Can populism win the future?
Battle of Ideas festival 2022, Saturday 15 October, Church House, London
Reports of populism’s death appear to have been greatly exaggerated. Yes, Donald Trump was bundled out of the White House. Remainers cheer Boris Johnson’s departure and the end of Vote Leave’s presence at No.10. In Europe, the parties in Germany, Slovenia and Poland who harnessed anti-establishment anger have found themselves on the defensive.
Claims that the populist experiment was killed off by the mishandling of the Covid pandemic by populist leaders, and that normal service will now resume, seem wide of the mark. Joe Biden’s presidency has succeeded in reinvigorating opposition to ‘Beltway politics’. The gilets jaunes may be less prominent in France, but support for Marine Le Pen’s National Rally and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La Nouvelle Union Popular has taken off. In Italy, technocrat Mario Draghi resigned, leaving Brothers of Italy on the cusp of power, while the EU’s irritant-in-chief, Viktor Orbán, swept to victory in this year’s Hungarian elections. Beyond populist parties, lockdowns and vaccine mandates encouraged widespread protest movements, notably the Canadian truckers, who in turn inspired tractor protesters making waves in Europe and beyond.
But while populists stubbornly refuse to depart the scene, questions remain as to how people’s aspirations for change can be realised. In 2019, the Conservative Party gained an 80-seat majority on pledge to ‘Get Brexit Done’ only to compromise on Brexit and take more control for the executive – leaving the electorate feeling side-lined once again. Is this confirmation that widespread yearning for change necessitates a break from the old and formation of new parties? In France, two thirds of voters did switch to anti-establishment parties and groups. However, Macron remains in power and new parties compromised on their opposition to the EU. All in all, despite ongoing movements agitating for popular change have gained significant support, they have not yet decisively broken through to represent majority opinion.
How can populists and the politically homeless take the next step and shape the political outlook and organisations that can meet challenges ahead? Having made progress countering technocratic political parties, can populists respond to the growing politicisation and influence of unelected experts, so evident during the pandemic and increasingly via economic crisis? Will an increasing focus on issues such as Net Zero and the onset of a cost-of-living crisis change the political dynamics? Given cultural and political establishments remain firmly in control of institutions, especially the media, what now needs to be done to take back control and radically shape the future of politics?
journalist; publisher and podcaster, Rak höger; co-author, Så blev vi alla rasister and Genusdoktrinen
journalist and writer; author, The Battle for Europe: how an elite hijacked a continent – and how we can take it back and The Covid Consensus: the global assault on democracy and the poor – a critique from the Left
columnist, Daily Telegraph
editor, spiked; regular commentator on TV and radio; co-host, spiked podcast
co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; convenor, Living Freedom; author, Letter on Liberty: The Scottish Question