Populism: Passing Fad or New Political Era?


Populism: Passing Fad or New Political Era?

Posted on: 1st May 2017
Tony Blair
Former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Executive Chairman of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

Populism – passing fad? Definitely not. Passing movement? Possibly.

First off, let's define populism. It certainly shouldn't be defined as policies which offend the political elite.

I remember people accusing me of populism when I introduced tough measures on crime to help poor neighbourhoods struggling with drug dealers, gangs and anti-social behaviour. I resented the term. I was merely responding to genuine concerns with a genuine attempt to rectify them. And there’s nothing wrong with a policy being popular!

Populism for me is where a politician rides an issue which is sensitive for effect and in doing so deliberately divides people to create political traction, i.e. he whips up the anger rather than providing the answer. Immigration is the most common issue exploited in this way.

Populism for me is where a politician rides an issue which is sensitive for effect and in doing so deliberately divides people to create political traction.

In the populist movements sweeping Western politics today, the right uses immigration and the left anti business rhetoric.

But of course they can only do this because there is a real problem which exists and which sufficient numbers of the people think is being ignored by their Leaders.

The chief characteristic of today’s world is the scope, scale and speed of change. As change has accelerated, so have its consequences. Communities and people can be left behind. They see their local environment changed around them culturally through immigration and economically through enhanced global competition, trade and technology.

Globalisation is not a force driven ultimately by Governments, but by people, by technology, travel and the world opening up. In macro terms, the benefits have been huge. We have – over the past decades – seen more people lifted out of poverty at a faster rate than ever before in human history.

But especially in the West, it has also created winners and losers, and stresses, both economic and cultural.

Part of the cultural divide is between the metropolitans and those outside the big cities. The former seem to the latter to be arrogant, indifferent to their anxieties, and gripped by political correctness.

Social media is itself a revolutionary phenomenon, spurring both the visibility of these changes and the capacity to protest about them, and transforming politics by allowing new political movements to flourish in a fraction of the time of yesteryear. Many of these movements are on the far right or left but as Macron has shown in France, you can also get a new centrist movement coming from nothing to the edge of power in a year.

There is another stimulator of populist revolt: the feeling that the present political systems just don't deliver. I know people who voted for Donald Trump despite all the things he said, because they thought he would get things moving, that he would break through the Washington paralysis.

I believe this sense of frustration also drives the curious Western dalliance with President Putin, something you find on both left and right of the spectrum with the appeal of the ‘Strong Man’ leader.

This however conceals what is a big difference within the new populists: those who believe ‘getting things moving’ requires de-regulation and less Government and those who actually want a more active Government but one just doing different things.

Anyway, beyond argument, conventional Western politics is under siege.

How to respond is the question. There are few fence-sitters in this debate and therefore what follows is a personal view; and others would greatly disagree. I think this populism is dangerous; but the only response which works is to accept that many of the concerns propelling it are reasonable and have to be addressed by mainstream politics or the populism will grow.

The core of any response should be to provide answers to the anger - real practical policy solutions.

Immigration requires rules properly enforced; otherwise those indulging prejudice will win.

Communities need effective intervention when undergoing change which will mean active Government support.

Education and infrastructure become critical and need reform much more far-reaching and transformative than what is presently offered.

Social mobility and the chance to escape poverty and prosper, whatever the wealth of your parents, has to be re-engineered for this generation in the way done for my father’s and mine.

We need tax reform to ensure a more equitable distribution of responsibility and resources.

The role of technology will be vital, because it both presents challenges and could provide the transformational changes necessary.

In other words we need solutions which are radical and change-making but still sensible and evidence-based.

In other words we need solutions which are radical and change-making but still sensible and evidence-based.

This approach – involving the hard business of governing as opposed to campaigning – is what will finally drive back the populist tide.

Hoping this tide will subside of its own accord or treating supporters of the new politics as deluded or ignorant, will not work.

But does the way in which our mainstream political parties are constituted enable such an approach?

Part of the problem is that the very terminology of traditional left and right doesn't fit the way people are today; even terms like ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ when applied to existing Parties, can fail to take account of the breakdown in allegiances and the magpie picking of ideas which mark contemporary Western politics.

New coalitions are evolving which cross traditional political boundaries.

Here’s a paradox: the populist movements are often very divisive in their politics; yet one undoubted, powerful sentiment the Western world over, is the desire for people to put aside partisan difference in the interest of the nation.

But what we find – both sides of the Atlantic – is that Party politics is becoming more partisan than ever, assisted by a media which itself is pursuing an agenda for commercial survival based on sharpening such partisanship.

So I end with a prediction: the populism will not swiftly disappear because it is based on genuine concerns which the political class have ignored. But it will finally pass when conventional politics is re-shaped better to correspond to the 21st C alliances possible with changing times. Open vs closed will become a more relevant distinction – those who see globalisation as an opportunity whose risks should be mitigated, against those who believe it brings more harm than good.

If politics fails to respond in this way, then this wave of populism may be the beginning and the next wave could be much more alarming.

As always the optimist, I remain confident that conventional politics can respond provided that it ceases to operate conventionally.

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