Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Wednesday 11 April 2018

Ian Dunt vs Owen Jones: a comment on a brief debate

When two of my favourite commentators on current political events, Ian Dunt (ID) and Owen Jones (OJ), cross swords, albeit briefly twitter style, the chance is that there maybe something interesting going on. I can see what I suspect annoyed OJ in ID’s piece, but I think OJ’s response was too easily sidetracked in the confusion that is history. I am going to stay on more familiar UK (and US) ground.

The general theme is ID’s piece is totally laudable. It is essentially a warning against populism of the type Jan-Werner Müller describes, and which is embodied in Viktor Orban’s Hungary. I also think he is almost right when he writes:
“Every constituent part of the Orban programme exists here: the anti-semitism, the focus on Soros, the relentless fear-mongering about immigrants, the demonisation of the EU and its institutions, the attacks on Islam, the undermining of an independent judiciary, and, most of all, the widespread conspiracy-squint - the idea, popular on left and right, on almost all matters of political consequence, that shadowy and powerful forces are undermining the people's will.”
I say “almost” because this is an undifferentiated list, and the emphasis is put on what I regard as least important. For Müller populism is a moralised form of antipluralism. The populist politician talks about the “will of the people” even when the people may be just a subset of the population, but the wishes and beliefs of the remainder are of no weight and are not acknowledged. They become instead the enemy within. To overcome that enemy within (be it Jews or Muslims or liberals) and the enemy outside (the EU trying to force Hungarians to accept immigrants), the leader needs total control, which means subjugating an independent judiciary, an independent press and other independent institutions. For Müller, populism is an attack on pluralistic democracy, attempting to replace it with some kind of autocratic or plutocratic democracy. Orban’s Hungary has so far been a very successful (in terms of longevity) example of this form of populism.

Where I started to disagree with ID’s piece is where he tries to do the classic centrist thing, which is to imply that the dangers of populism in the UK come from both left and right. In immediate historical terms this is nonsense. Immigration as an issue was revitalised by the Conservative opposition and the right wing press in the early years of the Labour government. In 2001 William Hague talked about Tony Blair wanting to turn the UK into a ‘foreign land’. The right wing papers started producing negative stories about immigrants, long after the rise in non-EU immigration in the late 1990s and long before the rise in EU immigration from 2004, and popular concern about immigration rose with this increase in press coverage. The best explanatory variables in explaining concern about immigration were readership of the Mail, Express and Sun, in that order. All three were better predictors of concern about immigration than whether people voted Conservative.

When the Conservatives became part of the coalition government in 2010, this emphasis on immigration became official policy. By now the idea that immigration was ‘a problem’ that needed to ‘be controlled’ was firmly entrenched in political discourse. Conservatives found it attractive because it could persuade socially conservative left wing voters not to vote Labour, and because it became a useful scapegoat for the effects of austerity. The right wing tabloids also found it attractive because it became a means of winning the Brexit vote. And it is Brexit where we have seen populism in full force in the UK: talk of the ‘will of the people’ as if the 48% who voted Remain did not exist, attacks on the judiciary, on the civil service, on parliament and on universities. The EU is the enemy without, and Remainers are the enemy within.

To the extent that populism has come to the UK, it has come from the political right, not the political left. Yes Labour in government eventually felt they had to play along with the immigration problem theme, and yes there are Lexiters on the left. But the motive force for attacks on immigration and Brexit comes from the right, not the left. [1]

Much the same point can be made about the US. Trump was voted into office as a Republican, and he remains unchecked in office because of the Republican party. To suggest that Republicans and Democrats bear equal responsibility for Trump is just nonsense.

In this story of how populism came to the UK, and represents an ever present threat in the UK, Labour’s problems over antisemitism do not even deserve a footnote. Antisemitism is a big part of Orban’s campaign and rhetoric, personified in his constant attacks on George Soros, but that theme has been repeated not by Corbyn but by the same right wing press that focused on immigration and gave us Brexit. Antisemtism is a problem within Labour, but the source of that problem is the Israel Palestine situation. It is not, and never will be, a part of a Labour government’s appeal to the electorate. It will not be a Labour government that tells people that have lived here for scores of years that they now have to leave the UK and say goodbye to their friends and family. It is not and never will be the Labour party that runs an Islamophobic campaign for mayor of London.

