‘The Conservative Party is heading for disaster’
Matthew Goodwin on why populism will flourish this year.
Ever since the shock victories for Brexit and Donald Trump in 2016, centrist parties have tried desperately to restore their beloved technocratic consensus – the stultifying managerialism that ruled Western politics until the mid-2010s. In this, they have had some notable – and depressing – successes. At the next election, Britain will choose between two empty suits in the form of Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer.
But according to Matthew Goodwin, political scientist and author of Values, Voice and Virtue, the centrists are ultimately bound to fail. The populist genie is out of the bottle in Europe and the US. Public fury with the elites is growing – and could well get Trump re-elected.
To discuss why populism is here to stay, Matthew joined Brendan O’Neill for a special live recording of The Brendan O’Neill Show. What follows is an edited extract from their conversation. Watch the full thing here.
Brendan O’Neill: Is British politics really settling back into bland, technocratic rule?
Matthew Goodwin: I’m sceptical about the suggestion that things have calmed down. What we’ve seen, firstly, is a failure of the political class to really respond to the post-Brexit realignment. And it’s pretty obvious that the Conservative Party, in particular, has failed to renew itself philosophically, ideologically and electorally. That is partly why it’s languishing at an average of 25 per cent in the polls and heading for defeat at the next General Election. I cannot see any way in which the Conservatives can avoid electoral defeat. And so the party will then be plunged into a prolonged and quite serious civil war over what conservatism actually is. We can already begin to see skirmishes within the party, led by people like Miriam Cates and Suella Braverman and their opponents in the liberal centre. That leaves the Conservatives in a very vulnerable and fragile position right now.
In some ways, though, we have gone back to the early 2010s. The political class in general has formed a new consensus similar to the one we had during the David Cameron era – big state, high tax, pro-mass migration, a reluctant acceptance of Brexit, London-centric, focussed on the middle class and utterly hostile towards any radical change.
When you put all of this together, it’s clear that the liberal-managerial class, at least in the UK, US and Europe, has absolutely failed to make sense of what has happened in the 2010s. And we can see the rebellion among voters across Europe and the US in response to this failure. This is largely driven by the imposition of a top-down consensus not only on things like taxes and immigration, but also in terms of the spread of woke ideology within institutions. This is supported by the elite, but rejected by much of the country. We’re on the cusp of seeing some pretty widespread apathy at the next UK election, particularly among cultural conservatives who are simply withdrawing from the political system – much like they did in the 2010s.
I don’t think we are out of the woods yet. This period might look calm, but it is really an interregnum. And we’re going to find that, in 2024, things will begin to heat up again.
O’Neill: How do you see populist movements heating up again? And does the content of some of them concern you at all?
Goodwin: In our 2018 book, National Populism, Roger Eatwell and I argued that the populist movements that emerged through the votes for Brexit and Donald Trump in 2016 were not only going to be here for the long term – but also that these movements were going to consolidate and become even more successful than they were in 2016.
Liberal centrists, who take a very short-term view of politics, might pen columns every six months arguing that populism is dead. But they have been consistently wrong. If you look around the West today, what we’ve seen is not just a consolidation of national populism, but also its continued growth. Giorgia Meloni was victorious in Italy in 2022. The radical-right Vox party in Spain is now present in every single regional parliament but one. In France, the 2022 elections left Marine Le Pen as the leader of the third-largest party in the parliament. The Sweden Democrats are now effectively controlling the Swedish government through a confidence-and-supply arrangement. Viktor Orbán in Hungary has never been as strong as he is now, having secured over 50 per cent of the vote at the last election in 2022. The AfD is now the second-most popular party in Germany. And Geert Wilders just achieved a sizeable victory in the Dutch elections at the end of last year.
What is all of this telling us? Firstly, unresolved concerns over immigration and the refugee crisis are coming back with a vengeance. It’s telling us that national populists, for their part, are more professional, articulate and have become better campaigners. And it’s also telling us about generational changes. If you look at the data on who is voting for populist parties in Italy, Germany and France, it’s often young millennials or Generation Z. These are not the angry old white men that we were warned about in 2016. This is a generation with no allegiance to the big parties on either the left or the right.
Populist parties are often imperfect vehicles. When they first achieve power, they’re often not very impressive. But they do much better when they return to office. Trump is now talking about essentially replacing the layer of the US state that opposed his policies during his first term. And Le Pen is now guiding legislation through the French parliament in a way her father never could. We are right to be concerned, because some of these movements – Trump being the most obvious – are fundamentally opposed to representative democracy. Trump is a classic populist. He is not a fascist, but there are aspects of Trumpism that would make me instinctively nervous about him securing power again.
The reason right-wing populists are flourishing is because the dominant questions of our time are about the nation. How can we keep the nation secure? How can we hold on to our sense of shared national identity? How can we defend our national community from threats like wokeism and radical Islamism? It’s true that these are partly class debates, in that it’s often the working classes who are more concerned about those issues. But these questions are fundamentally about nationhood. And that is why populist parties will keep thriving.
Matthew Goodwin was talking to Brendan O’Neill on The Brendan O’Neill Show. Watch the full conversation here:
Picture by: matthewjgoodwin.org.
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