A spectre is haunting Europe. So began the opening words of one of the most famous political treatises of all time. But it’s not Karl Marx’s spectre of communism that haunts Europe today. Nor is it only Europe that’s haunted. The spectre of populism is haunting most western democracies.
The collapse in support for the centre left Democratic Party in Italy’s recent elections simply underscores that the populist revolt continues to roil European politics, two years after the tsunami of populism hit European shores with the Brexit vote.
British political commentator Steve Richard’s book “The Rise of the Outsiders: How Mainstream Politics Lost its Way” is a penetrating and worthy analysis of the populist phenomenon occurring across the western world.
Richards’ has identified the key markers that have led to the rise of populists (in the main, outsiders, new to the political system) but just as importantly he provides a fresh analysis of why the mainstream parties have so comprehensively failed in their response to these outsiders.
In essence, mainstream parties have been caught flat footed in their response to the changing world and voters’ changing expectations of what they want today from government and society.
What Richards’ identifies is the fact that the managerial approach to government undertaken in recent decades by both left and right has been found severely wanting in the post GFC world.
The biggest losers in both the US and Europe from this phenomenon that Richards’ calls “choosing to be powerless”, have been the parties of the social democratic left. As Richards’ points out, “the mainstream left moved towards what they considered to be the vote-winning centre ground, largely defined by the right – only to become trapped as the orthodoxies they embraced became outdated”.
It was this caving into the right’s definition of what made a good society that has directly led to the collapse of the social democratic vote across much of Europe.
The deliberate political strategy of the mainstream left throughout the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000s’was one of playing down the role that the state could and should play in creating a better society. However, in practice what this meant was that (following the GFC) at the exact time that state intervention was warranted, the centre left in the US and Europe had neither the words, the vision nor the policy bona fides to make a renewed case for the state to temper the worst excesses of capitalism.
Indeed, in a conversation I held recently with a senior UK political operative the lament was made that UK that half of Labour was looking at solutions to the problem as if it was 1997 with the other looking for solutions from 1977 – with neither really acknowledging that it was 2017.
It’s therefore curious, but no real surprise, that in recent years it is populists from the right who have been making the case for government intervention (albeit a sort of mishmash of state interventions), it is in fact a core response to the centre left vacating this ground.
The lesson from this analysis is that the contemporary challenge for social democratic parties is to clearly enunciate a vision of what a social democratic future looks like in the 21st century. A comprehensive suite of progressive policies will be important but, without a clear vision of what it means to be a social democrat and what role government can play to improve society for the better, the threat from outsiders proffering half-baked solutions that sound good will not abate.
While both Europe and the US continue to be buffeted by the populist wave in light of recent election results in Australia the question can fairly asked – has the rise of populist politics reached its peak in the land down under?
Commentators across the spectrum have been quick to jump on the idea that One Nation (following underperformances in WA and Queensland), Nick Xenophon (following his losing gamble in SA) and the Greens (following the failure to win Batman) are all now on the decline.
Even if that were true for those specific parties, it is not necessarily true of the populist wave in and of itself (let’s not forget the populist surge of 2013 under the guise of the Palmer United Party which was replaced in 2016 by PHON and NXT).
As the Grattan Institute has recently pointed out, the long-term shift towards voting for “outsider” parties has accelerated in the last decade.
In one sense the failure of Nick Xenophon may well be an anomaly. His inability to translate initially high poling numbers into electoral success represents one of the key paradoxes of modern populism identified by Richards. – the closer that populists get to actual power the more scrutiny there will be on their policies and those without a coherent set of them will be found wanting.
Whilst ever populist voting remains a protest vote at heart, a rejection of the status quo and a desire to take back control the threat from populism remains.
This fact must be a warning against complacency by the mainstream and a wake-up call to adopt policies that address the conditions giving rise to populism in the first instance.
The underlying causes that have given rise to populism around the world still represent a clear and present danger for Australia’s mainstream parties if allowed to go unchecked. The vote of major parties still remains at near historical lows and the collective vote for minor parties remains stubbornly high indicating that the disaffected could rise again.
Even if populism has reached its peak in Australia (and we won’t really know until we’ve been through the big three elections over the next 12 months – NSW, Victoria and Federal) there are still plenty of lessons for Australian Labor in Richards’ book.
At the core of Richards’ thesis is that mainstream parties of both the left and the right have failed to adapt their policies to the changed economic and social circumstances faced by the developed post the GFC. As Richards’ points out a “profound feeling … had welled up since the crash of 2008, that there was one rule for the hyper rich and another rule for everyone else. While median incomes had been stagnant, the rewards for the wealthiest continued to soar. The rage this provoked in the democratic world was a key ingredient in the rocket fuel that gave lift-off …” to the populist insurgency.
European and American politicians of the mainstream were slow to respond to these changed feelings.
This failure by the way is as true of most business leaders as it is of our politicians (indeed in Australia the failure of Australia’s business chiefs to see a new way forward rather than the strict economic prescriptions of the 80s is particularly pronounced).
It is a shift that thankfully Australian Labor has identified and devised policies to address. Indeed, here at the Chifley Research Centre we were one of the first to pick up on the dangers that rising inequality posed for Australian democracy. It’s also why Federal Labor has consistently unveiled a suite of sensible policies to address the problems faced by those whom Labor Leader Bill Shorten has identified as the “left behinds”
Even if Australia is spared the worst of the rest of the world’s populist impulses it is still essential that all Australians are encompassed in Australia’s future.