In Europe and the US, the threat today of an authoritarian, anti-pluralist government comes exclusively from the right. To lose sight of that makes dealing with that threat much more difficult.

[1] There are plenty of centrist Remainers who insist Brexit is as much Corbyn’s fault as it is the government’s. Apparently the fact that Corbyn campaigned for Remain does not count because he didn’t put enough energy and passion into that campaign. When he says he would vote Remain again he must be lying because no one ever changes their mind. Accusing Corbyn of being too ready to accept the referendum result is fine by me, but to put him in the same class as Johnson and Gove is just token centrism.


  1. The real problem with Dunt style centrism, which is so prominent in the British media although seemingly without a great deal of support in the country (see the Lib Dems in 2015 and 2017; or the number of registered supporters for Liz Kendall in 2015), is the way it tries to delegitimize opposition - this is a real threat to democracy.

    People who want to leave the EU or live in a country with low levels of immigration are racists. People who support Corbyn are anti-Semites, Stalinists etc. Sociology suggests that when people are constantly labelled in such ways - especially, by the media elite - then it can have dangerous consequences - self-fulfilling prophecies etc

    1. Yes, delegitimising opposition is a problem. Of course the Mail shouldn't be sore losers and call the Miller judges "enemies of the people", although they're allowed express that opinion whatever Simon thinks of the paper.

      Similarly Simon shouldn't be a sore loser and try and delegitimise Brexiters by comparing them to Russian revolutionaries, which he did in a recent post. Of course, he has the right to express that opinion too.

      I doubt it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, did anyone become a Marxist after the Daily Mail editorial smeared Miliband using his dad?

  2. "Antisemitism is a problem within Labour, but the source of that problem is the Israel Palestine situation"

    Exactly what does Israel/Palestine have to do with, for example, Jackie Walker claiming that Jews are responsible for the slave trade, or Dear Leader Corbyn defending the creator of a blatantly antisemitic (not anti-Zionist, antisemitic) mural? Or plenty of other similar examples...?

    1. Perhaps the artist really is an anti-Semite (evidence please), but the mural in question was stated to depict 4 historical bankers and businessmen, two of which were indeed Jewish and two Gentiles. That's not anti-Semitic, just like if I said I hate Larry Summers I would be an anti-Semite.

    2. Well, Dear Leader Corbyn has consistently attacked Saudi Arabia, whose leaders are hand in glove both with May conservatives and Blairites. And Saudi Arabia doesn't just sponsor murals, it has sponsored, since the 1970s, the worldwide building of mosques and the supplying of leaders who advocate a form of Islam that is overtly and proudly anti-semitic. I wonder if May asked her friend, the new practical king of SA (and starver of Yemen) if he, too, had been taught the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in school? Which of course is standard stuff in S.A. Although ocassionally the kingdom makes a deal of suppressing it, for Western media, after which it is quietly inserted again.

  3. 'The source of that problem is the Israel Palestine situation'

    The left's attitude to Israel-Palestine is a symptom of its casting of capitalism, the West in general, and the US in particular as the sources of all evil in the world. Israel (and by association Jews) are just on the wrong side.

    You can tell that the root cause is not the 'situation' by comparing to Syria. Here the 'situation' is equally appalling, but the left is silent, or at best mealy-mouthed, because the offenders (Russia, Assad) are deemed to be the goodies.

    This anti-capitalist, 'anti-imperialist' framing is every bit as populist, and every bit as potentially dangerous, as the rhetoric of the right. In particular it combines naturally and seamlessly with the scapegoating of jews, as we are seeing. I grant you that it's probably less of a threat in the UK today than the populism of the right, but that's just a reflection of who's in power.

