Alarmed by Populism? It’s time to put your money where your mouth is

By James Patterson

This is an unashamed plug for a new political project, and an appeal for donations. Many think we now live in an age of extremes. Populists, of the left and the right, seem to be in ascendancy across the world. The White House is occupied by a man willing to do business with white nationalists. Britain has been plunged into the chaotic uncertainty of Brexit. This followed a sulphurous referendum campaign in which social and economic liberalism was represented as an establishment ploy. The British Labour Party has been subjected to a hostile takeover by the ultra-left. Jeremy Corbyn has been its Trojan horse. Elsewhere, unsavoury characters have enjoyed electoral success by flaunting their illiberalism. This is illustrated by recent election outcomes in Brazil and Italy.

Those opposed to reactionary populism seem to have been bested by events. Commentators, such as Owen Jones of the Guardian, sneeringly refer to them as ‘centrists’. They are said to have lost the war. They are often told to pick a side. There is a single explanation often given for the defeat of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election, the success of the Leave campaign in the UK and the Corbyn takeover of the British Labour Party. That is ‘centrists’ or ‘liberals’ failed to make a case that resonated with people. They hid behind bland, technocratic, managerialist language. Their positions lacked the visceral appeal of those espoused by Trump or Nigel Farage or Corbyn.

Social media is often cited as a factor in the ascendancy of populism. Twitter has not exactly proved conducive to reasoned debate. It is very easy for those with opinions to declare a trenchant position on any given topic. The format discourages discussion of nuances. Increasingly, those interested in politics or current affairs retreat into echo chambers. Interactions with those who have a different opinion are often rancorous and antagonistic.

Nora Mulready, a welfare rights worker and former Labour activist, has come up with a possible antidote, ‘the Unfinished Revolution Project’. This is a series of filmed conversations. Contributors will include politicians, academics and NGO professionals among others. They will discuss, at length, contentious topics such as estate regeneration, political Islamism and the #MeToo movement. Their opinions will often differ. However, the project is intended to explore these differences and also to find the common ground. Those opposed to populism need to decide what is they are for. The project may contribute to the intellectual renewal of the political centre. Please give generously.