If I said the word ‘populism’ to you, two more words might spring to mind: ‘Brexit’ and ‘Trump’. We’re constantly hearing about the rising tide of populism in the media, but what actually is it? And does it really matter?
The Brexit campaign, Trump’s campaign for the White House, Marine Le Pen and her National Front party. These are all motivated by populist ideologies but, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, so is Jeremy Corbyn’s Momentum. Simply, populism is a belief that the people, rather than a political elite, should control the governing of the state. But that is quite a broad statement. Donald Trump’s campaign could be considered populist due to his radical policies and the fact that he was different from other politicians (i.e. the opposite of the ‘safe choice’ of Hillary Clinton). Brexit was an opportunity for those dissatisfied by UK parties’ largely pro-immigration messages to express their views, a chance to rebel against the ‘tried and tested’ policies. And as for Corbyn, he has attracted supporters due to how he is thought of as a refreshing voice in a sea of MPs out of touch with normal people. While populism is usually associated with far-right parties, we’re also seeing a surge in far-left populists as well.
So let’s have a look at the events from the last year. Following Ed Miliband’s resignation as Labour leader, the party voted in Corbyn as leader (and did the same thing again this year). In a referendum on membership of the EU, the UK voted to leave – supposedly the more ‘risky’ option. A few weeks ago, Donald Trump surprised the world with victory in the US election. Today, the Italian public rejected Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s plans to change the constitution in a referendum. This was significant as he resigned as a result, leading to speculation over a possible early general election where the far-right Five Star Movement could triumph.
Today is just the beginning: next year Europe and the EU, face more tests due to elections in France (where Marine Le Pen’s National Front will likely become the second biggest party), Germany (where Angela Merkel is under pressure from the far-right) and Holland (where prominent Eurosceptic Geert Wilders may even win). Out of these three, Holland is the only nation that has a realistic chance of becoming governed by a populist party but even being the second-largest party gives radical ideas an awful lot of coverage. This week, Austria was on the verge of becoming the first country in Europe since World War 2 to be governed by a far-right leader. In the end, Norbert Hofer lost to the Greens (a relatively left-wing party).
You may think that this is a good thing, even if you don’t support a far-right or far-left party: It’s good that the political elite is being challenged, even if you don’t like the challengers. Populism has its pros and cons, but one thing is for sure – people are becoming fed up with the same parties and the same policies, and this rise is not going to go away. I know I’ve said that a Le Pen victory is very unlikely but so far this year we’ve already seen 2 huge political shocks – you know which ones I mean. Could the polls get it even more wrong next year? I don’t know if the EU could survive many more surprises…