Socialist Worker

Populism and chasing votes

Issue No. 1701

Populism and chasing votes

WILLIAM Hague has a conscious political strategy to rebuild his party's fortunes. When he first took over he tried to gain votes by appearing "liberal" and as a "man of the people". He famously appeared at the Notting Hill Carnival and went on theme park rides with his baseball cap. When that did not work, Hague seized on right wing issues. Much press comment has dubbed Hague's package of policies "populist".

Tory shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe accepts the label and claims it is just that the Tories' policies are popular. In fact the Tories are still deeply unpopular. And while Hague's speeches have clearly won significant support on some issues, on few of them do the Tories have majority support in society.

Populism is a long established method based on taking up a hotch-potch of issues and themes, and presenting them as linked to an underlying set of values. Usually this is done in a way designed to appeal to the worst prejudices of sections of the population. Occasionally it involves playing on the genuine and well founded feelings of ordinary people.

Populism means blending these themes together to build support by pulling together diverse and conflicting groups in society. Hague hopes to build such a base of support around his talk of "common sense". Hague wants to build political support around his "Keep the Pound", anti-refugee, bigoted, little England rhetoric.

He hopes to appeal to bosses, the middle classes and ordinary people who in reality have bitterly opposed interests. Margaret Thatcher consciously used such populism during her years as Tory leader. She too wrapped herself in nationalist rhetoric, talking of Britain being "swamped" by foreigners and people with "alien values". She too railed against the lack of discipline in schools and pretended to be the friend of ordinary "decent" families.

She claimed to be against the "elite" who dominated Britain. The reality was different. During her years money became ever more concentrated in fewer hands. Big business and the wealthy elite grabbed more influence. Nor was her "populism" popular. Thatcher never won a majority of people in any election. And on issue after issue the majority of people rejected her stance.

Populism has been used across the world, most often by right wing politicians seeking to build up a base of support. In the late 1960s and 1970s the US politician Spiro Agnew, who became vice-president to president Richard Nixon, used the same kind of rhetoric as William Hague today.

He attacked "the effete corps of impudent snobs" and the "pointy heads" (intellectuals) who he claimed were behind opposition to the Vietnam War and to blame for the ills of society. For a man whose party was financed by big business and was based on defending wealth and its power this was an astonishing claim. Yet it managed to rally the core support of the Republican Party behind him and Nixon.

Agnew's career, however, came to an abrupt end shortly after. He was caught fiddling taxes and taking bribes. Populism is not always so straightforwardly right wing. One example of a different variety is the Argentinean ruler Juan Peron in the 1940s and 50s, and his famous wife, Evita. Peron was a dictator and worked to build up the strength of Argentina's business class.

Yet he built his base in a populist fashion by welding together a range of themes. These included the classic populist themes of nationalism and family values (linked to religion in Catholic Argentina). But it also involved taking up the grievances of the poor and the working class, and delivering some real reforms to weld them to his project and ideology.

Populism always has a limited shelf life, precisely because it seeks to reconcile groups with conflicting interests behind its programme. Whether populist politicians can get away with their methods for any length of time depends on the kind of opposition they face. The failure of those opposed to them to take up the concerns of people and deliver real change can allow the populists to prosper. The danger today with William Hague's populist offensive is that New Labour's mirroring of his rhetoric and many of his policies can allow him to revitalise the Tories' fortunes.

A striking example is Section 28 in Scotland. The Tories took up the defence of anti-gay legislation in a totally bigoted way. Labour failed to respond strongly and the minister in charge, Wendy Alexander, was left isolated.

This gave more confidence to right wing forces. Hague's attacks make the urgency of building a left alternative to New Labour all the more pressing.


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Sat 17 Jun 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1701
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