    1. There is a further difference. No one has a way of defeating Assad, especially since he is the internationally recognised president of Syria and even given the US's willingness to intervene without a legal mandate. If Russia supports him then it means we have a difficult proxy war with Russia. Are we going to win and then replace him? We don't have the ability, look at Iraq and Afghanistan. And the government is not sincere, otherwise it wouldn't be letting all those people starve to death in Yemen at the same time.

      Whereas in Israel-Palestine, the US, UK (aid, arms sales) and EU (free trade agreement) are helping the Israeli side. The left wants us to desist and push the Israelis to give Palestinians their independence because they are entitled to the same self-determination as the Israelis, which has nothing to do with capitalism.

      If the Palestinians already had a fully fledged and powerful state, but were occupying the Israeli lands after a war that ended fifty years ago, and we were helping them, I think you'd understand

  4. As I see it the only problem you have in the UK in seeing populism as a right wing thing is the facts.

    Issues such as Brexit and immigration are certainly touch stone issues in a populist world. But you would think that right wing implies pro business but how is Brexit pro business and surely most businesses would want greater immigration in order to keep wages under control and to provide a market because Economics 101 sees population growth a one of the main drivers of GDP? It doesn't stack up.

    As regards anti semitism I think in the political world there is a conflation of anti semitism with Zionism and the actions of the Israeli government. I'm inclined to agree with the view that "true" anti semitism is more of a right wing thing.

    Such issues as immigration and Islamophobia may be poisonous to you but they do have salience for many people and these are not just avid readers of the DM. The fatal mistake may be to view these issues as you view them: having their origin in the right wing press but having no validity in the real world; that is a rather complacent view.

  5. You’re quite right about origin and cause - it’s ridiculous to point equally at Left and Right.
    The origin and cause is from the Right, but the question of responsibility is more complicated.
    Populism is a problem because it can include something that is actually popular. Rather like Boris Johnson’s articles about the EU, it pushes a big lie, but one which contains a grain of truth. The headline is not the article.
    Fear of foreigners is to some extent natural - just look at us as parents warning our children about strangers. So it’s a good topic for a populist politician to push an agenda by linking it to bad things that supposedly come from foreigners - whether immigrants or politicians in ‘Brussels’. Even academics can fall into this trap by instinctively feeling that ideas and methods from outside their own culture are somehow strange - look at how few from the Anglo-Saxon world seem to understand ideas from France, Germany, Japan, China…
    Populism wins by spreading poison. People are scared to fight it because of the grain of popular support that lies at its heart. So it works by snuffing out other voices - one reason why your emphasis on the role of the media is so apt.
    It needs politicians with good leadership skills to voice the alternative view. Sadly, many on the Left are coopted into the populist drive. They may not have been the cause, but they must bear a heavy responsibility.
    So we had Gordon Brown telling us that we need British jobs for British workers, in between lecturing EU leaders on the virtues of deregulation just before the financial crash. And we have union leaders and the Labour leadership talking about the need to end free movement of people. With friends like that...

  6. Well put but likely to be ignored. To centrists, populism is a way of denigrating popular policies they don't like. Given the marginalisation of the left from the 80s on, they've never had to listen to those people before, and now they do, it makes them extremely cross.

  7. Even if one accepts your contention that the threat today of an authoritarian, anti-pluralist government comes elusively from the right, which is highly questionable if you read left wing blogs, then Labour's response under Corbyn has provided the Right with plenty of open goals.

  8. That seems like quite a tight definition of populism, but even so I would argue that the SNP government in general and the campaign for Scottish independence in 2014 in particular might well qualify as left-wing populism coming to the UK.

    1. They may think so, especially the rank and file (polling shows Scot Lab and SNP members see themselves as each to the left of each other), but it would not lead to a left wing result.

      Losing the ~8% of Scottish GDP which is the net fiscal transfer from the UK overnight means giant spending cuts, tax rises or both. And Scottish exports to England are worth several times more than exports to rEU.

