From the Ashes of Left Populism

Coll McCail reviews The Populist Moment by Arthur Borriello and Anton Jäger (2023, Verso Books)

“My own Party, in a previous incarnation, had a degree of populism in it coming from the left,” said David Lammy, “I worry about that.” The Shadow Foreign Secretary aired his concern during an interview with Lewis Goodall this September. Earlier that morning, Lammy held a breakfast meeting with George W. Bush’s Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.

Few encounters better illustrate the contrast between today’s Labour Party leadership and its “previous incarnation”. In a past life, Jeremy Corbyn’s “populist” leadership opted to neglect the counsel of war criminals. But that was then and this is now. Corbyn and 125,000 members are out of the Labour Party. The technocrats are in, eager to comply with capital’s ‘fiscal rules’.


In the short term, the left in Labour must now wait to see how hawkishly Starmer will behave, and how completely they take their economic policies from businesses and banks. Longer term, any prospect of restoring left policies and principles in Labour depends on new political strategy. In searching for a left strategy to resist the Starmer-induced malaise, interrogating the rise, fall and legacy of the leadership he replaced is imperative. Arthur Borriello and Anton Jäger’s latest contribution to this discussion, The Populist Moment: The Left After the Great Recession, charts the arch of five left populist projects that emerged in the last decade. In Greece, Syriza took power. Podemos shook up Spanish politics and eventually entered government. Bernie Sanders took socialism to the masses in the US. Jean-Luc Mélenchon almost entered the French Presidential run-off. Against this backdrop, Jeremy Corbyn seized the Labour leadership in 2015.

Populism erupts, argue the authors, amidst a ‘crisis of representation’. In the aftermath of 2008, swathes of society rejected a politics that bailed out the banks, privatising profit and socialising their losses. Young people bore the brunt of rentier capitalism, burdened with debt and employed in precarious work. A threat to their living standards forced dissent among the “squeezed middle” class. What was left of the industrial working class objected too, although it never sat comfortably within this new cross-class alignment.

Left-populism mobilised those alienated by social democracy’s concession to capital. The driving force of left politics changed from ‘the working class’ to ‘the people’. “We are the 99%,” cried Occupy Wall Street. All of a sudden alliances were broader. In Britain, the resulting mass engagement was one of Corbynism’s greatest strengths. However, it was a gamble. “Corbyn ultimately failed to bridge the gap between a metropolitan middle class… and a post-industrial working class”, write Borriello and Jäger. Populism bred shallow politics unable to unite these disparate interests. Corbynism, like other projects of its time, was a “product of the void”. These insurgent, often unplanned reactions to a global austerity agenda did not have sufficient time for the development of politics or raising of consciousness.

The complex social content of their coalitions was one of two major dilemmas faced by the left-populist projects, suggest Borriello and Jäger. The second was their new organisational form. Jeremy Corbyn inherited the machinery of a mass, social democratic party, but as we know, it was never really on his side. Left-wing organisations were founded to redress this factional imbalance in Labour’s bureaucracy. Successful deployment of digital media saw Momentum, for example, quickly attract thousands of members to become the largest socialist organisaton on these islands. While vital to preserving Corbyn’s leadership at critical junctures, these campaigns were ultimately victims of their own success. Unable to replace the networks of traditional social democratic parties, Borriello and Jäger argue that “clicktivism” – activists could simply “click their way in and out” of organisations – contribued to populism’s transience.

Discipline was in short supply among those politicised during the ‘populist moment’. In the case of Corbyn, “these fair-weather friends remained far more committed to the EU than to socialism.” There was not the time or the appetite to build class politics amongst those freshly brought into the fold. How could there be? After all, Brexit illustrated how difficult it was to marry the divergent elements of Labour’s coalition. For Borriello and Jäger, then, opulism is the form that progressive politics takes “in times of (relative) disorganisation.”

Now we’re entering a new political chapter. Across Europe and the US, the flame of left populism is waning, if not extinguished entirely. In Britain, the likes of David Lammy have their hearts set on locking out the left. In a further display of Corbynism’s transience, so far they have succeeded. On the verge of Government, the Labour leadership readily accepted the framing of Britain’s ruling class by offering only a ‘better-managed’ decline.

As things stand, Keir Starmer will stroll into Downing Street carrying the votes of a disengaged, nenthused public that is convinced that a radical break with the economic orthodoxy is impossible. Yet the conditions are similar to those under which the left took charge of Labour. For Borriello and Jäger, this is evidence that “without waging a war of position to consolidate the gains of the digital vanguard, left populism will be remembered as little more than a wasted opportunity.” Since “very few people are involved in the kind of organised conflict” that established the sides of 20th-century politics, the task of the left must be to develop and enhance the politics of those mobilised by the ‘populist moment’. Only then may the transitory clientelism that has captured mainstream politics be challenged once more.