Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Populism: What’s in a name? By Barrie Axford and Richard Huggins


Ambivalence, but more usually outright hostility, marks any discussion of populism. Even when allowing for a “progressive” strain, outside the United States, populism has always enjoyed a bad press, mainly because of its association with authoritarian, far-right and even fascist tendencies, especially in Western Europe. Terms such as “radical right”, “extremist right” and “far right” certainly invest the literature with a degree of conceptual variety, but may smack of a regard for academic connoisseurship that actually blurs the wider picture, or does less than justice to its variety. For conceptual richness still fails to capture key facets of populist politics, parties and movements around the world, such as in the Americas, Eastern and Central Europe and Asia, where some practitioners – Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and the late Hugo Chavez, in Venezuela, are the most cited currently – favour leftist economic policies.

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In a previous frisson of localist -populist politics found mainly in Western Europe in the mid- to-late 1990’s, the temper of critique was sharply critical of its “anti-political” style and brand of political mobilization. The label “anti-politics” was intended to capture the alleged passing of a relatively benign and ordered system of democratic elitism in the global north and west and its replacement with a version completely and unhealthily framed by media; whose ubiquity was exploited by “know-nothing”, but resourceful adventurists. The democratic credentials of populist movements and their increasingly sophisticated exploitation of the media, led Georges Balandier (and many others) to lament a serious outbreak of “democratic sickness”.

By mid-decade among the main culprits in this regard were the Lega Nord and Forza Italia in Italy and James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party in the UK; the latter enjoying only a brief flowering in public support. Meanwhile in the United States during the same period, Ross Perot’s populist assault on the presidential nomination process and Pat Buchanan’s “new populist” appeal to the worried burghers of Virginia in 1996 touched raw nerves, in part because they looked set to attract a coalition of support among people who might not normally vote together, or vote at all; thus threatening older constellations of more predictable voting behaviour.  In Pierre Taguieff’s noteworthy phrase, both figures were the epitome of the tele-tribune. Taguieff’s was an early foray into the by now fevered debate on the scope for a media-saturated politics to undo the rules on political mobilization, party identification and the ethical conduct of electioneering.

Today, populist rhetoric and appeals again display a good deal of vigour, whether on the part of those “left behind” by globalization or, and / or, worried that immigration endangers national culture and values, pace the UK after the Brexit referendum and Germany according to the AfD. It is seen too in the machinations of Donald Trump, with his seeming rejection of the global liberal order in favour of a latter-day Jacksonianism, with its emphasis on economic nationalism. Down-home populisms can be seen from Marseilles to Moscow, via France, Italy, Spain and Greece, Hungary and Poland. On some accounts it is visible in Narendra Modi’s strain of Hindu nationalism in India and in the ‘patronal authoritarianism’ practised by Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recip Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey.

But we need to be careful about conceptual stretching and trying to standardise strains of populism, regardless of context. Donald Trump, whose social media appeals to American voters went over the heads of established party elites, and played fast and loose with much of the etiquette of usual politics, has distanced himself from facets of both neoconservative and neoliberal dogma. His electoral platform (since modified in part, to be sure) included populist-left slogans on trade protectionism (higher tariffs on Chinese goods), renegotiating NAFTA, and more right wing items, such as his now implemented promise of tax cuts for businesses and the wealthy. In his State of the Union Address in January 2018, president Trump called for a path to citizenship for undocumented migrants, a constituency previously accused of heinous crimes and misdemeanours, and whose very presence had been deemed an affront to American social and cultural mores.

Leaving aside Trump’s unpredictability; all this is much in line with the idea of populism as a “thin” ideology and so points up the need for caution when attributing consistency, let alone core values, to populist thinking. Populisms share a suspicion of and hostility toward elites, mainstream politics, and established institutions.  Beyond this, as Cas Mudde says, no definition of populism will fully describe the gamut of populists. There is no encompassing and “thick” description of what precepts should guide and which strategies might implement the will of the people. And there is no holistic take on how politics, economy and society should be ordered. Populism is a long way from being programmatic. In part this is why it is both an attractive, portable formula for electoral success in times of crisis and an empty signifier when it comes to proffering a blueprint for and the necessary policy detail on how to deal with perceived hard times.

