The year left populism died

From Syriza to Corbyn, the left has capitulated to the establishment.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater
Deputy Editor


The defeat of Corbynism at the General Election was more than a defeat for the Labour Party and the clique that had most recently taken it over. It was also another crushing defeat for left populism, a political project that has spectacularly failed to seize the post-2008 moment.

Populism continued to shape European politics this year. During the European elections, right-wing populists topped the polls in France and Italy. In Britain, Brexit has transformed the political landscape, with the refashioned Tory Party becoming its primary beneficiary.

Meanwhile, left-wing populism has all but been snuffed out. This year, left-populist experiments have suffered a number of humiliating defeats, others have stagnated, and others have sold out to the political establishment, betraying everything they once claimed to believe in.

It’s almost quaint now to think that, in the wake of the financial crisis, left populism was talked up as a new and transformative force in European politics. In particular anti-austerity parties like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece were said to herald a new era.

‘There has been much talk in recent years of the challenge posed by the far-right populist movements’, read an article in the Observer, just before Syriza took power in Greece in 2015. ‘But it is the hard left that is poised to make the breakthrough.’

Syriza’s shock election victory that year, on a ticket to end the brutal austerity meted out to Greece by the Troika of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission, led academics to wonder out loud about the possibility of a ‘pan-European left-populist movement’.

Political theorists Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau provided its intellectual ballast. In her 2018 book, For a Left Populism, Mouffe called for a left movement that would pit the people against the oligarchy to the end of radicalising democracy.

But many left populists have now been absorbed into the establishment. In 2015, Syriza put the latest Troika bailout package to a referendum. The people rejected it resoundingly, but Syriza went on to implement even harsher conditions than the ones voters rejected.

This year Syriza was ousted from government by the centre-right New Democracy, which had backed the bailout in 2015. As former Syriza MP Costas Lapavitsas has put it, his old party is now destined to become Greece’s centre-left establishment party.

Meanwhile, Podemos (now Unidas Podemos) is in bed with the establishment Spanish Socialist Party, after becoming a very junior coalition partner in November. It took just 35 seats at the last election, down seven from the previous election, and down 34 from its peak in 2015.

The story is similar in Italy. Though it is ideologically thin, and less rooted in traditional left-wing politics than the likes of Podemos, the Five Star Movement emerged in 2009 as a leftish anti-EU movement. In 2018, it took power as the biggest party in a coalition with the right-populist Lega.

But Five Star was soon eclipsed by the Lega, as party leader Matteo Salvini’s popularity soared. As the government battled with the EU over its budget, Five Star tried to take on the role of ‘sensible’ partner, further alienating its populist Eurosceptic base.

In July, Five Star backed the confirmation of the new European Commission president, and Salvini called for a snap election, which he would have in all likelihood won. But Five Star simply formed a new coalition with the Democratic Party, the centre-left former ruling party it had spent years railing against.

Wherever the populist sentiment was this year, left-wingers have failed to steer it. France continued to be roiled by the gilets jaunes protests. But the overtures of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and his left-populist La France Insoumise party, fell on deaf ears.

The disjoint between the populist masses and alleged left populists was perhaps most stark here in Britain – where, despite his myriad compromises with the Labour Party establishment, Jeremy Corbyn was still being held up by some as left populism’s great hope.

But by backing a second referendum, Corbynism signed its own death warrant – for not only did this close off any viable path to electoral victory, but remaining in the EU (which Labour was effectively advocating) would also have made Corbyn’s programme impossible to implement.

Herein lies one of the fatal flaws of the left-populist project: its inability properly to take on the anti-democratic elites in Brussels. Agitation with the EU is one of the threads connecting populist revolts across Europe, but the left has never seized that spirit effectively.

And while a more soft Euroscepticism is perhaps an understandable strategy in Eurozone countries where even the populist right is wary of the consequences of exiting the EU, it is frankly unforgivable in ‘half-in’ Britain, not least because there has already been a mass democratic vote to leave.

