Dismissive centrists are making it way too easy for populists to win

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

Keir Starmer, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, told POLITICO’s Power Play podcast last week that he has talked with former United States President Barack Obama several times. “He’s an acute observer of British politics,” Starmer said.

“I think it is always useful to test my ideas on people who’ve won elections,” he added.

Indeed, during his time in office, Obama was popular in the United Kingdom. And even years after leaving the White House, the former president enjoyed high favorability ratings in Britain, where a 2019 YouGov poll ranked him Britain’s seventh most popular foreign politician.

But for all his popularity and political smarts, Obama couldn’t help then-Prime Minister David Cameron to stave off Brexit — despite an unreserved and possibly ill-advised public intervention in the weeks leading up to the referendum. He underestimated the populist rage that propelled Britain out of the EU — much like many mainstream politicians on the other side of the Atlantic failed to understand that the jolts taking place under their feet throughout 2016 were forewarnings of the political earthquake to come. 

And now in Europe, signs are mounting that another seismic shift may be in the offing, and this gathering populist storm is one that centrist and establishment politicians have only started taking seriously far too belatedly.

In the immediate aftermath of Brexit and former U.S. President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, many questioned how either could have happened. Both were dismissed by many as inconceivable, as centrist politicians on the left and right had faith the world couldn’t be turned upside down so abruptly, that the familiar couldn’t become so very unfamiliar.

But in large part, both events were howls of protest from those left behind; those who felt overlooked and excluded from the benefits of globalization, and rightly bridled at the dismissiveness of largely well-heeled metropolitan politicians, who broadly subscribed to an implacable technocratic consensus, despite some partisan differences.

And now we can add those who are falling behind quickly, or worry they soon will be, to those angry left-behinds, buffeted as they have been, and continue to be, by soaring household energy costs, high inflation making groceries ever more difficult to afford, and wages that are just not keeping up. And all this comes on top of the societal trauma of the coronavirus pandemic with restrictions and lockdowns, again generally dictated by an incontestable technocratic consensus that, in hindsight, got some things badly wrong, compounding suffering and economic harm.

In Germany, the last few months have seen a remorseless rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany party, which is picking up increased support not just in its traditional eastern redoubts but also in the west, making it the country’s second-most popular party.

Meanwhile, the Flemish nationalist Vlaams Belang remains far ahead of any of its political rivals in Flanders. In Slovakia, former Prime Minister Robert Fico’s left-wing populist Smer party leads the polls in advance of this weekend’s parliamentary vote. And despite a scandalous past, the far-right Freedom Party is now the leading political force in Austria, raising the prospect that it could one day lead the nation.

In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party also remains in the lead ahead of next month’s general election, and it may well end up forming a new government with the assistance of the far-right Confederation — a party that offers a libertarian vision of a low-tax future, but whose luminaries have a history of antisemitism, bigotry and misogyny.

Jarosław Kaczyński, the long-time leader of Poland’s Law and Justice party | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

And, of course, the electoral breakthrough for conservative nationalists on the Continent came last year in Italy, with an emphatic win by a Giorgia Meloni-led right-wing coalition — a victory that unbuckled the country’s “red belt,” formerly the most reliably left-leaning regions of central Italy.

Only in Britain does the center-left Labour Party seem likely to weather the coming tempest. But Britain is an outlier in the general direction of European travel, thanks largely to the longevity of Conservative rule and the soap-opera hash the party has made of virtually everything it has touched.

So, why this swing to the populist and conservative nationalist right?

Centrists have been all too quick to accuse populists of weaponizing issues like the climate transition, immigration, cultural disorientation, identity anxieties and the cost-of-living squeeze. They point to disinformation and demagogic manipulation, talking almost as though the here-and-now challenges and fears faced by ordinary families are either made up or overblown, overlooking the widening gap between everyday concerns on the one hand, and centrist politics and cross-party consensus on the other.

When Starmer spoke to POLITICO, it was on the margins of the Global Progress Action Summit in Montreal — a gathering of center-left politicians, among them more than a dozen current and former national leaders. And while there, several cited the Third Way politics shaped by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former U.S. President Bill Clinton a quarter of a century ago, talking up the prospects of another “progressive moment.”

But as they discussed how to turn climate change, immigration and an active industrial policy into votes, there wasn’t much unfeigned self-criticism to be heard, and there was only marginal discussion of the yawning gap between their parties and huge swathes of voters — even their own traditional supporters. There was also little evidence of a serious shaping of a third way.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Blair was also present in Montreal, but he has actually been cautioning about this growing disconnect since Brexit and Trump’s election. Back in 2017, he said: “The sensible thing for politicians at the moment is to be working out how do we stay by people’s side,” and he warned that “groups of voters” see threats and not opportunities, and that they are “worried culturally as well about the changing nature of their society, and worried economically.”

More recently, his institute has also been raising the alarm about a menacing disconnect when it comes to net zero or, more precisely, the speed of getting there, the costs involved and the additional expenses struggling households will have piled on them. Populists are in a good position to exploit this mounting backlash, as opinion polls show an overwhelming majority believe climate change is a serious problem and support green policies to tackle it, but their support falls once these policies come into force and people start experiencing their additional burdens, or can see they will soon.

The institute advised that if the public is going to be taken along, green policies need to address the highest emissions areas, make costs manageable and demonstrate tangible benefits for individuals as well as society, arguing that governments should “introduce incentives for green choices, including feed-in tariffs or scrappage schemes for cars and gas boilers.” “A positive demand-led transition rather than one delivered through bans and financial penalties will have a better chance of being accepted by the public,” it said.

But centrist governments have been reacting too slowly, and though they aren’t abandoning net zero, they are now starting to rethink their plans of how to get there. (Why they didn’t take a hint from French President Emmanuel Macron’s ill-fated 2018 bid to increase taxes on fuel and the resultant Yellow Jacket uproar remains a mystery.)

And this scrambling, piecemeal rollback of plans — including, in some instances, delaying the phaseout of fossil fuel boilers or, in Britain’s case, also introducing a five-year delay on the sales ban of new petrol and diesel cars — smacks of panic and seems as ill-thought-out and disjointed as the original schemes were overburdensome and badly judged in their ferocity.

And that hardly inspires confidence or communicates steadiness — rather it conveys an opportunism the center accuses the populists of displaying.