Last year was a vintage one for political anoraks. It brought us no fewer than 15 legislative elections in Europe, seven presidential elections, important state and municipal elections in countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, elections to the European Parliament and, of course, the ongoing Brexit saga here in Britain.
Throughout all of this, we learned a great deal about the current state of politics: that national populism has consolidated as a political force, that Green movements are gradually becoming more significant, that social democracy remains stuck in a state of crisis, that Europe’s political systems are continuing to fragment and that Brexit is now definitely going to happen.
Underneath all of this, we also learned some other things; that for millions of voters around the world feelings of cultural insecurity continue to matter as much as feelings of economic insecurity; that centre-Right parties such as Britain’s Conservatives or Austria’s People’s Party are starting to adapt far more effectively than Left-wing parties to this new political era; and that the Left still does not appear to have much of an answer to its fragmenting electorate.
Against this backdrop, then, what might 2020 have in store for us? Here are a few predictions to see us through.
First, starting here in Britain I predict that Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party will enjoy a lengthy honeymoon period. With the largest Conservative majority since 1987, Prime Minister Johnson will inevitably pass his Withdrawal Agreement Bill. Aside from formalising Brexit this will allow him to claim with credibility to have honoured the result of the 2016 Referendum, as well as his 2019 promise to “Get Brexit Done”. It will also leave Johnson as the only Conservative leader to have truly triumphed over the Europe question, an issue that dogged all of his predecessors.
This year will also allow us to see how Johnson and his party plan to hold together an electorate that looks and feels fundamentally different from that which elected David Cameron in 2010 and 2015.
Brexit has exposed our education apartheid
Johnson’s following is older, more working-class, less well educated, heavily white and more socially conservative. This is why I predict some big, bold offers on immigration reform, crime, spending on infrastructure and other investment for the (non-London) regions. Expect lots of pictures and speeches outside the capital.
With a big majority, I also predict that this generation of Conservatives will want to go much further than their predecessors in pushing back against a “soft Left” bias that runs across much of Britain’s education sector and media. There is no point in winning a battle over Brexit if your party is simultaneously losing the longer-term war over culture.
Meanwhile, Remain will inevitably drift into Re-Join. Not only will this be a harder movement to sustain but it will also be one that will soon run out of steam. Babyboomers will struggle to turn pro-Remain sentiment into a viable political project, especially when the much younger Generation Z are far more concerned about the issue of climate change. There will be a hardcore of diehard Remainers continuing to rally around podcasts and Twitter Land but this will be a fringe movement, nothing more. More Brits will identify openly as “European” but this will not translate into any significant political change.
Labour, which just sunk to its lowest number of seats since 1935, will struggle to regroup this year. Corbynism has been removed as one possible reply to the wider crisis facing social democracy in Europe, as well as to questions that are being asked in the United States about where next for the Democrats. Economic populism, it turns out, is not as popular as many people think. It will also lose every time when presented with a centre-Right leader who is willing to lean Left on the economy while leaning Right on culture and identity. That too contains a message for the United States as it begins to gear up for November.
How to understand the rise of national populism
Labour’s sudden rush into a leadership debate, the lack of any serious self-reflection on its defeat, the unimpressive opening statements of the leadership contenders and the deeper structural problems within its electorate all point to a long and slow walk through the wilderness rather than a quick recovery. Local elections in the spring of 2020 will likely add to this challenging year.
Look ahead at 2020, and when it comes to populism all eyes will be on the United States where I think, on balance, that Donald Trump will probably be re-elected.
There is certainly a lot running against the incumbent. His path to winning the electoral college remains narrow and his approval ratings are weak, especially when seen in historical perspective. In fact, his ratings are the lowest in any election year since Gerald Ford in 1976 (who went on to lose to Jimmy Carter).
But there is also a lot going for Trump, too. Among his core groups of voters — evangelicals, committed Republicans and the working class — his ratings are far stronger. And the Democrats have, at least in my view, so far shown little understanding about why Trump was elected in the first place or what they might say to win back key chunks of his electorate. Mobilising minorities and committed leftist activists will not be enough.
Then comes the narrative; Trump actually has a lot to say to voters. You might not like what he has to say but on the American economy, standing up to China, working to defend national borders and clamping down on terrorism and gang violence he does have a story to tell. What, in contrast, is the Democrat narrative? I’m not really sure. On top of this, we knew that Trump had a lot of negatives in 2015 and he still won.
Can the Tories cling on to the Red Wall?
Europe’s national populists will continue their current success after their best year yet, when this disruptive political family went on to win its largest number of seats in the European Parliament. In Britain over 2019, Nigel Farage continued to pile pressure on the main parties via the Brexit Party, whose call for an Australian-based immigration points system and more work on tackling regional inequalities would later be adopted by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.
Elsewhere, new parties broke through; Forum for Democracy at municipal elections in the Netherlands and, more significantly, Vox at national elections in Spain. While In Italy, Matteo Salvini and the Lega lost power but won a record number of seats in the European Parliament and continue to enjoy healthy leads in the polls. Flemish Interest in Belgium won a new record share of the vote while the Alternative for Germany advanced at state elections in Saxony, Brandenburg and Thuringia. In Poland, Law and Justice won their largest share of the vote on record.
Rather than weakening, national populism has consolidated and, as we head into a new decade, looks set to remain as a permanent force on the landscape, particularly as Europe’s political systems continue to fragment.
One final thing to watch out for in 2020 are the shifting political alliances. Boris Johnson is interesting because of the way in which he is seeking to usher in or revive a different brand of conservatism, which has seen his party forge an alliance-of-sorts with the left-behind working class — but this is not the only new alliance to keep eyes on.
At the recent election in Austria, the Greens enjoyed their strongest ever result but then proceeded to join a coalition government with the centre-Right People’s Party. And, interestingly, while they have introduced new environment taxes, the Greens have also signed up to some pretty hardline positions on immigration and integration; supporting measures to crack down on illegal migration, to curb “political Islam”, including the banning of headscarves for under-14-year-olds, and introducing preventative custody for individuals who are considered a risk to security but have committed no crime.
All of this is a reminder of the fact that, just because Green movements are doing a little bit better than in the past, that does not necessarily signal the return of a nice, fluffy brand of social liberalism. On the contrary, on the all-important questions about identity and culture much of Europe continues to drift further to the right, in response not only to national populism but also to the public mood. I see few reasons why that will change in 2020.