As this decade closes, the populist spirit has become dominated by the right, from the centre-right in Britain to the radical right in Italy. But it didn’t have to be this way. Agitation with the status quo cuts across old party and class lines. The moment was up for the shaping.

You might say that the prevailing concerns about security, terrorism, and a wave of mass immigration imposed on European publics from on high put the left on the back foot. But surely a different answer to these issues could have been formulated.

Of course, we’ll never know. But the fact remains that part of the reason left populism has failed is that it was never really attempted. The past five years have been a story of the left’s capitulation (its Syrizification, as some have put it) in the face of national and EU elites.

Left populism, as seen in Mouffe’s work, was conceived of as an attempt to move beyond the discredited left-wing models of previous eras. But now left populism, in effectively siding with the elite against the populist moment, has itself become discredited.

Now all eyes are on the US, where Bernie Sanders is left populism’s last hope. But given that he is suffering from ill-health, and given his associations with ‘millennial socialist’ idiots, his victory would be a long shot, even if he somehow won the Democratic nomination. Don’t bet against Trump in 2020.

Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_

Picture by: Getty

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Bryan Hayes

3rd January 2020 at 10:03 pm

What the author means by “left populism” is simple, dull leftist radicalism, extremism and ideology (=mental shit). Nothing else.

Bryan Hayes

3rd January 2020 at 7:30 pm

Leftist = promoting and expanding the rule of functionaries over the (soon to be subjects) citizens.
This also explains why they do not against the “EU”; they are their cronies, the purest leftists.

Claire D

3rd January 2020 at 10:17 am

I find it difficult to accept ” populism ” as a reality. It seems to me a word used to belittle people’s involvement with party politics. It casts doubt on the veracity of whichever politician/party is at issue. Utterly typical of cynical post-modernist thinking, which I do not trust.

Cedar Grove

3rd January 2020 at 10:08 pm

Yes. In the universities, the PoMo version of leftist thought has been de rigueur for two generations. It has destroyed people’s ability to see anything in its historical context; to have any sense of perspective; or to believe truth is worth seeking, as there is no such thing.

It may be that some of the people who write in inaccessible jargon are genuinely nuanced thinkers, but whenever I’ve spent time ploughing through their dense texts, they always turn out to be either stating the obvious, or making assertions which falsify both fact and language. Derrida, for instance, uses the term “autoimmune” to mean the opposite of what science says it means.

Humpty Dumpty’s shrewd observation springs to mind.

Jamie Johnston

5th January 2020 at 5:53 am

Yep, instead of focusing on how wages have stagnated and the standard of living for everyone is therefore falling the Left has become obsessed with whether people should be called “he/she or they”. Identity politics has sucked all the air up and irritated older populations that are historically supporters of the Left. For example, working-class Catholics can be expect to be mocked and derided by the Left for believing in traditional social values. Attitudes and opinions considered normal and uncontroversial by our parents and which could exist comfortably in the Left are now considered right-wing. At the same time many immigrants that it seems Labour expected to be natural Labour voters, instead, as small business owners or ambitious for their children and are religious find a home on the Right. The Left have not communicated a coordinated message. Also, before the advent of the expression “Fake News” people could see that only one point of view was ever acceptable to the Politically Correct Left in the BBC and Universities. Other opinions were disallowed or shut down. What did the Left expect to happen when they refused to have discussions about issues that people were concerned about such as immigration and then called “racist” by their own party? Momentum was telling working-class voters who had other opinions to “f*ck off and join the Tories” so they did.

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2nd January 2020 at 5:11 pm

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Jonathan Yonge

1st January 2020 at 8:41 pm

Hmmmmm….. “populism”…..
I am sorry Mr Slater, I don’t think you understand what you are writing about

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S P Johnson

31st December 2019 at 6:21 pm

How is the defeat of Corbyn a defeat of populism? Surely the brain washed readers of the Sun and the Express and the Mail voted for a different version of populism when they voted for Boris Johnson?

steve moxon

31st December 2019 at 9:19 pm

‘Brain washing’ is the Left’s figment and the Left’s effort (truth inversion repeated ad nauseum in the attempt to produce a self-fulfilling philosophy — which despite ‘PC’ enforcement is still failing).


