Populism vs Populism: The Choice in the UK

With Boris attacking MPs, and Corbyn attacking the rich elite, the UK is facing a choice between two populist, radical parties — and there’s no home for the centre.

Dave Olsen
Nov 8 · 3 min read
Boris is certainly a more high-profile populist — but his opposite number will argue vociferously against the establishment too

We’re all familiar, because in recent years it has become necessary that we are, with the “lesser of two evils” dynamic in elections. Whether you endorse the view of Boris, Corbyn, Trump, or Hillary as evil is largely irrelevant — that is how many people have seen their political “choices” as of late.

But we haven’t really seen an election where the two main choices are populists with anti-establishment messages until now in the Western world. The UK general election will be unique in this regard, with two very different, but simultaneously very similar, election campaigns.

The most interesting aspect of this election is that, with the two right- and left-wing parties heading largely for the political poles, political science suggests that a centre-ground option should be gaining large support and posing a serious challenge to the established duopoly.

No such luck. The Lib Dems are still relatively centrist on most issues, but their passionate pro-European identity has led them to be viewed as an often unsavoury, extreme option. No matter where one stands on the Brexit debate, the Lib Dems aren’t presenting a centre-ground choice on the matter, and that is severely limiting any potential growth for them.

So there will be no repeat of the French election of 2017, where Macron’s La République En Marche! centre-ground party challenged and ultimately dislodged the Parti Socialiste as the ‘left’ of the key political duopoly.

Instead, the left-wing option is Labour, as it has been for almost a century. The last Labour government was decidedly centre-ground, though; there hasn’t been a truly left-wing Labour government since 1979 — and even then, that one was a bit weak. There hasn’t been, in truth, a socialist in Downing Street since Clement Attlee, elected after WWII.

In a bid to end that trend, Corbyn is attacking the wealthy elite, the rich bankers and businessmen, and Boris’ friends in the City of London, who Corbyn believes are betting big on a no-deal exit in a financial establishment stitch-up of the British people.

But Boris portrays MPs as those who are manufacturing an establishment betrayal of democracy and the referendum result; those who block and oppose Brexit at every turn, no matter how good and rightful the outcome. His is a “people vs. Parliament” campaign slogan.

So fundamentally, the style and tone are the same, even while the content and substance — if, indeed, there can be much substance in a populist message — are very different. With this election, we can be sure of one thing: Bannonism has taken over Western democracies. It won’t stay forever — this might be, ironically, one of its last gasps. But this election will mark the peak of Trumpian populism.

The dynamics of the electoral system and the weird world of the post-referendum purgatorial Britain will have much to do with the eventual outcome of Boris’ gamble, but, with such similar styles, one can’t help but see this election as little more than a litmus test for the centre of mass of politics in the UK.

Does the country, after a decade of harsh austerity, blame bankers and capitalists for the failures of the NHS, the sorry state of the education system, and growing violent crime enough to stomach a radical brand of socialism?

Or does the country feel like Corbyn and McDonnell in Downing Street is a step too far, and that we should instead back Boris, for a leaving the EU with a deal and creating a booming free market? Does it even believe that Boris can fulfil these two promises?

I suspect that Boris will pick up more votes and more seats. But don’t expect it to be easy, don’t expect a large majority. If he does get the upper hand once more in Parliament, it will be granted to him reluctantly. But it will, nonetheless, be a mandate to govern, and the UK will see a populist return to Number 10.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Dave Olsen

Written by

Politics, education, environmentalism, geopolitics, health, economics, philosophy. Deputy Editor at politika.org.uk. Leading a policy paper on 14–16 education.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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