Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday 8 July 2024

What the Conservative rout tells us about the popularity of a right wing populist government


It is jarring to see many journalists on election night fret about the Reform vote and talk about the rise of right wing populism when the main story of the night was the total electoral failure of a right wing populist government. The 2024 UK election isn’t a warning about the rise of right wing populism, but an example of how such populism can completely fail at the ballot box. It didn’t fail by quite as much as I hoped but never quite expected (the LibDems and Greens did well, but Labour’s vote share wasn’t enough to keep the Conservative seat total in double figures), but the overwhelming story was about the unpopularity of the government in all parts of the country and across political preferences.

What do I mean by ‘right wing’ and ‘populism’? The right wing populist gets votes by focusing on nationalism and immigration rather than privatisation and tax cuts. It is right wing in the sense of being socially conservative rather than to the right in terms of economics, although it can be both. Thatcher was not a right wing populist.

The Conservative party has always been socially conservative to varying degrees, although its MPs tend to be more liberal in their own views than party members or what Tim Bale calls the party in the media. What is the difference between being a politician favouring socially conservative policies and being a right wing populist politician? Typically a populist will do two things with any division on social issues.

The first is to elevate concern about change into fear of change and concern about difference into fear of difference. In the case of minorities or outsiders, politicians that want to profit from fear need to suggest that these minorities or outsiders are not just different, but represent a threat to the national majority. The second thing a populist does is to pretend that rather than there being a range of views on social issues in any country, instead there is a ‘silent majority’ of social conservatives whose views have been suppressed or ignored by a ‘liberal elite’. The populist becomes the embodiment of this silent majority, and this enables the ‘will of the people’ to override elements of a pluralist democracy (the courts, the media etc) that get in the populist’s way. This, together with attacking the human rights of minorities and opponents, makes right wing populism to varying degrees authoritarian as well as being socially divisive. The fact that populist’s claims are mostly untrue means that populists tend to lie much of the time.

Here is a conversation between Jonathan Miller and Enoch Powell (see from 5 minutes in until around 9 minutes), where Miller expresses the first difference between populists and simple social conservatives very well. Edward Health famously sacked Powell as a minister after his ‘rivers of blood’ speech, and for a long time I can remember all the mainstream political parties in the UK making a point about putting the language and policies of far right groups well outside the Overton window of acceptable political discourse.

In opposition under New Labour, leading Conservatives made much more of socially conservative issues like immigration, but they largely farmed out any populism to the party in the media, who talked about ‘waves of immigrants’ coming to the UK. This continued under the Coalition government, where Cameron and Osborne were mainly interested in pursuing the right wing economic agenda of a smaller state. (But this didn’t stop Osborne talking about the “closed blinds of their next-door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits”.) As others have shown, the impact of austerity and the excuses made for it helped sow the seeds of what was to come.

So the Brexit referendum was not the start of populism within the Conservative party, but it began the process of making it complete. Crucial to making it complete was the threat from an archetypal populist, Nigel Farage. It was the threat of UKIP that made Cameron grant a referendum in the first place, and it was May’s heavy defeat in the EU elections that persuaded enough Conservative MPs that the only way they were going to survive Brexit was to give in to the hardliners and have their own populist leader, Johnson. It is often the actions of mainstream centre or right wing political parties that paves the way for right wing populism, just as cooperation between centre and left wing parties can keep populists out of power.

Brexit was right wing populism because it centred on fear of immigration and fear of sharing a bit of national sovereignty through international cooperation. Johnson’s success at the end of 2019 involved a classic right wing populist offer. Nostalgic nationalism and anti-immigrant through Brexit, combined with promises of levelling up and an end of austerity that were designed to appeal to socially conservative voters who were nevertheless on the left in economic terms. In France the recent advances of National Rally (RN) involve a very similar combination. On a more individual level it involved convincing voters that someone who didn’t appear to take himself or politics too seriously actually had voters’ interests at heart and was going to make a good Prime Minister.

