There is a fascinating study that published by VoxEU this past week, which looks at the long-term economic and constitutional consequences of populist spells in government. They find that countries with a populist government ‘witness a substantial decline in real GDP per capita’ and an ‘erosion of democratic institutions’. What makes this finding even more worrying is that ‘populism is a persistent phenomenon’: one of the best predictors of a having a populist government is having had one in the past.
To some extent, the UK is insulated from populist forces by its electoral system. In 2015 UKIP gained 12.6% of the vote but won just one seat, while the DUP won just 0.6% of the vote (or one vote for every 21 UKIP won) but ended up with eight seats. But as PR has crept across the UK, relying on electoral systems to keep populists down isn’t a very satisfying solution.
Instead, we should stop talking about populist parties like they are some exotic ‘other’, alien to liberal democracy, and instead recognise what Cas Mudde argued in 2010 — that populist parties are just like any other party, in that they are responding to voter demands. People who hold more populist values are more likely to vote for a populist party, just like how people who have Left-wing values are more likely to vote for a Left-wing party.
So if populist parties are a normal part of electoral politics, what can other parties do to keep them out of power? Copying their rhetoric or trying to out-populist the populists will only serve to legitimise their approach and their policy. Moreover, the mainstream party will seem inauthentic and it could drive their own voters away (remember Ed Miliband’s infamous migration mug?).
The real challenge for mainstream parties is to identify and address the issues populist parties base their support on, and do so in an authentic, credible and realistic way. We might not have had UKIP, and Brexit, for instance, if New Labour had spent more time explaining why they thought inward migration was actually a good thing, or had listened to their white working class base as it slowly drifted away to other parties. Similarly, if pro-EU Conservatives had effectively explained the perceived benefits of the EU, rather than letting their party use it as a convenient scapegoat when it suited them, public opinion might have shifted.
There are, of course, some issues with the study in VoxEU. Populism is a thin-centred ideology, and it typically requires a host ideology to attach itself to. This means actors across the political spectrum can be classed as populist. For example, Mussolini, Berlusconi, and the Five Star Movement are all classed as populist in the study. Similarly, in the UK, UKIP/Brexit Party and RESPECT would all be classified under the same banner; in Spain, Vox on the Right and Podemos on the Left would be too.
But all this means is that political parties have to be flexible in recognising populist challenges from across the political spectrum, and in offering their own solutions to the problems they identify. Otherwise populists are going to find it easier to enter government, with all the downsides that might entail.