For a practitioner like Donald Trump, populism’s very imprecision and lack of detailed prescription is both an incubus because, among other undesirable attributes, he looks light-weight and irresolute; and an advantage, because he refuses to be burdened by anything that resembles a dogma or a coherent programme.  But to underline the variety of populisms, the same cannot be said of one of the U.S Democratic Party’s presidential hopefuls during the party nomination contest in 2016. Socialist Bernie Sanders ran a campaign based on a potent mix of dry policy detail and left-wing polemic. Unlike Trump, and many other leading populists, neither did Sanders engage in the politics of victimhood to bolster his appeal, and this is a departure from more usual practice in this constituency. In an age when the culture of victimhood infects ever more relationships, such leaders have not been coy about presenting themselves as at once powerful and marked for greatness – all while remaining the conduit for the aspirations of the virtuous public from whom s/he has a mandate - and the butt of establishment corruption, perennially lying media (witness Trump’s penchant for castigating any dissenting opinion and all criticism as “fake news”) and sabotage by a coterie of domestic and global elites. This simplification of politics breaks all the rules of electioneering and of governing, disrupting the grain of usual politics, questioning its ability to deliver for the people, and thus its legtimacy. Simplification lies at the core of what one might call populism’s methodology.








Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Who are the Corbynites? by Glen O'Hara



The Centre for Global Politics, Economy and Society hosted a recent one-day workshop around the theme of "Populism 2.0", at which Professor O'Hara present this paper.

Corbynism is a strong brand: indeed, paradoxically for a creed that makes a great deal of offering an entirely new economic and social sentiment, its presentation owes a great deal to the present vogue for ‘craft’ and ‘artisanal’ products. Apparently old but in reality new, and theoretically rough-and-ready while being highly packaged and marketable, its supporters and spinners have laboured long and hard to target an audience that then projects a positive image back on itself.


Some of the key elements of that brand have to do with the people attracted to it. The Corbyn appeal is often presented as particularly attractive to young people: idealistic students, passionate advocates for social change, political campaigners, twentysomethings locked out of the housing market. Media coverage of the 2017 General Election reinforced this impression: television images of large and enthusiastic crowds, often full of younger voters, played very (and unexpectedly) well on regional and local news programmes. When Labour did unexpectedly well at the ballot box, the newspapers were full of the ‘youthquake’ that had apparently taken place, with some very high figures for youth turnout doing the rounds.

There are a couple of reasons why this explanation instinctively appeals to us. The first is the rise of generational inequality. Income inequality, and even wealth inequity, has not risen very much in recent years: indeed, on some measures, it has declined a little. But the disparity of living standards (and especially the ownership of capital) between older and younger Britons has become an ever-more noticeable part of our collective life. Rising house prices, in particular, are still making the over-50s richer and richer (at least until they need social care in their 70s and 80s), while younger Britons struggle to get on the housing ladder.

The second reason that such a phenomenon seemed quite plausible was the outlook of young voters. Overwhelmingly for Remain in the 2016 European Union referendum, and just as likely to be socially liberal on a whole host of issues such as immigration, Prime Minister Theresa May’s search for a Brexit mandate – and conservative rhetoric from foxhunting to grammar schools – just became impossibly distant for younger voters who had backed David Cameron in far greater numbers just two years before.

Unfortunately for the mental shortcuts that we often use to assemble mythical knowledge, a great deal of that impression is simply inaccurate. There does not, for instance, seem to have been a ‘youthquake’ in terms of actual turnout. The authoritative British Election Study did not record any such move among young people, and although there has been some criticism of the Study’s techniques and sample sizes, these remain the best figures that we have. There was indeed a ‘youthquake’ in terms of a large swing towards Labour among 18- to 24-year olds, but this was matched and indeed probably exceeded by moves towards Corbyn’s party by voters in their later 20s and their 30s. According to Ipsos-Mori, the swing towards Labour even among 35- to 44-year olds (at eight per cent) was not far behind the ten per cent or so move among Britons in their late teens and early twenties.

