Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday 23 January 2017

Did centrism beget populism?

Warning: amateur political science below

Stewart Wood has a well argued piece in the New Statesman, saying that it was the move by left and right towards a common centrism that laid the foundations for populism. Although parts of his argument ring true, I find others less convincing..Labour certainly moved to the centre and beyond in terms of its economic policies. The Conservatives moved to the centre in terms of social policy. But on economic policy, the Conservatives moved strongly to the right with austerity. Senior Labour thinkers still seem to have a blind spot on austerity.

Let me start by looking at the country that now has populism in spades as a result of electing Donald Trump as President. To argue that the Republican party has been moving to the centre over the last 30 years is obvious nonsense. The traditional centre right virtue of fiscal rectitude went out of the door with Ronald Reagan, and was completely ignored under the second Bush. The Republicans only extol the virtue of cutting budget deficits when they are not in power. When they are in power, they want cuts in taxes for the rich, increases in military spending but cuts in other government programmes.

Margaret Thatcher was considered pretty right wing when she was in power. Many of her key achievement in terms of her own agenda, such as a diminished union movement and shrinking the state through privatisation, were not reversed by Blair and Brown. It is difficult to argue that the Cameron/Osborne duo made any attempt to undo the Thatcher legacy. Instead they tried to go beyond it, by shrinking the state to a size relative to GDP not seen since the end of WWII. They did it under the pretense that they were forced to because otherwise the markets would no longer buy government debt. This was a colossal deceit. There no evidence that markets were concerned about government debt, and strong evidence that they were not. [1] This deceit should have become clear when Osborne cut taxes at the same time as continuing to cut spending.

Let me use a diagram to illustrate what I mean. [2] (The vertical axis could also be labelled 'identity' as well as 'culture'.) No doubt we could discuss the detail of the size and direction of the arrows, but I think this is roughly right.

In the US, the Republicans had moved steadily in a downward, socially conservative right wing direction, whereas the broad church that are the Democrats have largely remained in the same place (unless you go as far back as the southern Democrats). One possible argument is that this move by Republican politicians helped create the Tea Party. Republicans have always pretended their policies would help ordinary people, whereas in reality they have helped a rich elite. This has laid the ground for a populist leader who was prepared to move economic policy in certain respects away from the right (in particular advocating protectionism). The growing loss of respect of Republicans for their party elite allowed voters to ignore the views of senior Republican leaders in selecting Trump as their candidate.

In the UK David Cameron moved the Conservatives to become much more liberal, by in particular supporting gay marriage. (When I argued in an earlier post that the Conservatives had moved to the right, I was surprised how many comments I got back telling me this was nonsense, and naming gay marriage as the main reason why.) In the UK this left a large gap in this political space, which UKIP - the first successful mass party in England since the SDP - filled. As Jonathan Wheatley showed, UKIP members are social conservatives, but are much more left wing than the Conservatives in terms of economics.

Labour moved to the right under Blair, while remaining socially liberal. I agree with Stewart Wood that this alone was important in preparing the way for populism. As well as the lack of a major industrial policy, they did nothing to curb a rampant financial sector or reverse the gains of the 1% that were a feature of the Thatcher period, a point emphasised by Jean Pisani-Ferry in respect of both the UK and US. I think New Labour’s position is better described as liberal rather than neoliberal: New Labour substantially increased the amount of resources (as a proportion of GDP) going to the NHS, and they also did a great deal to try and reduce child poverty. Labour moved further right (and more neoliberal) as they became more accommodating towards austerity. It was hardly a surprise that party members tried to pull the party back by electing Corbyn as leader.

As I argued here, Brexit was a perfect storm where the economically left behind united with social conservatives. With Labour no longer seen as representing the working class, this allowed the right wing media (with the support of the Conservatives) to help convince the left behind that their problems were a consequence of immigration. The Leave campaign was populist in the sense I describe here: advocating a superficially attractive policy to some that would leave everyone worse off. Much the same is true for Trump, who won the electoral college by convincing the left behind that he really could bring back their traditional jobs, something he will be unable to do in any kind of general way.

So the idea of growing centrism in the US makes no sense, yet it is they who have just voted for a populist President. In the UK it only makes any kind of sense if you think in one dimensional terms.

[1] This is essentially because the Bank of England was pledged to buy whatever it took in the way of government debt to keep interest rates low.