      In the independence white paper they suggested that if Scotland was like the "arc of prosperity" small European economies in terms of growth, it'd only be a puny amount (2%?) larger after decades of very slightly increased growth.

      So what was the plan? To become "the Frankfurt of the North"? (Well I can see why they couldn't use the phrase "City of London of the North")

  9. Although the leaders of the Brexit campaigns came from the right, the motive force for Brexit came from the left. That bloody bus did not say 'we send the EU £350m a week; let's cut corporation tax instead', it said'... let's fund our sacred totem of social democracy instead'. The Tories are being forced in ever-more state interventionist directions, embracing industrial strategies and under great pressure to act over GKN and passports. The tiger is leading the riders in directions that surprise them.

    The only reason Brexit is seen as a right-wing phenomenon is the supine cowardice of the left elite. We had *trade unions* screaming that the only way to defend workers' rights was to stay in a neoliberal Single Market that consistently erodes them; and *Labour MPs* screaming that the only way to prevent another Thatcher coming to power was to cling to the Single Market that was literally Thatcher's brainchild.

  10. "It will not be a Labour government that tells people that have lived here for scores of years that they now have to leave the UK and say goodbye to their friends and family."

    They have. I worked in a legal office during New Labour's rule and there were a few cases where people who had made good lives here (one I always remember was a doctor whose NHS bosses wrote asking to keep him, his family had opened a laundromat and they had all integrated) and they still tried to ship him out a bunch of times.

    I can't remember why, it may have been something serious but technical (I am not an immigration lawyer), but it just seemed so dumb when even the NHS wanted to keep him and they kept managing a reprieve so it can't have been a fatal problem.

    But New Labour was far too willing to pander to the Mail and others when it came to immigration. And other things.

    Otherwise I love the blog, good points that I may have to steal for arguments elsewhere.

  11. Here we go again: "could persuade socially conservative left wing voters not to vote Labour".

    Unfortunately, if someone wants lower immigration for purely economic reasons e.g. they think immigration means lower wages, they are not being socially conservative. You keep ignoring this, presumably preferring to think of the opposition in terms of the immigrants being foreigners. it is of course true that austerity has far bigger effects on living standards than the mass immigration has, if it has even harmed them at all.

    I voted Remain but what you're doing here with "will of the people" is your own word game. You know that one side loses a referendum just as opposition parties lose general elections. Referring to the result as legit (will of the people) doesn't mean you think other voters don't count, but that they lost. Of course if we get a second referendum you will want the result to be respected especially if you like it.

    I'm on the Labour left and voted Corbyn twice but even I can see that the anti-Semitism isn't purely from the Israel-Palestine conflict. Antisemitism predates the state of Israel and predates Zionism and anti-Semites would exist in some form on the left without those issues. The real story is that anti-Semitism exists in all parties, there is no reason to think it's bigger in Labour or that it dates from Corbyn taking over.

    "attacks on the judiciary, on the civil service, on parliament and on universities" is slippery language and you should be avoiding that since you're complaining about what others say. In a pluralist democracy anybody can criticise actions of those institutions, including politicians. I can imagine if the Miller case had gone the other way that you might have blogged that you thought it was wrongly decided. You might have used intemperate language. That's OK, it's pluralist.

    If the government actually changed the powers of the judiciary or gagged universities it would be different. And since you want some kind of media ownership control and regulation, are we allowed to accuse you of wanting to "attack" the media, let aslone make the UK less pluralist? I'd be careful.

    As for civil servants, and pluralism generally, the Treasury forecast about Brexit turned out to be bad, Mark Carney weighed in, many other institutions did. When these groups take the Remain side, are they crushing dissent?

    When the UK govt pays for a Remain supporting ad to every home using taxpayers' money and the Treasury is used to make a doomsday forecast, the Leavers do have a case that they are being unfairly treated, and I am not even a Leaver. In your terms "democracy" is at stake because you are exaggerating, which is the thing you can't stand from the Leave side.


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