Keeping populism at bay

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Keeping populism at bay

Whilst Australia burns, Boris Johnson finally has the votes to deliver whatever form of Brexit he desires, and Donald Trump is bringing the world to the edge of global conflict. 

Apart from schadenfreude, this leaves liberals with little to celebrate as we move into the new decade.  In the UK, three years of resistance have yielded no fruit, with the various strands of opposition to Brexit collapsing in the face of a unified pro-Brexit campaign at the end of 2019.  In the face of this, beating a tactical retreat from the populist wave, or adopting whatever acceptable policies that exist within it, could seem necessary, a preference for pragmatism over principle.  

Making such concessions would, however, neglect the fact that the populist movement is superficial, a thin veneer concealing a rotten core.  The UK’s electoral map might look terrifying, but it belies the reality, which is that the scale of Johnson’s victory was reliant on a mere few thousand votes falling the right way on the night.  Rather than bending the knee to the purported might of the populist right, liberals need to redouble their efforts to keep populism at bay.

What liberals in the UK must first learn, however, is unity.  If there is a single issue that can be blamed for the failure of British liberals over the past three years, it is a lack of cohesion.  Labour were headed by a fundamentally fractious leader, defended to the death and beyond by a coterie who still continue to deny his glaring inadequacies as a politician, let alone as Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.  This meant that there was a permanent void at the head of the resistance, and instead a squabble of generals, bickering about what direction to march in and what artillery to use.  The next leader needs to be one who can both unite Labour, but more importantly, unite those opposed to the government.   

Should Labour choose a continuity candidate, or indeed, one too far to the centre of the party, this will prove that the party has learnt nothing. In particular, selecting Rebecca Long-Bailey will condemn Labour to utter irrelevance, as the left of the party continues on its fantasy of winning over the British population to a hard-left ideology, still pointing to their manifesto policies’ popularity as evidence that their socialism has legs.  This argument mistakes popularity with electability. In today’s straitened times, anything that promises to reduce the monthly credit card bill will be popular in isolation.  It doesn’t mean people are naive enough to think it practical to vote for it – or respect it.

Of the candidates, Keir Starmer seems the most likely to unify the party. His endorsement by Unite suggests that he can rely on the support of much of the left of the party, with any remaining Corbynistas reduced once more to sticking up plaques in parliamentary cupboards, rather having a voice on opposition policy. Couple this with his establishment credentials and his relatively moderate record within the party, and he could draw back the Blairite voters, and the liberal Conservatives who have been reduced to either wandering in the wilderness, or pointlessly ticking the box labelled Liberal Democrats.  

Without an effective Labour leader in the chamber uniting the opposition parties, the opening salvos of 2020 could merely be harbingers for what is to come. No longer are there many senior, moderate parliamentarians  in the chamber, particularly on the Conservative side of the House, with most either having been kicked out of the party and losing their election campaign, like Dominic Grieve, or retiring from Parliament, like Ken Clarke and Oliver Letwin.  This means there is no elder statesman for rebellions against the government to coalesce around, and creates the very real risk that the Conservative caucus will ape their counterparts in America, lying supine before their leader rather than holding him accountable, preferring an easy life over fulfilling their Burkean obligations.  

Beyond the Commons’ chamber, our other democratic institutions will have to step up to the plate.  The House of Lords, where there is no government majority, have already pointed to the lack of democratic oversight in the EU Withdrawal Bill, and seem unlikely to nod the bill through at the first time of asking.  Such resistance will have to persist, with their lordships making the government (and the Commons)  face up to the consequences of whatever right-wing fantasies Johnson may try to inflict on the country, even if it means forcing the prime minister to use the Parliament Acts to overleap the Lords. 

The courts, too, are likely to continue to face travails against the executive.  This government is more likely than one ever before to challenge the rights and principles that lay at the heart of our rule of law-based democracy, forcing the courts to decide how sovereign Parliament truly is.  The prorogation scandal of last August shows that the prime minister has little respect for the conventions that gird the British constitution, and the Supreme Court may have to to remind him again that there are some things too fundamental to change by executive fiat. Baroness Hale showed how the courts could delicately tread through such a quagmire, emerging with their reputation, and the constitution intact, but the true test will be if Lord Reed, who is instinctively a more deferential judge, can continue on such a path when he replaces Hale as president next week.  

The nature of our parliamentary democracy ultimately means, however, that it is the Opposition that must first get their house in order.  Whilst our democratic institutions may resist, their armoury is limited against the might of a majority government.  

Labour cannot rely on the rearguard actions of others to defend liberal democracy, but must lead from the front, uniting our institutions in defence of the UK’s liberal democracy.