If the annual meeting of the International Institute of Finance had piqued the level of interest it deserved among anti-establishment campaigners, there might have been a ripple of applause across social media this weekend. Addressing his colleagues in the much anathematised banking industry, Bill Winters, CEO of Standard Chartered, conceded to his Washington audience, ‘I look at her prescriptions, and for the global elite—that’s us—they are extremely painful.’
He was referring, of course, to one of the main thrusts of Theresa May’s speech at the Tory party conference last week. Some commentators are viewing with stubborn cynicism the sincerity of her commitment to the issues preoccupying the wider electorate; the elites in her crosshairs, however, are not.
Mere months ago, Mrs May campaigned for Remain, and had no established record as a champion for social equality. Now she’s committed to a full exit from the single market, and to prosecuting constraints over the malefactors of corporate greed.
Is this just the regular eye-rolling, flip-flopping of political expediency?
I’m not so sure. The establishment—traditionally the principal target of the left—is actually on the ropes – a point seemingly absent from the left’s commentary in its anxiety to protest the populist right. It’s not just Brexit, and it’s not just Trump. It’s Marine le Pen’s Front National; Geert Wilder’s Party of Freedom; it’s the Swiss People’s Party, Hungary’s neo-fascists, the Austrian Freedom Party, and Italy’s Northern League. And it’s not just societies with widespread educational or welfare deficits, either: the wave has seen the populist far-right Swedish Democrats topping opinion polls; the similarly aligned Danish People’s Party scored second in last year’s elections. These are states with cradle-to-grave welfare systems.
Mrs May has resolved to wrest the electorate away from populist discourses, and back into the political centre. She’s staking her (unelected) premiership on such. And, looking left to Labour, and right to UKIP, she’s beginning to look like the only competent political force in the room.
What’s important to digest for the gentler-spirited left—including the Corbynistas on University campuses, and the middle-aged, middle class Trotskyites like me—is the awkward reality of ‘people power’. The populist movements founded in a generosity of spirit are still minority movements: under Corbyn’s leadership, Labour has been flirting with the largest polling deficit it’s ever scored whilst in opposition.
The populist issues that unite electoral majorities are, almost without exception, those based on intolerance. Anyone passionately committed to the values of tolerance and community that they see represented by Corbyn has a lesson to learn from May: if the majority will not engage with you on your terms, you must go and engage them on theirs. A relationship between as few as two people takes compromise; a relationship between a party and 45 million voters takes even more compromise.
That, for Labour, has to mean the centre ground.