The strange case of unpopular populism: Labour and Jeremy Corbyn

By Gerry Stoker. Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton and Centenary Professor of Governance at the University of Canberra (Twitter).


Populism encapsulates the spirit of our times, we are told. So how has Labour under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn managed to discover an unpopular version of populism? In the discussion that follows, I argue that Labour’s election campaign has adopted many of the defining features of populism without winning a lot of support. What lies behind this seeming paradox?

The standard formula of populists is to position their movement of ‘the people’ against the corrupt ruling elite or establishment. Labour’s campaign emphasises that it is on the side of the millions rather than the millionaires. In his first speech of the campaign Jeremy Corbyn set a clear populist tone:

Much of the media and establishment are saying this election is a foregone conclusion. They think there are rules in politics, which if you don’t follow by doffing your cap to powerful people, accepting that things can’t really change, then you can’t win. They say I don’t play by the rules – their rules. We can’t win, they say, because we don’t play their game. They’re quite right, I don’t. And a Labour Government elected on June 8 won’t play by their rules…Of course those people don’t want us to win. Because when we win, it’s the people, not the powerful, who win”.

Labour’s manifesto is also populist in its main messages. There are proposals to spend more on education, health, social care, housing and so on with a clear indication that someone else – the rich and big business – will pay for it through extra taxes. There are commitments to renationalise core utilities notably where there are popular grievances against their performance. The essential claim is that the economy has been rigged for the rich and now it is time for change. As Corbyn puts it:

Don’t wake on up on 9 June to see celebrations from the tax cheats, the press barons, the greedy bankers, Philip Green, the Southern Rail directors and crooked financiers that take our wealth, who have got away with it because the party they own, the Conservative Party, has won”.

So, is the call to support Corbyn fighting for the many against a rigged system winning hearts and minds? Marginally, would appear to be the summary judgement. Labour has gained some support and may do better than some pundits predict. But with the collapse of UKIP support the Conservatives enjoy double figure leads over Labour in the polls – some as high as 20%. Bottom line, they are going to win the election easily. On the issues most important to voters, it appears that PM May is more trusted to deliver than Corbyn. There we have it: the odd spectacle of an unpopular populist. Why?

Is it that the media is blocking Corbyn from getting his message out? There can be little doubt that the Labour leader has little editorial support among the print media. But as his own supporters have been keen to assert this is a people’s movement using social media to spread its message. Moreover, the regulation of election coverage means that mainstream television and radio outlets have to give fair access to all candidates. There does appear to be plenty of interest in politics and in Corbyn as a candidate for PM. It seems unlikely that its media coverage that is distorting or blocking the message sufficiently to explain the lack of popular uptake.

Is it that divisions within the Labour Party means that Corbyn’s position is undermined? That Corbyn does not have support of most Labour MPs is evident but from the perspective of a popular movement it is the recruitment of activists and grassroots supporters that should provide the real momentum. Corbyn-supporting groups in the party have been vocal about their presence. The manifesto adopted by Labour and the campaign and its content all appear to be in the hands of Corbyn and his supporters. Not having the support of the New Labour establishment – and figures such as Tony Blair – could be seen as a plus for a populist, so it’s unlikely that it is divisions within the party that are undermining the cause with the public.

Another explanation might be that Corbyn’s Labour offers faux populism. Labour can afford to be radical and promise a lot because its knows it’s not going to have to deliver. The aim is to shore up support for the Corbynista project when it comes to the post-election aftermath of a Labour loss. This is cult politics rather than populist politics with the aim of creating a narrative of a heroic leader offering radical solutions, deserving another chance. That argument goes against the grain of the genuine belief that things can be turned around in Election 2017 among many Corbyn supporters and the fact the  message remains strongly populist whether or not  some in the Corbyn leadership see it in more strategic terms.

The solution to the paradox of an unpopular populism is more likely to rest on the finding that rules do apply in politics, even if Corbyn claims they do not. First even for a populist competence – or the perception of competence in the case of Donald Trump – matters. People have to believe you have the skill and will to deliver. Corbyn and his team appear to be both gaff-prone and lacking in any serious ideas about how to run anything. It may be that Corbyn sees himself as offering a form of facilitative or non-hierarchical leadership – I am here to empower others – but most of the public appear to judge him as a leader at worst as useless and at best as a dreamer. Theresa May has a net satisfaction score for her leadership of +19, while Jeremy Corbyn has score of –35.

The implication of the above explanation might be: do the same populist thing next time but with a leader with a wider appeal. However, it may be that it is also difficult to do populism within the confines of an established political party, such as Labour. The Labour Party in many parts of Britain was the party of power and in power, so it is difficult to project it as the new outsider. You might say that Donald Trump won the presidency but he did so by keeping a large part of the Republican Party’s core vote with targeted policies and using populist tactics and messaging to attract other voters, a strategy made slightly easier by the degree of polarisation that has developed in US politics over the last two decades. If being an established party is a constraint of the degree of populist stance that can work, then we are back to another old rule of politics. Parties win, including Labour, when given the UK electoral system they provide their core vote with something to support but reach out to others and in a way that shows they can make sensible compromises to deliver. The solution for a mainstream party then is not to offer populism as a cure to all ills, but rather to attempt to offer a realistic narrative about how to change the country for the better.

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