A compliant broadcast media was crucial throughout the 2010s. Journalists overwhelmingly thought austerity was necessary, and largely ignored the growing majority of experts who thought otherwise. As a result they thought the Coalition government had been an economic success before the 2015 election, whereas all the normal indicators suggested the opposite. Brexit lies mostly went unchallenged, and the overwhelming majority of economists were given equal airtime to the few who promoted Brexit. All the abundant evidence [1] that Johnson was not fit to be a Prime Minister was largely ignored during the 2019 election, while the previous two years the media had feasted on Corbyn’s failings.[2]

Partygate burst that last bubble, in a way that the mainstream media could no longer ignore. A politician cannot represent the will of the people when they ignore painful restrictions on the people imposed for their own safety in a pandemic. It also became apparent that the Conservative party itself was not prepared to go along with the attractive economic offer that Johnson had put before the electorate. Instead of an end to austerity most MPs wanted tax cuts, but still wanted to be known as the party of fiscal responsibility. A more capable populist leader, more in control of their party, might have been able to set fiscal responsibility to one side (as Trump and the Republicans had done before). The party instead of ‘levelling up’ preferred giving money to friends or more resources to those who already had plenty.

Towards the end of the 14 years the problems with right wing economics became much more evident: stagnant productivity and therefore real wages, privatisation without adequate regulation, and growing government corruption intensified by the move to populism. Any remaining myth of economic competence created by the media was destroyed by the Truss fiscal event. The economic problems with populist nationalism also began to be felt. To top it all, a cost of living crisis generated by world wide increases in energy and food prices ensured that a majority of voter’s minds were on economic rather than social issues.

Yet even on the key issue of immigration the government hit problems. As in the early 2010s, it realised that reducing net immigration numbers would cause immediate economic damage, so it put in place an immigration regime that allowed skilled labour from outside the EU to replace EU workers. Together with additional factors this led to record immigration numbers. In addition the government was unable to stop potential asylum seekers crossing the Channel. This gave Farage the ammunition he needed to attack the government from the right. While Johnson could compete with Farage as a populist figurehead, Sunak could not.

It was a perfect storm, much of which was of the government’s own making. If there are general lessons here that extend beyond the particular time and place of the UK in 2024, I would highlight two. First, grafting right wing populism onto a government that more than anything wants to pursue right wing economic policies creates electoral problems. Promises to improve public services or reduce regional inequality will not be met. In addition, socially conservative policies themselves are often costly in economic terms (e.g. Brexit), but promising to enact these policies without doing so (e.g. not cutting immigration) can invite attacks from other right wing populists, leading to internal divisions and the government fighting elections on two fronts.

Second, populist leaders are particularly subject to hubris, often amplified by devoted media outlets or uncritical advisors. They therefore become vulnerable if acts of hubris are exposed. Right wing populist governments that survive are likely to be those that all but eliminate any critical media. The Conservative attempts to do that with the BBC were never going to be enough to prevent voters finding out about partygate or the consequences of the Truss fiscal event.

Although I have been writing this blog for some time, it has been entirely under a Conservative government in the UK. One of the reasons I began it at the end of 2011 was because the Coalition government was persisting with a macroeconomic blunder that happened to involve my area of expertise, so I thought it made sense to share that expertise as widely as possible. It was a blunder that other countries were copying, so I was lucky enough to become part of a global effort by macroeconomists to debunk some of the myths that governments were busy creating. Although what we were writing about was pretty grim, I still remember those days with some affection, perhaps because at that point the threat of UK right wing populism was less apparent than it subsequently became.

Once the intellectual battle over austerity was won, I became interested in why austerity had happened and how the media had enabled it. Posts about the details of macroeconomic policy became less frequent because there are only so many ways you can say that government policy is either bad or mad. After 2016 I began writing more speculative (for me) pieces about the political economy of the last 50 odd years.

I hope that commenting on this Labour government’s macroeconomic and other economic policies will be more interesting. I’m sure I will often remain critical, but I will also try to recognise the real constraints that even the best governments face and give praise where it is due. I hope it will be very different from blogging under the Conservative government of the last 14 years. It almost has to be, because the government of 2010-24 has been uniquely awful in so many ways. Above all else, it is hard to imagine that Starmer’s Labour will ever be seriously described as a right wing populist government.

[1] Johnson months before the election illegally shut down parliament! How can we in the UK wonder how a man who tried to overturn an election result can appear to be winning a race to be POTUS again, when a man who illegally shut down parliament could be elected Prime Minister just months later?!

[2] The media is not entirely to blame for this. A significant part of the anti-Corbyn side of the Labour party was more than prepared to see a populist right wing government rather than Labour government, while the left of the Conservative party always put their party first and largely kept their criticism of Johnson to themselves until they voted him out.

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