POPULIST! This is the political vogue word of the moment, a pejorative term presently in common use especially in the media. President Trump, the Brexit vote, both are cited examples of what is being cast as a growing tendency.
Yet the word has a more honourable past. Originally, it referred to members of the US People’s Party, founded in 1891. It had a social agenda, championing public ownership of public services and graduated income tax.
It was a manifestation in the USA of the then emerging social democratic trend represented in Britain by the Labour Representation Committee and the Independent Labour Party, leading to the founding of the Labour Party.
This social democratic tendency was a working-class response to capitalism in the same way as – and emerging from – trade unions. An attempt to seek radical ways of reforming capitalism to favour the majority, to use democracy to improve the lot of working people.
The subsequent history of social democrats being elected to government has demonstrated that such populism, however heartfelt and well intentioned, is no match for the power of capitalism. Reforms conceded can be all too easily clawed back when the profit motive demands it.
However, while socialists must continue, as they did in the 1890s-1900s, to point out that reformism is a doomed strategy, being a populist was not deserving of the opprobrium associated with the word today. Indeed, the basic populist principle was advocating the right and ability of the common people to govern themselves.
Indeed, replace the phrase ‘common people’ with working class and there is the essential element of socialism, the working class acting politically for itself.
So what has happened to turn populism into a reactionary tendency? The problem lies not in any particular manifesto, but in the actual principle of courting popular support. This is denial of the working class acting for itself.
Instead, it relies on the ‘common people’ playing a passive role, even encourages such passivity. Political programmes, radical or otherwise, are concocted by parties standing apart from the people they purport to represent. There may indeed be working people involved in that party, but it is a small self-selected group presuming to know what’s best for the masses.
The aim is to elicit widespread support for a pre-formed programme exclusive of popular input. The only role for the electorate is to vote for it and trust the party will act on their behalf. In this sense, all parties putting themselves forward for election are populist.
A current example is the Scottish Nationalist Party seizing on the EU referendum vote in Scotland running counter to the overall British vote. Popular discontent is to be exploited for the sectional interests of the SNP, turning the voters’ gaze away from rather more pressing economic and social problems to which the SNP do not have answers.
Other parties in Scotland, seeing an opportunity to raise their profiles, tail along behind the SNP, hoping to gain some popular kudos, or pose a contrary British nationalism. This is where the populist motivation is problematic. Whatever its intent, it serves the political interests of capitalism by limiting the political interests of the working class.
Issues become binary: for or against independence, leaving or staying in the EU, Labour or Conservative and so on and on … And the only role for the working class, the electorate, is to choose one of the other. Proportional representation or transferable vote systems are merely variations on this essentially passive process.
Parties will even compromise their own programmes to court popular support, as the Liberal Democrats and The Green Party are presently doing as a ‘Remainer’ coalition. What none of the Westminster parties are doing, or can do for that matter, is to engage with the one fundamental issue: in or out of the EU the problem(s) of capitalism continue unaddressed.
A true working class populism must involve the working class organising itself through its own political institutions to determine how its best interests can be served. Democracy requires the popular acceptance of responsibility for playing an active part.
Otherwise it’s merely grumbling about, yet voting for, selected performers strutting about the parliamentary stage in ‘Westminster’s Got Talent’, a popular show for the moment – until those merely watching in the audience realise they could take the stage for themselves.