Labour’s success among 25- to 44-year olds, of course a far larger group than students and early twentysomethings, speaks to much wider trends in contemporary Britain than can be captured via the concepts of housing scarcity and generational inequality. These literally middling Britons are often dealing with a multiplicity of crises: in health care, in their families, infrastructure, the welfare state. Cuts to school budgets, and the inadequacy of in particular England’s fragmented and inadequate social care system for looking after the elderly, often press in on voters facing care challenges for both their young children and their elderly parents: letters home from head teachers outlining the potential school-by-school effects of education cuts seem to have played an underrated role in the 2017 election campaign. Such voters are often forced to navigate complex lives, suffering frequent delays across Britain’s outdated transport infrastructure while taking children to different schools while being forced into unpaid and unwanted caring roles across both nuclear and extended families. Their resentment – that the Government simply does not seem to be there for them – played a much bigger role in Labour’s appeal than more discrete issues such as unpaid internships or university tuition fees.

Nor does the Labour membership appear to have become younger or more liberal. In fact, according to data gathered by the Economic and Social Research Council-funded Party Members Project at Queen Mary, University of London, the average age of Labour’s members is 53 (as opposed to 57 among Conservatives). By contrast, only four per cent of Labour’s members are aged between 18 and 24. Labour’s membership has surged to over half a million since 2015, but its appeal appears to be disproportionately to graduates, left-leaning voters in London, the South and South-East of England, and to returning ex-members who found the Labour revisionism of the 1990s and 2000s not to their liking. There is little evidence here of a particularly millinerial surge in the party’s support base: the pro-Europeanism and social liberalism that do seem to form two key planks of Labour’s new energy seem to emanate from Baby Boomers and Generation Xers who hold these opinions.

‘The Corbynites’, like any political group, are not a homogenous tribe, though Labour’s new voters and members possess many traits in common. They tend to live in cities, particularly London, but they are also particularly noticeable amidst Southern England’s more radical university centres and faded seaside towns. They are, counterintuitively, not particularly young – and their attachment to Corbyn is focused on a wider rejection of the post-Thatcherite economic settlement than discourses of youthful radicalism, disengagement and campaigning assume. If the Conservatives think that they can counter this appeal via policies aimed only at the youngest voters, they are very mistaken indeed.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. A former journalist at The Independent, he contributes to a wide range of current affairs publications, including The New Statesman’s ‘Staggers’ online politics blog. He is the author of a series of books and articles on modern Britain, including most recently The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (2017). He will be discussing many of these themes in his inaugural Professorial Lecture, to be held at Oxford Brookes University on Wednesday 9 May.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Brexit, Democracy and UK Trade Policy by Stephen Hurt



Last week the UK government published its Trade Bill, which formally starts the process of moving towards an independent trade policy. Member states of the European Union (EU) are part of a customs union. This means they operate a unified trade policy, which includes common external tariffs on imports from outside the EU. The UK government has already made it clear it intends to leave the customs union as part of the Brexit process.

Prior to the start of the legislative process, the Department for International Trade published a Trade White Paper on 9 October 2017, which set out the principles guiding the UK's future trade policy. This included numerous references to stakeholder engagement and as part of a consultation exercise it included an invitation for submissions on all aspects of the developing approach set out in the White Paper.

In this post I outline the major points of my submission to this consultation process. The deadline was Monday 6 November 2017 and it was therefore with some surprise that I discovered the following morning that the government was publishing its Trade Bill in parliament. This led to criticism from trade unions and NGOs who had also contributed to the consultation. For example, War on Want argued that given the timing of the publication of the bill it was clear that 'the input of thousands of responses from members of the public could not have been considered'.

Given my long-standing research interest in the EU’s trade and development policy to African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states, my response focused in the main on the fourth of the five principles outlined in the White Paper, namely ‘supporting developing countries to reduce poverty’. In doing so, I also explored some of the tensions between this ambition and the other four principles ('trade that is transparent and inclusive', 'supporting a rules-based global trading environment', 'boosting our trade relationships' and 'ensuring a level playing field').

My criticism of the White Paper ultimately rests on some of the problematic assumptions it makes about the relationship between trade and development. These assumptions were also demonstrated in an important speech made by Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade, in Manchester on 29 September 2016, where he suggested that ‘free trade is often a ladder to the top’. A similar claim was made by former International Development Secretary, Priti Patel, in her speech at the Conservative Party conference on 3 October 2017, when she boldly claimed that 'trade, investment and free markets provide the route out of poverty'.

