The surge of right-wing populism so beloved of pundits for the past year seems to have hit two very large landmines last week. First, Britain’s left-wing Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, incongruously riding a wave of pro-European sentiment, came within a few seats of displacing the Conservative government of Theresa May. Then on Sunday, France’s arch-neoliberal president, Emmanuel Macron, won the makings of a huge parliamentary majority, sweeping aside both moderate and radical leftists and reducing the far-right National Front (back) to irrelevance.
Is it possible to reconcile these two events in the same narrative? Or does it just show that Britain and France are irretrievably different? And either way, can the “populist” interpretation be salvaged?
Of course, if you redefine “populist” to mean pretty much “whatever is popular,” then populists are winning all the time. Corbyn’s a populist, Macron’s a populist, even Bill Shorten (or maybe Malcolm Turnbull) is a populist. But at that point it’s clear that the term has lost any analytical usefulness.
Let’s take Britain first. Last year’s referendum vote to leave the European Union was taken to be one of the high points of the populist tide. It was propelled by Conservative votes, and the Conservative Party now owns it: even though May herself originally supported “remain”, she went into last week’s election as the proponent of “hard” Brexit, rejecting any compromise that would preserve British access to the single market.
And the Conservatives suffered for it. Having expected to gain seats, they suffered a net loss of 13 – in fact a net loss of 22 to Labour, partly offset by a gain of 12 from the Scottish Nationalists, who receded from their peak of 2015. (You can see my progress reports from Friday here.)
Labour’s few losses were in the industrial north; its gains were almost all in London, in other educated urban areas, and in Wales. Although Corbyn is hardly a pro-EU figure, there’s no doubt that he benefited from the anti-Brexit vote, as well as public anger at the unnecessary early election. Young people were especially important; they turned out in greater numbers and they supported Labour very strongly. It was a revolt of the elites, not the populist masses.
This is a trend, of course, that has been going on (sometimes unevenly) across the western world for decades: class ties are weakening, the centre-left is coming to rely more on the educated and the cosmopolitan, while its opponents are making inroads into more traditional working-class areas. But it’s somewhat ironic that Labour’s most left-wing leader in 30 years has presided over such a dramatic shift towards the middle class.
There’s been an extensive argument going on since Friday about just how well Corbyn did, and whether a more mainstream Labour leader would have done worse or better. In a sense it’s purely academic, because a more mainstream leader wouldn’t have had the opportunity in the first place; May only called the election because she was so far ahead in the polls. She gave Corbyn a free kick because she thought – wrongly – that she could afford to; she wouldn’t have made that mistake against anyone else.
Labour’s recovery compared to its earlier polling was dramatic, gaining more than ten percentage points and perhaps a hundred seats over what was expected a few weeks out. But it’s easy to forget that a large part of that was winning back what it had lost over the previous twelve months, during which its polling average had declined from the low 30s to the mid 20s.
A gain of 9.5% from the last election certainly looks impressive. But the Conservatives also gained 5.5%, yielding a net swing (calculated according to British practice) of only 2%. In reality, the performance of both was inflated by the virtual disappearance of UKIP, whose voters, thinking its task complete, returned to their natural allegiance – mostly Conservative, but some Labour.
In a first-past-the-post system, the votes for third parties doesn’t matter much. What counts is the two-party vote; on that basis, Labour had 48.5%, well behind its 2005 result of 52.1%. The swing in its favor was 3.3%: good, but nothing out of the ordinary. It’s comparable to Harold Wilson’s wins in 1964 (3.4%) and 1966 (3.0%) and to Neil Kinnock’s two losses (2.8% in 1987 and 2.9% in 1992).
For what it’s worth, my feeling is that a strong centrist leader, who was able to unite Labour’s warring factions and retain a more talented front bench, would have done significantly better than Corbyn. But not only is that unprovable, but it remains the case that no such ideal leader had presented themself. It’s quite possible that Corbyn, for all his many faults, was the best available in the circumstances.
Nonetheless, seeing the UK result as a populist wave is a real stretch. Of course there were some elements of Corbyn’s program that could be called populist, and his personal style, very different to the usual run of focus-group-approved blandness, evidently struck a chord with the electorate. But again, if anything that answers to the call for authenticity earns the label “populist”, then the term is too broad to be of much use.
It remains debatable how much Corbyn’s gains (or his failure to gain more) were due to ideology, and whether voters really care about a party’s program. Did style matter more than substance, or are there broader historical trends at work that trump both? Those questions may be unanswerable, but some light at least can be shed on them by the first round of the French parliamentary election, held three days later.
There too, populism was in contention. We’ll look at what happened tomorrow.