The recent rise of UKIP’s Nigel Farage and TV’s Donald Trump to becoming two of the most important people in modern politics is an issue for many people, including most of those they claim to represent. While their rise is nothing new, merely a more prominent resurgence of ideas previously espoused in the mainstream by the BNP and the Republican’s ‘Tea Party’ faction, their positioning as “anti-establishment” power figures has created problems for the left of politics, and for the general population. The rise of these groups can, predominantly, be put down to austerity politics. Scathing cuts and dropping standards of living leave many seething at the political elite, leaving room for someone to come along with simple solutions and snatch up votes from the mainstream candidates. There are deep-rooted issues with these simple solutions though. The first being that they often serve to benefit a different elite; both UKIP and Trump’s tax plans heavily favour the top earners, for example. The second issue is that these solutions generally involve the victimisation of an ‘other’. For the right, this has generally been non-white, non-native people or non-traditional or non-conservative ideas of family and sexuality. For the left, who have traditionally been the protectors of the working classes and are becoming the protectors of women, LGBTQ+, and minorities, this is an issue. Firstly, as they’re are losing the core working class vote, secondly, as these right-wing populists winning arguments and power, it legitimises everything they say and enthuses the extreme, radical right-wing groups to act on these views.
The rise of these figures stems from legitimate fears. The loss of jobs in labour intensive industries such as manufacturing due to outsourcing and cheap imports puts thousands of jobs at risk. The Tata Steel plant in Port Talbot and most of Detroit’s automotive industry are proof of this. And it is in areas like this that these new forces of the far right prosper. Many of the areas that voted leave were Labour heartlands in the north, areas seemingly forgotten by governments over the past two and half decades. Similarly, Trump focused his campaigning on states that had predominantly voted Democrat in the past but were being hit hard by similar outsourcing or cutbacks to their local industries. All but one, Illinois, of America’s top 5 coal producing states voted for Trump, as did all the top 5 manufacturing states as of 2013. These were areas hit hardest by the global financial crisis of 2008, and the policies of austerity that have followed, in the UK at least. This has allowed space for an anti-establishment politics driven by fear to arise. When money is being drained from communities, the promise of new jobs and funds alongside the idea of bringing back power to the people and restoring a nation to some far off golden age hold hope for many. Brexit was driven by a want to take power and control back from Europe, and to show the government that these places disagreed with many of its policies, a similar message was echoed by many Trump voters.
To argue that the left has done nothing to quell these fears would be naïve. Ed Miliband presented an economic plan with much shallower cuts and Jeremy Corbyn is an incredibly anti-austerity, anti-establishment politician. Barack Obama’s job creation rates have only been beaten by Bill Clinton’s efforts in the past 35 years, and the various stimulus packages pumped hundreds of billions of dollars into the economy. So, what is it that the Right wing are offering that the left currently lacks?
The first thing that the populist right offer is simple solutions to complex issues, allowing them a broad appeal thanks to easy to understand solutions. Again, both the Vote Leave campaign and Trump provide us with prime examples of this in action. The leave campaign made big promises on two issues; immigration and the NHS. They promised that by leaving the EU, we could regain control of our borders and abandon the free movement of labour that is tied up with membership of the European Economic Area, and that an extra £350 Million a week could be spent on the NHS, as the big red bus told us. But neither of these solutions has been as simple as initially promised. Big trading partners, such as India, have warned that tightening immigration laws could put any new trade deals in jeopardy. The money promised for the NHS has been spread around to various areas of the economy in new plans, leaving the high spending promised another broken promise in the history of these far-right ideologies. Trump also committed several U-turns on promises when faced with political realities. The wall he spoke so much about, often to enthuse bored crowds, is likely to be a fence for vast swathes, much like the fence already in place along parts of the America-Mexico border, while he also admitted many of his policies were just ‘flexible suggestions’. This lack of any grasp of reality allows right wingers to suggest these over-simplified solutions and not have to reverse them until they already hold the power they crave.
The other thing these populist candidates use is the idea of an ‘other’, some group that they can scapegoat and blame for problems, and hence punish with their solutions. Both Trump and Vote Leave used immigrants in their campaigns, but major players in both campaigns have been racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, and misogynistic. This is a major problem for the left as for them to protect these and other minority groups they need to be in power; but those in power are legitimising the groups that commit hate crimes and supporting them by legitimising their actions with both rhetoric and inaction. After the EU referendum, there was a 41% rise in hate crime in the UK, including two Polish people being attacked the day after a vigil for a Polish man being beaten to death in the street in Harlow. Trump’s America has been no better, abuse of minorities in public has become more prevalent, swastikas and white supremacist slogans have been plastered in public places, and violent attacks have risen. This threatens lives and lifestyles, things much more important than political ideologies, but without the left in power to defend these groups these attacks will continue so how can the left regain that power for the disillusioned and disenfranchised?
The Left has the mimic the two major proponents of right wing populism in a much more tolerant way; they need to take on the establishment and find their other. Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination provides us an excellent example of how achievable this is and how a coherent message and a strong ground campaign can see a relatively unknown independent senator become a genuine force in politics. Sanders combined his attacks on the establishment with his attack on his other, big banks. In this way, he managed to show himself as a candidate willing to make changes and take on a group towards whom there was already a general discontent. Banks provide us with just one example of a group the left could use to garner support from those discontented with the current economic situation. Multi-billion pound, taxpayer funded bank bailouts and predominantly publicly-owned banks making huge losses while paying top bosses excessive bonuses provides an excellent example of what Owen Jones dubbed “socialism for the rich”. Another group that the left could focus on an attack is corporate and private tax avoiders. Apple’s recent tax scandal in Ireland is one of many examples of this being an easy place to launch attacks. The thirteen billion Euros Apple and the Irish state colluded to avoid paying could have covered Ireland’s government spending on healthcare for a year. How can we justify cuts to public services while giant companies avoid paying their share into the public purse? It not just for politicians, but us at the front of political debate online and in public forums to raise these points and remind people that their fellow citizens are not the enemy, the establishment are.