With the rise of anti-establishment candidates, Sam Glover looks at how radical rebels are becoming mainstream politicians.
The radicals are rising. In the past few years, Ukip have won a national election, a backbencher has risen up against the odds to become leader of the Labour Party, and two radical candidates have won the New Hampshire primaries. Across Europe, radical parties have surged on the left and the right: Syriza, Podemos, the Front National, Swedish Democrats, and the Dutch Party for Freedom. In 2007, before the Great Recession, very few people could have imagined the twists and turns that politics would take in the next few years; with Gordon Brown and George W. Bush as the leaders of the free world (having succeeded Tony Blair and Bill Clinton), it seemed as though “establishment” politics had cemented its victory and radical politics was dead. Why have things changed so much?
Donald Trump’s slogan for his American election campaign is “Make America Great Again,” but it could just as easily be Bernie Sanders’. In a way, it sums up the policy platforms of both candidates rather well: lacking on substance, but very good at conveying the way that a lot of Americans are feeling. Supporters of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders do not have a lot in common; they are often from different social classes have different levels of education, come from different places, and live in different environments. But they there is one characteristic that the archetypal Trump and Sanders supporter shares: they are very, very angry.
Ironically, Mr Sanders airs the anger of the young. Millions of voices are channeled through this septuagenarian who argues that it is not fair that people on Wall Street are making billions, while students fall into heavy debt to receive a college education. His message is clear: it is not fair that the banks that crashed the economy have survived while many have lost their jobs. It is not fair that candidates who are funded by the powerful politics action committees can subvert democracy when they don’t represent the interests of the people. In some ways, having the oldest nominee ever for the Democrat Party voice the concerns of young people (amongst whom Sanders is leading Clinton by 84 per cent to 14 per cent) gives their views a respectability they would not have otherwise. Jeremy Corbyn taps into the same feelings of the same people, and this is how he won the Labour leadership contest last year. British and American politics are different in lots of ways, but Mr Sanders can learn lessons from Mr Corbyn’s campaign, and it seems to a degree, consciously or not, Mr Sanders is emulating Mr Corbyn.
Trump, on the other hand, is the voice of a disillusioned right-wing working class. His supporters are almost all against immigration, they are the people who suffered most from the 2008 financial crisis, and they have been left behind by a group of politicians who have begun to focus almost exclusively on middle-America. Trump’s parallel in the UK is Nigel Farage, the leader of Ukip who has tapped into these same ideas. Although many think that Ukip took votes mainly from the Conservatives, the truth is that Ukip voters are a pretty mixed bunch, with lots of them having been supporters of Old Labour. People who voted Ukip in 2015 were evenly divided between Kinnock and Major in 1992, and rallied behind Tony Blair in 1997. In the 2005 General Election, very few of them voted at all, and many of the ones who did vote voted for fringe parties like the BNP. The stereotype of Ukip voters being retired colonels has little bearing on reality; they are not fruit-cakes as David Cameron called them. They are normal working-class people who do not have adequate representation in Parliament.
It has become something of a cliché to say that people are becoming increasingly fed up and disillusioned with politics, but it is true. The identikit drones of the establishment are beginning to grate on the public. Andy Burnham? Marco Rubio? No thanks. When Marco Rubio repeated his 25 second speech several times at the Republican debate, Chris Christie saw that there was a small chink in his armour that could be exploited; he didn’t know how to engage with a question and he couldn’t answer it like a normal human being – he’s an establishment robot. The same fatal error has been made by both Ed Miliband and George Osborne, and the reason it is so damning is because it confirms all the suspicions of the public: these are not normal people who can answer a question plainly. They are not like us.
Since 2008, to be a part of the “establishment” is now seen as an inherently bad thing. It is an insult that Sanders, Trump, Corbyn, and Farage have all used against their rivals. Owen Jones’ polemical book The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It says what many people already think – to be a part of the establishment is a crime and we can’t let these politicians remain unchallenged. The nature of the game has changed. Having a competent policy platform is no longer enough to win. You have to show that you are angry.
Radical right-wing parties are on the rise in Europe, but they’re not all as extreme as their opponents make them out to be.