A Tale of Two Parties: Left vs. Right Wing Populism in the 2019 British Election

On November 6, 2019, the 57th Parliament of the United Kingdom (UK) was officially dissolved. With support from the House of Commons, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the Conservative Party called an early election to take place on December 12, 2019. While the next UK election was scheduled for May 5, 2022, policymakers across the House agreed a general election was required to break the political impasse over Brexit.

Unusual timing notwithstanding, eyes are turned to the 2019 British election as yet another battlefield between left and right wing populism in Europe. On the left, we have Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, the so-called “populist wearing a cardigan,” pitted against the aforementioned Boris Johnson of the Conservative Party on the right. 

So what do these two parties—who appear to be on opposite ends of the political spectrum—have in common? For one, both leaders have adopted an increasingly populist tone. Corbyn speaks of “going after the tax dodgers, dodgy landlords, bad bosses, and big polluters, because we know whose side we’re on.” Johnson has been compared to the likes of Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Donald Trump in the US, who are “right-wing, conservative, nationalist and authoritarian” political leaders. In the British battle of two populisms, it has become increasingly important for voters to understand the differences (and striking similarities) between the right and left wing iterations of this global phenomenon 

Boriss Johnson, Conservative Party Leader and current Prime Minister of the UK

Scholars have established a minimum definition of the far/radical right based on three central factors: nativism, authoritarianism, and populism. According to this definition, can we therefore categorize Johnson as a far-right leader? Not quite. 

For one, authoritarianism refers to a rules-based society that restricts individual freedoms, dissenting opinions, and an independent judiciary. With a Brexit campaign slogan of “by any means necessary” and a Supreme Court ruling of 11-0 that his suspension of the British Parliament was unlawful, Johnson is certainly not afraid to challenge the rule of law. While this may be a sign that liberal democracy is under attack, populism has been kept in check from morphing to the radical right as a result of the UK’s strong, democratic institutions. Without authoritarian rule, Johnson’s right wing ideology, however provocative, is not radical. 

As for nativism and populism, it’s a bit more complex. It’s no coincidence that the rebirth of populism arrived after the impacts of the 2008 financial crisis led to an economic slump. As a result, both disgruntled workers and traditional right-wing supporters were able to unite for change. Notably, right-wing populism is often held accountable for turning the “us vs. them” populist rhetoric against immigrants. By closing borders and returning to the glories of the nation state, the result has been an “Othering” of foreigners, and in particular immigrants who would put strain on the national services like healthcare. However radical this may seem, the Conservative Party has stopped far short of the kind of racial exclusion that premeditates fascism. 

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party Leader

While right-wing populism has taken Europe by storm, UK voters would be wise to give due attention the growing wave of left-wing populism embodied by the Labour Party and Corbyn. Perhaps viewing the success of his European counterparts, Corbyn has shifted Labour farther left and embraced populism by identifying a different us vs. them than Johnson. Corbyn’s Labour Party has instead campaigned against the “established elite” embodied by the Conservatives. 

It is important not to confuse left-wing populism with socialist movements. While building its base from those discouraged from the divide between the have and have-nots, it does not seek to end capitalism or the class conflict.  

Where does this British leave voters? Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair warns the  “populism running riot” has pushed the two main parties to extreme ends of the political spectrum. At the same time, the left and right options available to voters have become more similar today. According to scholars, both right and left-wing populism have followed a similar populist playbook: 

  1. Encouraging an emotional sense of injustice 
  2. Mobilizing the masses 
  3. Transforming the media landscape
  4. Headed by charismatic party leaders

In the case of the UK, the House of Commons is dominated by a two-party system. While contenders like the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Liberal Democrats still vie for seats, in reality this leaves the majority of British voters without a moderate option for 10 Downing. The populism embodied by Johnson and Corbyn therefore does not enable meaningful political decision-making by citizens. 

It appears that what began as a movement for “the people” has therefore left the majority of British voters feeling unaccounted for. One saving grace is in order to build a Parliamentary majority, both the Labour and Conservative Party will likely need to form a coalition government. The post-election onus may therefore be left in the hands of the SNP and the Liberal Democrats to real in the populist extremes to provide stable governance for the UK. 

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