These claims are advanced in the first half of the White Paper where the role of trade in the global economy is discussed. The conclusion one is supposed to draw from this is that free trade was at the heart of the historical development of the British economy and hence this is something that should be recommended to developing countries today. However, as respected economist Ha-Joon Chang has convincingly demonstrated, Britain employed tariffs for a significant period before it was able to adopt a regime of free trade during the nineteenth century. Chang notes that ‘the overall liberalization of the British economy … of which trade liberalization was just a part, was a highly controlled affair overseen by the state, and not achieved through a laissez-faire approach’ (Ha-Joon Chang, Kicking Away the Ladder, p.24). Hence, what the White Paper suggests are protectionist measures (such as subsidies for domestic industry) could conversely be understood as legitimate development strategies.

The section of the White Paper on UK trade policy and how it can support developing countries includes a commitment that as the UK leaves the EU it ‘will maintain current access for the world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs) to UK markets and aim to maintain preferential access of other (non-LDC) developing countries' (p.32). This is to be welcomed. However, the aim of replicating the EU’s existing Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) is much more problematic. It is clear to anyone who has followed the EU’s negotiation of EPAs with ACP countries, that they met significant resistance from both many ACP governments, and civil society organisations (CSOs) across Europe and regions within the ACP. In part, their concerns relate directly to the assumptions noted above about the ‘policy space’ needed for development. Both the Tanzanian and Nigerian governments have indicated that they are concerned that signing an EPA will undermine their ability to adopt government policies to support industrialization. In Nigeria, the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria has been particularly effective in lobbying against the EPA, arguing that it will harm the domestic industrial sector.

Moreover, they have also voiced concerns over attempts by the EU to introduce the so-called ‘Singapore Issues’ (competition policy, transparency in government procurement, equal treatment for foreign investors, and trade facilitation measures) that were rejected at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2003 at the CancĂșn Ministerial. There is therefore a potential conflict of principles in the White Paper between the expressed concern for developing countries and the suggestion that the ‘UK will look to secure greater access to overseas markets for UK goods exports as well as push for greater liberalisation of global services, investment and procurement markets’ (p.27). These are precisely the issues that African states and CSOs have identified as problematic because they would constrain the ability of ACP states to seek to diversify their exports and support the development of an industrial sector.

The White Paper’s strong support for the conclusion of the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) also undermines the claim to be supporting developing countries. TiSA has emerged as a separate arrangement after talks on services stalled within the WTO due to resistance from developing countries. They have expressed concerns that it would allow transnational corporations to turn essential public services into commodities that can be traded.

It is therefore highly likely that the UK will meet significant resistance if it seeks to simply replicate EPAs. African states have been able to demonstrate significant agency in the EPA negotiations and there would be greater scope for this in negotiations with the UK. They have made it clear that rather than deep and comprehensive trade liberalisation, what they want is a gradual process of engagement with global markets, which if it is to be developmental, needs to be facilitated by state support. Therefore, a much better alternative would be for the UK to introduce an improved Generalised System of Preferences that goes above and beyond the EU’s current ‘Everything but Arms’ agreement with LDCs. Hence, I would support the recommendations made by Traidcraft in its February 2017 report for the adoption of 'a preference scheme offering duty-free, quota-free market access to imports from economically vulnerable countries, including but not limited to the least developed countries' (p.16).

My final concerns relate to the democratic accountability of any future UK trade policymaking. These were reinforced by the superficial nature of the process of consultation on the White Paper itself. While it is reassuring to note in the White Paper that there is a plan for regular engagement with stakeholders, it is unclear what is meant by the phrase ‘we will ensure that Parliament, the devolved administrations, devolved legislatures, business and civil society are engaged throughout’ (p.29). Prior to this there is reference to the need for a legislative framework that allows for the quick negotiation and ratification of trade agreements. Trade negotiations are notoriously long and difficult to conclude and this desire for speed should not come at the cost of democratic accountability. As I, and 54 other academics have argued in a recent letter published in The Telegraph on 20 October 2017, modern trade agreements cover a wide range of policy areas. It is therefore vital that government makes a clear and unequivocal commitment that parliament and the devolved administrations/legislatures will have a say in both formulating negotiating mandates and ratifying any future trade agreements agreed by the UK. Moreover, information related to trade negotiations should be made public so that stakeholders are able to provide proper democratic input into the process.