Dead, disgraced or deluded. Is this the end of populism?
Developments in politics over the weekend saw former Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon arrested (and released without charge pending further investigation), former Prime Minister Boris Johnson resign as a Member of Parliament and former US President Donald Trump indicted for charges in two separate criminal investigations. When news broke on Monday that “the godfather of populism”, Italian former PM Silvio Berlusconi had died, media outlets started asking the tempting question: is this the end of populism?
Attending a Parliamentary Reception yesterday in which the Foreign Secretary James Cleverly happened to be speaking, the room agreed that Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine, but also Brexit and other international challenges, had meant that good old slow burning, occasionally boring ‘statespersonship’ and diplomacy had had a comeback and more of it was needed in the future to tackle challenges of the day.
Fittingly – and timely during London Tech Week – those challenges do seem to attract more considered positions these days, such as the intervention from Tony Blair and William Hague on the AI revolution, making it tempting to think the centre ground grown-ups are back in the fold.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is still looking to prove his integrity credentials, seemingly unable to shake Westminster scandals stealing the limelight, his tone is increasingly confident while he focusses on technocratically fixing the economy.
Keir Starmer – currently in pole position to be the next PM – long suffered from being branded as “boring”, a badge he tried to simultaneously shut down as well as occasionally exploit to his advantage (particularly following the fallout of the Truss Administration’s mini-Budget). Deploying this weapon again today at the London Tech Week event, he said having three PMs and cabinet ministers being swapped in and out is "politically amusing", but does not project the stability that business needs to invest in the UK.
Polling and analysis indeed show that populism in the UK is in decline. At the local elections in England in May the populist right in the form of UKIP was eliminated,while the Reform party picked up only two seats. In Scotland, Labour actually led the SNP in regional polling in May by 2%. The first time since Summer 2014 that a party other than the SNP has led in any poll produced for any election in Scotland.
Without a clearer “representation gap”, which to some degree still prevails in Scotland and indeed the USA, populists have fewer chances in England and thus Westminster which is keen to move on from Brexit (and some even keener to move on from the man who “delivered Brexit”).
Populist slogans – adopted by both Tories and Labour (“Stop the boats”; “Drain the swamp”) – still do well but while Sunak is under pressure to appease those who support the Reform Party (whose support nationally is around 1/7 of the vote the Conservative won in 2019), Labour is rejecting its left wing (Corbynite) as we moveinto election season: Of 100 Labour candidates now selected in winnable seats, only two are of the Labour left.
With prevailing high inflation, cost of living challenges, regulatory and technically challenging questions such as how to use AI, foster resilient supply chains and better achieve long term goals (such as Net Zero), both far left and right wing populism is clearly unfit to govern. This enables the pendulum swing some had hoped would come sooner: more competent, pragmatic, educated and well-considered policy making from “serious people” (to quote Succession’s Logan Roy of all people).