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Populists Vs Progressives

18/09/2016 21:08 | Updated 6 days ago
Ed Freeman via Getty Images

What's the difference between a populist and a progressive?

Sounds like the beginning to a very bad joke.

A populist starts with the heart, a progressive with the head. A populist commands endearing loyalty that cannot always be rationalised, although people will try to do so - almost like faith based organisations. Progressives demand evaluation and outcomes.

A progressive, if they can break through the noise, will get the support of so-called valence voters, the ones who make a judgement based on common sense rather than ideological positioning. But when that feels a bit like hard work, the valence voters will take a short cut and will choose a leader who just looks as if they are competent.

(As an example of a valence voter, I know a former headteacher who says that she wouldn't vote for anyone who looks as if they couldn't organise a cake and sweet stall.)

The problem with progressives, however, is that they have a tendency to get so involved in the technocratic detail of policy making that they forget the need to inspire and lead. Policy wonks love to commission research and evaluation and bring together the evidence of what works, creating ten point plans of what needs to be done. But the idea of issuing a rallying cry for change that sparks a public debate can feel terrifying. Stay in the EU for the sake of our banks and the wider economy?

Populists, on the other hand, love the tub-thumping speech, and understand intuitively the issues of emotion and principle that will get people's attention and the causes that will command support. The problem with populists is that working out the policy detail feels boring by comparison. And - worse - the issues they identify may not be technically feasible to deliver. Leave the EU to get control of £350m to invest in the NHS?

For those of us on the centre-left, the dream ticket is to find a progressive thinker who is also a born communicator. Bill Clinton? Then a case for change can not only be made but also be implemented and - most crucially - it will work and achieve demonstrable outcomes.

A good first start is understanding where the public will give permission for action. There's no point using up political capital to argue for change if hearts cannot be won. Redistributive taxation is a good example: Gordon Brown managed to find popular support to raise national insurance contributions to pay for the NHS - despite national insurance supposedly being for social security, and a fairly regressive tax - but politicians approach the issue of housing taxation at their peril, whatever its technical merits. Banning smoking in public places came at the right time; banning fox hunting less so.

So while we may want our politicians to lead from the front, those who achieve the most change are often those that understand where the population has moved, and then claim the popularity that comes from following on behind with the necessary legislation.

The challenge for progressives is to seek the future-focused issues where the time for government action has now come. Get it wrong, and the territory will be ceded to the populists who play on more base emotions and achieve less - leaving the progressives on the sidelines looking like they are the ones who are the joke.

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