31st December 2019 at 9:56 pm

The GE was like being forced to choose between Hitler and Stalin. It was necessary to defeat Corbyn because of his communism and anti-Semitism, and general stupidity. However, in choosing Johnson, we have given power to a mendacious, philandering opportunist whose sole lifelong raison d’etre has been to become PM at any cost, even if it means implementing a policy (Brexit) that he does not believe in and knows will greatly harm the economic and geostrategic interests of this country.

Prospero X

1st January 2020 at 9:33 pm

Comparing Johnson to Hitler is risible. Surely even you can see that.

Ven Oods

3rd January 2020 at 9:29 am

“Surely even you can see that.”

I predict you’ll be disappointed on that one.

Cedar Grove

3rd January 2020 at 10:01 pm

Do you actually have any idea what Hitler and Stalin did?

You perfectly represent the kind of intemperate, fact-free name-calling that has ruined political debate in this country, and reduced it to the level of a school playground.

Cedar Grove

3rd January 2020 at 9:50 pm

The article is about leftist populism, so your comment, while correct, misses the point.

Cedar Grove

3rd January 2020 at 9:58 pm

That was meant as a response to SP Johnson.

Tony Mac

31st December 2019 at 5:49 pm

Brexit v Star Wars.
I have just seen the movie last night and thought it a very satisfying end of the Disney trilogy. Both Finn and Rey had a much better story arc than in the last Jedi and deservedly so . I Also could not shake a feeling that the movie echoed the British election and the Brexit revolution. Poe Dameron ( Boris Johnson) with the help of Rey (Dominic Cummings) ,Chewwy ( James Cleverly ) and C3PO (Jacob Rees Mogg) defeated the sinister Palpatine ( Jeremy Corbin) , General Pryde (John McDonnell) and Hux ( Dominic Grieve) . Palpatine using his insidious power to destroy the rebel alliance ( Tory Party) and keep it under the heel of the evil empire ( the E.U) , using the first order (the Labour Party) and their stormtroopers (momentum) to assist in their devilish deeds. But just when all hope was seen to be fading with Poe and Rey being thwarted at every turn a call went out to the Good people of the Galaxy (Great Britain) and the silent majority turned up in their millions to help the rebels stop the Empire , but they must remain alert as some of the first order survived ( Porter ,raynor,Phillips,Thornberry and of course Abbott the Hutt). Others were involved in this thrilling finale are:- Finn … Brendan O’Neill Leia …Teressa May . Lando … Nigel Farage . Zorii Bliss … Priti Patel. Maz Kanata ….Ann Widdecombe . Kylo Ren …. Tom Watson . First order officers … Cooper ,Soubury,Thornberry,Long-Bailey, Phillips and Bercow. Resistance officers …Caroline Flint , Tim Martin , Douglas Murray , Tom Harwood , Richard Tice and isabel Oakeshott. Life imitating art ? I think so.

steve moxon

31st December 2019 at 4:33 pm

How is hating the masses because you reckon the masses have let you down ‘populist’ exactly?!
The Left has long since given up trying to appeal to the electorate: it’s ‘identity politics’ is all about trying to force the electorate to change, by currying favour with or bribing supposed ‘groups’ supposedly more marginalised (but which aren’t) to vote against the masses.
The Left has done what it always does: to try to supplant the elite, only to become far worse than the old elite.

