The Rise of the Outsiders by Steve Richards – how politicians brought populism on themselves
Following the surprise result of the general election, a discussion began regarding the failure of political journalists, pundits and pollsters to sense the shifting mood of the electorate. In some respects, this echoed the discussion about the economics profession following the banking crisis of 2008, but there were some key differences. Economists and regulators are expected to make accurate predictions, partly to protect us from catastrophic events. Despite the fun and games of predicting election results, it is silly to place the identical expectation on political analysts. Politics is by nature a deeply uncertain process.
What was less forgivable was the acute arrogance of some commentators, who dismissed Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters out of hand – they didn’t even bother to try to understand what might be emerging. For instance, Momentum, the group established following Corbyn’s election as Labour leader to coordinate his supporters at a grass-roots level, was often treated as a cult-like group of troublemakers. But following 8 June, it was clear that Momentum was a very effective canvassing operation, which drew on hard work and enthusiasm rather than the big money and machinelike messaging of their opponents. Pundits cannot know everything, but nor should they be so quick to belittle that which they have never encountered.
Steve Richards’s The Rise of the Outsiders was written just too late to reflect on all of this. The book’s most recent examples date to February, just after Donald Trump had settled into the Oval Office, and when a general election was barely a glint in Theresa May’s eye. It would be interesting to know how, if at all, the book’s central argument might have been tweaked, had it been completed four months later. I suspect very little, as Richards does not doubt the electoral appeal of “outsiders” such as Corbyn; indeed it is precisely the democratic successes of Trump, Brexit et al that motivate the book. The book nevertheless does invite questions about where politics take place and to what political journalists (such as Richards himself) should be paying attention.
The Rise of the Outsiders is unabashed about where its sympathies lie. The heroes are the “insiders” – albeit tragic heroes, seeing as they are ultimately undone by their own innate flaws, short-sightedness and circumstances that overwhelm them. Richards offers a broadly convincing narrative regarding the last 30 years of political change in Europe and the US. A consensus emerged surrounding the inevitability and partial desirability of globalisation, plus a need to escape the economic turbulence of the 1970s. Centre-left parties threw themselves into this consensus, desperate to be taken seriously as parties of government. Meanwhile, the rise of a more relentless and intrusive news media meant that politicians developed a somewhat paranoid relationship with their electorates.
The scramble in the 1990s for the centre ground meant that the differences between left and right diminished in the eyes of the public, something Richards believes could have been averted had politicians been more open about their values and goals. This created an opportunity for more distinctive political positions to be adopted by such people as Nigel Farage. Hesitancy regarding the role of the state set the stage for a financial free-for-all, resulting in the banking crisis. Both Labour and Conservatives failed to recognise the need for a more interventionist state, Richards argues. Again, outsiders exploited this, promising protectionism and higher state spending, across both left and right, as demonstrated by the platform of Marine Le Pen.
The scramble for the centre ground created a space for politicians such as Nigel Farage. Photograph: Patrick Seeger/EPA
Insiders became too neurotic about their media reputations and public sentiment. Contrary to the view that they are arrogant and unconcerned by public opinion, Richards believes they are oversensitive and shy of exercising real power. He claims that they showed undue deference to finance and the media, and chose to be less powerful than they could have been, leaving the door ajar to outsiders to force their way in. To put that another way, they brought populism on themselves. Regardless of events and alternatives, the same coterie of Blairites, Brownites, Clintonites and others remain the pivotal actors in this political drama.
Part of the purpose of this book is to counter the scorn that is heaped on mainstream politicians, and to demonstrate how difficult their job is. This is a valid and welcome intervention, and benefits from the years Richards spent as an insider of a sort himself. But he runs the risk of a different kind of anti-political worldview, the kind that pundits were roundly accused of after 8 June. While generally sympathetic to insiders (though always alive to their strategic mistakes), he seems deaf to the potentially pejorative connotations of that very term: how can it possibly be good for democracy to be the preserve of insiders?
Richards’s answer is that modern government is a complex, fiendishly difficult affair, that can only be responsibly handled by those with experience. He is contemptuous of the naivety and simplicity of the outsiders, whom he presents as opportunists cynically exploiting the anti-political mood of the electorate. The binary opposition between insiders and outsiders involves fitting a diverse bunch of movements and leaders into the latter category, from across the political spectrum and with varying socio-economic contexts.
This dismissive attitude comes across especially badly when extended to anti-austerity movements in southern Europe. Richards paints the rise of parties such as Syriza in Greece as a refusal to face facts, built around “rock star” politicians such as Yanis Varoufakis, who irresponsibly hurl criticism at Brussels technocrats. He fails to add that Greece is a nation that had its health budget cut by 40% due to austerity measures, saw youth unemployment hit 40% and the male suicide rate rise by 20% between 2007 and 2011. As he reminds us, Syriza did not succeed in releasing Greece from the grip of austerity, but to dismiss the mass yearning for an alternative as “impotent anger” suggests a miserably restricted view of democracy. It’s not clear why insiders are granted the benefit of the doubt, despite their recognised failings, whereas outsiders were deemed idiotic for hoping for a different politics in the first place.
Why are insiders granted the benefit of the doubt, whereas outsiders are idiotic to hope for a different politics?
It’s not that Richards’s empathy for centrist politicians should necessarily be counterbalanced by the equivalent treatment for outsiders – who, after all, could possibly get inside Trump’s head? But he displays a lack of curiosity as to how Westminster politics might look from a distance or why insiders might appear so self-interested and cliquey. The expenses scandal is touched on, but with little imagination as to how the moat-cleaning and duck-houses looked to most people; phone-hacking does not merit a mention. He drops in the astonishing throwaway remark: “Would Blair have supported the war in Iraq if Rupert Murdoch had been a passionate opponent? I doubt it.” It’s as if this type of elite allegiance is just how grown-up politics works.
Richards may well be right that only centrist parties have the experience and intelligence to alleviate the strains that globalisation are placing on developed economies today. Corbyn may win the next general election, then be horribly out of his depth as he discovers how frail modern political power actually is, and how difficult it is to deliver social change. But who knows? Many centrist politicians are striving to abandon their told-you-so professional ethos, in the face of events that nobody saw coming. Even some technocrats are trying to escape their bubble, as exemplified by Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, touring the country to speak to people about their economic lives.
Richards offers valuable insights into how awkward political power really is, from which Corbynistas and Ukippers could surely learn. But perhaps he could learn something from them too.
The Rise of the Outsiders: How Mainstream Politics Lost Its Way is published by Atlantic. To order a copy for £16.14 (RRP £18.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.