It has become a truism to say populism is on the rise. Indeed, populism has become so ubiquitous in discussions of contemporary politics that the Guardian saw fit to declare it their 'word of the year' at the end of 2016. (1) From the perspective of British left politics, a number of commentators have argued that the reconfiguration of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership constitutes a 'populist turn', and that Corbyn's success can thus be contextualised within a broader turn to left-wing populism in Europe and the US.
In what follows, we interrogate the argument that Corbyn's Labour has taken a populist turn, and seek to draw out some broader implications of this discussion for how we understand contemporary radical politics more generally. After an initial summary of existing scholarship on populism, we suggest that the revitalisation of grassroots left politics under Corbyn's leadership should not be read as evidence of a populist turn. What is more, we cast doubt on the usefulness of 'populism' as a descriptor for recent forms of anti-establishment politics and suggest that academics, journalists and commentators should approach the term with more reflexivity and caution.
Jeremy Corbyn the populist?
Within the academic study of politics, 'populism' has become very much the mot du jour. A number of high profile political scientists have suggested that the rise of populism against mainstream liberal democracy has become one of the key features of contemporary politics. On the right, Trump, UKIP, Geert Wilders and Le Pen stand as exemplars, while from the left Podemos, Syriza and the now receding Latin American 'Pink Tide' have all been cited as instances of a global populist wave. (2)
Given that populism can, it seems, assert itself on either side of the political spectrum, it comes as little surprise that numerous commentators have sought to cast Corbynism as a populist politics. Julian Baggini in the Guardian even ventured to suggest that Corbyn's politics is 'populism in its purest form'. (3) His populism, he argued, is 'based on the absoluteness of the "democratic mandate" given by Labour members and supporters, which renders null and void any dissent from Labour's "elites" in Westminster or Brussels'. More recently, John Gray in the New Statesman, after noting that Corbyn's politics has 'more than a little in common' with Trumpism, asserted that distinctive to Corbyn's populism is that it is 'populism for the middle classes, serving the material and psychological needs of the relatively affluent and the well-heeled'. (4)
Framings of Corbyn as a 'populist', however, have not only come from his critics. In a post-election article for the Independent, left-wing academic Peter Bloom argued that Corbyn and his supporters have provided a vision of an inclusive populism: 'they have', Bloom noted, 'given traditionally marginalised groups such as young people, non-whites and the poor a renewed voice for shaping the country's present and future'. (5) This positive depiction of Corbyn as 'populist' from a left-wing perspective is given further credence by the revelation that Corbyn's team itself sought to 're-launch' Jeremy Corbyn as a left-wing populist in early 2017, a move which arguably paid dividends following Labour's better than expected performance in June.
But is it accurate to characterise Corbynism as populist, and what might be at stake in such a depiction? For us, this is not merely a question of semantics: whether Corbynism is populist or not has, we shall argue, important implications for how one understands the internal dynamics and broader political significance of the Labour Party's current incarnation.
What is populism?
To meaningfully evaluate characterisations of Corbyn as 'populist', we need to have a more precise sense of what we mean by this term. Although it has become a platitude to say that populism is a highly contested concept, it is incorrect to the extent that two schools of thought now dominate the discussion and, of late, their points of overlap have overshadowed their differences. That said, an emerging third approach, as we shall see, has the potential to disrupt this consensus. The first school of thought--popular in comparative politics--considers populism to be an ideology. This view is most famously defended by Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde, who casts populism as a 'thin-centred ideology', characterised by the belief that society is, fundamentally, divided into two antagonistic camps: the people and the elite. For Mudde, populist politics presents the people as morally pure and the elite as corrupt. For the populist, an effective politics is one that expresses and gives voice to the will of the (pure) people. (6) As a thin ideology, however, to become a fully-fledged politics, populism needs to attach itself to more established, thick ideologies such as nationalism or socialism, resulting in the emergence of right-wing populist nationalisms such as UKIP, or left-wing populisms in the mould of Podemos.
A rival school of thought, favoured among critical theorists, defines populism as a political logic, i.e. a particular way of constructing political relations. The key intellectual reference point here is the late Argentinian political theorist Ernesto Laclau, particularly his 2005 work On Populist Reason. (7) Laclau's work generally stresses the importance of discourse, i.e. the ways in which struggles over meaning are central to politics. In On Populist Reason Laclau argued that populism emerges from a crisis of representation in which the legitimacy of dominant parties and institutions is called into question. In response, populist politics...