J Chilton

31st December 2019 at 3:16 pm

There is no such thing as “left populism”. From the “left” point of view, populism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

steve moxon

31st December 2019 at 6:27 pm

Yes, Leftism at heart is elitist-separatism. It is status-seeking whilst pretending not to be, by denying it exists in one’s self — that you have somehow overcome it — and (and through) ‘projecting’ it on to everyone else you don’t deem to be in your societal vanguard.
A gigantic fraud, or what?
It’s an heroic self-unawareness you need to be a Leftit.

James Knight

31st December 2019 at 12:38 pm

Trump is a clown but Sanders is in many ways worse. Trump is the best bet to challenge the economic suicide mission of climate austerity and the creeping internationalisation of the new climate dictatorship. If he could actually do that he could go down in posterity like Churchill: being right about one critical thing that overshadows everything else.

Christopher Tyson

31st December 2019 at 11:41 am

Fukuyama brought Hegel back to life in the 1990s with his end of history thesis. This fed into Blairism and the Third Wayism, philosophical idealism, post-materialism, possibly even delusion. Marx attempted to put Hegel the right way up, so now we have to put Blarism the right way up. Blairism was a kind of left wing populism, but it was top down, it sprang from think tanks, academics, politicians and administrators, people alienated for the material world. ‘The Blair Revolution’ was a middle class alchemy. This was philosophical idealism, is still with us, identitarians believe are pre-occupied with cosmetic changes and changes in language and behaviour, the idea of radical material change has been lost. The left are left with re-distribution, this is not popular, the rich fear that what they have will be taken from them (the poor fear this too), also those who are ambitious see their routes and opportunities narrowed. Politicians used to talk about ‘cake’ re-distribution was about giving other a bigger piece of cake, some would then argue that we need a bigger cake or another cake and anarchists would say ‘ never mind the cake, we want the whole bakery, talk of cake did become cliched, nonetheless we do need to put material change (mainly economic change) back on the agenda, a few more women in the board room, or a whole load more black people selling sofa on TV adverts does not constitute meaningful change. The middle classes are angst ridden about Trump, Brexit, the environment and so on, they believe that the end is nigh, they don’t realise that for many things are no more crap than they have ever been, we will not buy into psycho-babble, PR, jargon, corporate speak, nudge and the rest of it. I’m a child of pop culture, politics that is accessible, entertaining, well presented, work for me, but ‘the medium is the message’? Not anymore.

Garreth Byrne

31st December 2019 at 11:37 am

Certain parties and their leaders are described as ‘left populists’ while their opponents are described as ‘right populists’. The term ‘populist’ remains to be defined. And is there lurking somewhere behind this flimflam binary rhetoric a real radical alternative to the tired political discourse? In the old days a heckler might shout What about the Workers?, or, in the USA, What about General Motors? Now what interjections do you suggest for bemused audience members who are unimpressed by the rhetorical gameplaying?

Willie Penwright

31st December 2019 at 2:09 pm

Well observed Garreth! It is not only confusing but nigh impossible for those who look at social movements and parties from what used to be called a scientific socialist perspective to make head or tail of articles where undefined terms are thrown around like snuff at a wake.

Garreth Byrne

1st January 2020 at 10:18 am

Whether or not scientific socialism lived up to its name, it is useful in public discussions for writers and speakers to define the terminology with which they argue points of view and with which they slam the people with which they identify said points of view. And as they say in journalism, facts are sacred, comment is free.

Ven Oods

3rd January 2020 at 9:37 am

“And as they say in journalism, facts are sacred…”

Unfortunately, there’s not much ‘journalism’ around these days.

steven brook

31st December 2019 at 11:07 am

As usual the left is blaming the right wing media and the Tories for deceiving the population into voting against its own interests. Yet again peddling the idea of False consciousness to explain why the workers didn’t vote for them, “low-information voters” voted the way they did because they are idiots who got duped by the billionaire press or lying Alt-right politicians. As an example I give you Tom Chivers over at Unherd

