even fight fire with fire. Labour clearly is not prepared to do the same, so set is it on balancing the books in the long term and reassuring business in the short. So why bother voting for such a busted flush? Better, surely, not to bother – or else check out some of the more radical possibilities on its left flank?
Fortunately for Labour, anyone who does that is unlikely to be overly impressed. Syriza and Podemos have both been able to build on both genuine social movements (as opposed to pathetically transparent front organisations) and a pre-existing far-left milieu that, because it was already relatively well established and supported, had at least a minimum degree of credibility and traction.
That is a marked contrast with the far left in the UK, which has long been a standing joke, albeit one that takes itself deadly seriously. Fissiparous and fantastical, and in some cases horribly sexist, it is deeply unappealing – unless, of course, one finds fiftysomething men trying too hard in jeans and leather jackets as attractive and charismatic as they clearly find themselves. Pony tails seem to have worked a treat in Spain recently. But in the UK? I very much doubt it.
Labour is also fortunate because some of those who are still in the upper echelons of the party – take a bow, Ed Balls – were instrumental in ensuring that the UK did not adopt the euro, meaning British radicals are not able to point to the EU as agents of the country’s economic destruction or to our politicians as the cruel oppressors of the Greeks, the Spaniards, the Portuguese, or the Irish. Partly, perhaps, due to our lucky escape from the single currency, it is also the case that public expenditure cuts and a tough labour market for young people in the UK, while a harsh reality, are nowhere near as harsh a reality as they are in those countries.
The weakness of the UK’s far left, and the relative strength of its economy, do not, however, mean that Labour would not benefit from a spot of populism of its own or that it has nothing whatsoever to worry about when it comes to left populism. There are clearly much cuddlier varieties of the latter that do seem to have turned erstwhile and potential Labour voters’ heads.
Most obviously, in Great Britain as a whole, there is the Green party, whose appeal seems largely impervious to concerns about poor leadership and even more poorly conceived policies – primarily because polling suggests its appeal is based on symbolism (a sort of none-of-the-above novelty) rather than substance. Meanwhile in Scotland, there is the Scottish National party – in some ways far more of a threat because it is highly competent as well as (for the most part) cuddly and because its support is sufficiently spatially concentrated to mean the first-past-the-post voting system actually helps rather than hinders it.
The success of the Nats, however, also points to why nobody – yet – should lose sleep over the possible ‘Pasokification’ or’ PSOEfication’ of the Labour party and seek to out-SNP the SNP or, indeed, to out-Green the Greens. One of the reasons that the SNP has been able to mount such an effective attack on the latter’s Scottish franchise is that Labour north of the border had, as its new leader, Jim Murphy, has had the guts and the good sense to admit, become sclerotic, clientelistic and complacent – not as bad, but not a million miles away, from its Greek and (to a lesser extent perhaps) its Spanish counterparts.
South of the border, Labour may have its faults – and they are often most glaring where it has historically been able to weigh its votes rather than count them. But it nevertheless remains a very long way from falling into the state of disrepair and disrepute into which some of its southern European counterparts have fallen.
That said, getting into government in May, because it will mean presiding over cuts rather than protesting against them, will undoubtedly make it more vulnerable to home-grown populists on the left as well as on the right. ‘Sufficient unto the day,’ some Labour people will cry – and understandably so, since victory is hardly a foregone conclusion. But just because you are not sure you will win does not mean you cannot profitably think about how to avoid the downside risks of doing so.