James Frayne: Populism is yet to sweep through Britain - despite what Tony Blair says

Written by James Frayne on 16 January 2017 in Opinion

Britain is not in the midst of a massive populist surge in the way that centrists politicians and commentators seem to think.

Populist politics in Britain is a minority pursuit. Its primary vehicle is UKIP, which is slowly morphing into a populist party of patriotism, traditionalism and economic policies designed for the “working-working class”. UKIP’s rise really began at the tail end of Tony Blair’s second term, when his Government’s aggressive pro-Europeanism, liberal immigration policies and lack of interest in the domestic political priorities of working class voters became too much for some.

As such, Tony Blair’s idea for a new organisation to combat the growth of populism is a joke: he is in part responsible for its rise and can have no role in combating it. It appears that his project will take a broader view than Britain alone, but given his misdiagnosis of the problem as he sees it in Britain, it seems unlikely he can be successful anywhere.

Britain is not in the midst of a massive populist surge in the way that Tony Blair and other centrist-minded politicians and commentators think. There is no denying the public voted to leave the EU in large part because of their concerns about immigration levels. But most did so because they worried about what continued high immigration levels meant for access to public services, housing and jobs. They did not vote on the basis of race and culture.

Vote Leave was no populist campaign. Led by politicians that not even Tony Blair would consider populist – like Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Gisela Stuart – they collectively talked about immigration in a responsible and sober way. And just a year before, Johnson and Gove had been key players in a moderate Conservative General Election campaign that secured a majority for a moderate Conservative Government led by a moderate Prime Minister.

What about Nigel Farage? While he has become the face of the leave vote since June, this reflects the reality of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson’s respective positions. Immediately after the referendum they looked set to lead a new Government after Cameron’s resignation. The breakdown in their relationship diminished both politically and Farage filled the vacuum. And yet while he played an important role in appealing to some voters, Farage was not the man that delivered the referendum victory.

This is not to write UKIP off. On the contrary, UKIP might well continue to grow and challenge for Westminster seats. But we need to see UKIP in their proper context: firstly, they are a minority party and will stay there; secondly, they are growing in working class areas where the Labour Party’s cultural shift left have lost longstanding voters. UKIP are a massive local challenge to Labour, not a major disrupter of the national political conversation and not a national challenge to the Conservative Party. This is how they must be seen by those that want to defeat them.  

As I indicated above, UKIP’s rise can be traced to the latter part of Tony Blair’s second term (2001-2005). Tony Blair swept into power in 1997 as a patriotic, mainstream English politician. While it might have been right to have used Europe as a weapon with which to beat the Conservatives – opening up endless internal divisions in the party – and while it might have been right to pursue more liberal immigration policies, it undoubtedly irritated a significant minority of the population. Furthermore, as Blair became more and more a global figure after 9/11, he was (not unreasonably) too distracted to deal seriously with the flatlining economies of the Midlands and North.

We are not talking about a national failure here – Tony Blair was once a very popular politician; we are talking about the creation of an irritated minority of voters. This is a group that is self-consciously patriotic, that holds traditional working class social views, that has seen little economic progress locally for decades and that has ensured a difficult economic downturn. This group has clearly grown as Labour have accelerated a cultural shift left. As UKIP’s leader Paul Nuttall accurately depicts, Labour now seem more interested in talking about climate change and the Middle East than the concerns of ordinary working class voters. That has a price.

In the long-term, it is possible that the Conservatives will start to appeal to these disaffected Labour voters. In voting UKIP, they are breaking their historic Labour-voting habit, and the Conservatives might ultimately benefit from that. In the short-term though, only a Labour recovery will stop the UKIP local surge.

What does all this mean for Tony Blair’s project? It is hard to see any useful role for him in Britain: there is no national populist upsurge; those that vote UKIP will never listen to him; he is now also widely disliked within the modern Labour Party, as unfair as that might be. Perhaps he might usefully focus attention on mainland Europe. But it seems unlikely that a pro-immigration, pro-market, pro-globalisation approach is what those voting for populist parties want to hear or would ever respond well to. It would be better for Tony Blair to remain very quietly on the sidelines. He had a great political career but it is over now.



Picture by: Jeff J Mitchell/PA Archive/PA Images


About the author

James Frayne is director of the communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, the go-to guide to consumer and citizen mobilisation. He was previously director of policy at Policy Exchange.

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