“I would personally vote for a party that offered 100% open borders and zero restrictions on immigration. I think that would be the best thing for humanity in general. But it is obviously unacceptable to the electorate. I think the voters are wrong. Labour may be right that large parts of the electorate voted against their interests; or that large parts of the electorate are racist or homophobic. It may be that a perfectly moral electorate, or one that knew exactly what its interests were, would have voted Labour in a huge landslide, with only Arron Banks, Mike Ashley and the ghost of Bernard Manning voting for the Tories. Maybe they’re not out of touch; maybe it is, indeed, the voters who are wrong.” Tom Chivers

steve moxon

31st December 2019 at 7:01 pm

Yes, “false consciousness” is not a term you hear much these days. The Left have tried to bury it, as being too much a giveaway for what the Left is all about. Changing the electorate, not change for the benefit of the electorate. The electorate refuse ever to be Marxists, so Marxism has to be done in spite of them: either round them — champion faux ‘groups’ like queers, wymyn and ethnics to vote against the mainstream electorate — or by changing them (insist and indoctrinate through a PC enforcement of ‘identity politics’ nonsense, so that truth is inverted by self-fulfilling prophecy).

K Tojo

31st December 2019 at 10:40 am

Is there some special virtue in being “radical”? Does radicalism confer on its advocates a moral and intellectual superiority we should all defer to? Are radicals the natural leaders guiding us to the sunny uplands of a brave new world of social justice? Are we apathetic sheep obliged to follow them or be condemned to life the moral wilderness?

This Left wing populism that the Corbynistas are supposed to represent is a strange beast. Over the last 3 years they have banged on about the usual Labour causes especially “our NHS”, unemployment, low wages, food banks etc. They assumed that traditional Labour supporters would just see a truly socialist Labour party fighting the good fight. They weren’t supposed to notice that the real aim was to bring in Momentum’s anti-Western far Left agenda.

Had Corbyn’s Labour party won the election the real beneficiaries would have been all those “disadvantaged” identity groups and pet causes favoured by London’s Left-liberal elite. Re-education of the masses would be a top priority. The Labour heartlands would have to learn that a cultural revolution is underway. Can you imagine – there are still people who oppose gay marriage and don’t even know what gender fluidity is.

Neil McCaughan

31st December 2019 at 9:50 am

Emily, Lady Nugee, really sums up the laughable pretence of Corbyn’s Labour to radicalism. Arrogant, establishment, dismissive of the working class and insulting towards genuine democrats like Caroline Flint, she firmly believes we should know our places, and not question our betters (her and her EU chums). I see her brother in law got the CB in the latest honours.

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David Drumright

31st December 2019 at 8:50 am

These parties didn’t fail because they are leftists. They failed because they are NOT populist. The populist part of their label turned out to be fake.

There aren’t any European examples of left-populist politicians who remain both left AND populist.

There are some good examples elsewhere: Morales in Bolivia, AMLO in Mexico. Morales didn’t fail, he was taken out by a US coup. AMLO hasn’t been taken out yet, but it’s clear that US is starting to prepare the setup for a coup.

Thomas Laird

31st December 2019 at 7:44 am

That’s enough “Years” . Ed

Philip Humphrey

31st December 2019 at 7:33 am

I think the problem is that leftists are largely defending the status quo, as if all their victories are in the past. I’ve never known a time before when leftists have been defending the judiciary, “experts”, the BBC and academics so much. Perhaps the reality is that they are the establishment, certainly in the media, the education system, the public sector, the justice system and other parts of life where they have successfully infiltrated and largely taken over during the last few decades. There is no leftist populism because they’re terrified of breaking the power they already have, they already see that under assault from what they call right wing populism. It’s also difficult to be populist if you’re terrified of free speech and freedom of ideas, increasingly a characteristic of the present left wing politics.

L Strange

31st December 2019 at 10:53 am

Quite so. I don’t think Tom has quite grasped that the establishment is already full of leftism and what that means these days.

Asif Qadir

31st December 2019 at 6:49 am

Sounds like ur still a vile little commie, Pom Prater.

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