A recent Guardian column asked 'What should Jeremy Corbyn's brand of leftwing populism look like?'. It is not clear that leftwing populism can be successful in the current political climate and even then, it would look nothing like Jeremy Corbyn.
Centre-left parties are in retreat across the developed world. Meanwhile parties and candidates of the Right, such as Donald Trump, have found electoral success by incorporating populism and nationalism into their platforms. This has led some commentators to the conclusion that voters of the left are yearning for a true socialist alternative to pervasive neo-liberalism. There is little evidence for this assertion.
Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece are held up as examples (note, the only ones) of the possibilities for leftist populism. The reasons such parties eventually fail, however, is because their policy platforms are based on discredited 1970s socialist policies, such as nationalization and government make-work schemes. Older citizens, who do not have fond memories of power cuts, public-sector strikes and double-digit inflation, are unsurprisingly unattracted to such policies. The longer voters have to study these parties the less popular they become. In the 2016 election, following the deadlocked 2015 Spanish general election, Podemos lost vote share.
Where populist-leftist parties do make it to power they hit the brick wall of economic reality. They are then forced to compromise, as Syriza has had to, disappointing their voters, or they press ahead regardless and face the dire economic consequences as in Venezuela.
Podemos and Syriza are both led by charismatic politicians in Pablo Iglesias and Alex Tsipras. If they are left-wing firebrands, then Jeremy Corbyn is a socialist damp squib. His is out-polled for the best British prime minister by 'don't know', the political equivalent of 'extras' being the highest-scoring batsman. He has demostrated no ability to be populist or popular.
When Corbyn was first elected leader of the Labour party, the author Martin Amis eviscerated him as 'incurious', 'humourless' and 'without the slightest grasp of the national character'. This description has rapidly moved in popular perception from harsh, to fair, to restrained. Two policy positions demonstrate how Corbyn has no hope of being popular or populist. On the issue of the UK leaving the European Union, Corbyn has managed to contort himself into a position of favouring leaving the single market whilst maintaining free movement of labour. As for Trident, the UK's submarine-delivered nuclear deterrent, he has stated he would never use that deterrent and has instead suggested building the expensive subs and sending them out unarmed! On each policy Corbyn has managed to find the smallest segment of the electoral Venn diagram.
Could replacing Corbyn with a more charismatic leader help the Labour Party's fortunes? In the short-run, possibly. However, the larger point is that most current forms of leftwing populism are not the answer to society's problems, although for the Labour party the combination of Corbyn and a far-left platform is particularly toxic. Indeed, Martin Amis touched on the problem for leftwing populism in his criticism of Corbyn when he described his ideas as 'pallidly third-hand' and possessing the 'demerits - the encysted dogmas - of the old left'. These descriptions could be equally applied to all so-called populist parties of the left.
If not leftwing populism, then what? The answer is a combination of populist-liberalism and muscular centrism. My book, The Holistic Manifesto lays out a potential policy platform along these lines, and Justin Trudeau's Liberal party in Canada shows the possibilities for political and policy success with such an agenda.Suggest a correction