[2] I think the first time I began thinking in this two dimensional way was this post, but more recently I used it to analyse the forthcoming French election.  


  1. not centrism, but bothsidelism - the unwillingness of the press etc to distinguish between radical extremism and politcal norms. The outcome is the normalisation of relentless semi-fascism and the acceptance of alternative facts, resulting in unsubstantiated beliefs of victimisation, and the election of candidates who actually revel in and exacerbate the real problems people face in the US

  2. For the UK, those supporting Leave have essentially endorsed Iain Duncan Smith's leadership of the Conservative Party in the early 2000s.

    It's no wonder New Labour cannot understand what has happened.

  3. Having read only this post and not his article, I guess that Wood's problem is the word "centrism". I think he means "elite consensus" and more specifically "austerity". I will try as you do, to move beyond 1 dimesional abstraction (which leads mostly to semantic debates).

    I think that the rise of populism was in large part caused by the clash between very strong general support for the welfare state and elite hostility. I would guess that part of the reason the populists are so crazy is that they claim to hate welfare and are ashamed that they love it so much.

    Some examples.
    1) Brexit campaigners claimed that they would get more money for the NHS. Passionate support for the NHS is neither right wing nor radical -- the NHS is a formerly far left inditiative (also far left by the standards of most developed countries) which is a beloved national institution.

    2. In the US, Republicans won a landslide presenting themselves as defenders of Medicare (public insurance for those over 65) against Obamacare. The passionate opposition to the expansion of the welfare state largely consisted of people with government health insurance who didn't want to share it (and refused to believe the fact that the ACA expanded their benefits). Now the GOP attacks Obamacare because it is not generous enough. In each case, ultra right Republicans attacked the Democrats from the left. Both attacks were successful, because the Democrats were determined that the reform reduce the Federal budget deficit.

    3. Trump claimed that, unlike other Republicans, he wouldn't cut government pensions or health insurance. Le Pen campaigns as a defender of welfare state spending.

    I think the key vulnerability of the old non populist establishment is an obsession with budget deficits (during a recession in a liquidity trap) and hatred of spending on public pensions and health care.

    These are a fairly narrow if extremely important policy positions. I think the mistake is to call that elite outlook "centrism". As you note the alleged centrism combines budget cuts which would have shocked Eisenhower and Churchill and gay marriage which would have shocked Roosevelt and Atlee.

  4. "...yet it is they who have just voted for a populist President." Um, they didn't. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by some 3 million. It was the Electoral College system (and a tiny fraction of the popular vote, in just three states) that put the Orange One in the White House.

  5. "Did centrism beget populism?"

    No, globalisation did. As Jimmy Goldsmith foretold in 1993 :

  6. I’d be careful before we start talking about populism and Trumpism as some new “movement.” First, the discontent has been there (and maybe some degree of discontent is always there). Trump has this small core of support, and an outer ring of resentful voters—but are they new? We had Pat Buchanan in 1992, for example—he just didn’t have the machismo that Trump has (and wasn’t post-2008). Second, Trump was bound to happen—we’ve seen in past GOP primaries that the crazies do well. In 2012, Romney held out because, IIRC, he was the dominant moderate—all he had to do was wait for the crazies to whittle away. In 2016, the “moderates” were clogged, and GOP voters moved between crazies. Trump just had to wait it out & play divide & conquer. As for the election, we had voter ID reduce the black vote, we had the continuation of this Hilary hate (1992-2016), and we had another factor that no one has really talked about—sexism. It may be the USA is most sexist than racist (and Trump oozed more machismo and misogyny than racism, if you ask me).

    So do we have a populist movement? Or just something already there that came out? And is it populism or this racist/sexist ressentiment? (I’d argue the latter, because from what I can tell, this isn’t about economics—it’s about “reclaiming” the USA, and the UK in the case of Brexit.) this is resentment against those who would be critical of the white male status quo (or more accurately, against this idealized white male, to which some of us white males do not conform and do not want to conform).

    All of this is a long-winded way of saying that the chart is okay, and that there is this void that did seem to appear—but that there is something more fundamental going on, and that we might not be talking about traditional “populism” but something darker.

  7. antitribalism itself marks a tribe, one that is small and often insular.

  8. Nice to see that everyone else is joining me in the top right corner.


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