As the sun illuminated Westminster and the country awoke to a new dawn, filled with pride and astonishment, Nigel Farage declared that Brexit was going to be the first of many populist victories. He predicted the victory of Trump and then announced that ‘Nexit’ and ‘Frexit’ would follow. It was only a few hours after the referendum result, and already populists across the west felt that they could pull off the unimaginable, in a similar way to what Vote Leave and Leave.Eu had done.
The populists were inspired. They felt braver and stronger and yet one year later the predictions of impending doom for the EU and the establishment it supports seem a little hyperbolic. A year ago the sentiment was of change; now it is little more tepid and tentative.
In Austria and in France and in Holland the populists failed. In America and Italy they triumphed. But why? Why did some countries feel braver than others to vote for the populist?
Populism only works when based on emotion, not on facts and policies
If you look back at the EU Referendum the Remain campaign, that was a vote for the status quo, unveiled policies, precise economic warnings and, especially before purdah, official government statistics to support their case. Their campaign was based on providing factual information to voters. As a result, their performance in debates seemed uninspiring and boring to the voter, who saw only a deluge of economic warnings and expert predictions — already weakened by most of Fleet Street as the majority of newspapers called the Remain campaign ‘project fear’ in an attempt to help support Vote Leave.
The only instance where the remain side showed any emotion in their argument was in the penultimate televised debate, when David Cameron took part in a special BBC Question Time. When answering a voter’s question he talked about how Churchill in May 1940 decided for Britain to fight on, and not quit. On the back of this he argued that Britain doesn’t quit, and should thereby remain in the EU to fight and change the Union.
Cameron said Britain doesn’t quit. Even as a leaver myself, this was one of only two moments in the campaign when I thought about changing my vote. This was because in this argument he countered the patriotism and pride of the Vote Leave campaign, by delivering his own emotional appeal infused with a nationalist spirit — something that many leavers were craving for.
According to Tim Shipman’s excellent All Out War book on the refereudnum campaign, Cameron’s advisors hadn’t prepared this line of argument and were taken by surprise. I believe that if the remain argument had, instead of turning away from an emotional appeal — such as offered by Vote Leave through simple yet powerful slogans like, ‘take back control’ and ‘make June 23rd this country’s independence day’ — if Remain countered Leave with their own passionate argument, then the result would have been different.
In the campaign, Dominic Cummmigs from Vote Leave talked of nullifying the CBI, seeing their economic warning as a threat. Where Vote Leave saw a threat, they got rid of it. When remain saw a threat, they turned their backs, choosing to ignore immigration and patriotic emotions, instead opting to repeat the same boring lines over the economy, and disastrously offending millions by calling their patriotism racist.
What the recent election result showed was that voters want inspiration and need to be excited in order to go out and vote. Jeremy Corbyn achieved this exceptionally well, by emotive rallies and through a manifesto that gave people something to cheer about.
In the UK the populists won because they didn’t get embroiled into the chaos of proving whose facts and statistics are true. Instead, they fought the campaign with emotion — something that voters were craving for as they simply wanted change.
However, it was far easier for Vote Leave to build a campaign based on emotion because it was a simple yes or no question. As we begin to see the government’s Brexit stance unravel, it is clear that no-one truly knew what Brexit would consist of in detail. For Vote Leave they just needed to win the referendum and they did this because they didn’t offer policy beset by facts but sympathy — appeasing the desperate need for change many voters felt after years of austerity and rapid change, caused by huge levels of uncontrolled immigration. The want for change is a powerful feeling, and when offered hand-in-hand with hope it can and has won votes
In elections it is far harder to fight a campaign with emotion and this is because, unlike the referendum, it is not a simple yes or no question.
In France Marine Le Pen found herself struggling to explain how she would control immigration, how she would leave the EU and how she would bring jobs to those ‘neglected’ working-class voters. This is because voters in elections take a more complex and detailed view and an appeal to emotion alone will not appease them, no matter how strong. Voters in France and Austria wanted from their populist leaders policies not just on the EU and immigration, but on tax and the economy — areas untouched by Vote Leave. They couldn’t simply gloss over huge vacuums of policy by emotive slogans and nationalist sentiment. They needed that and more. For this reason Marine Le Pen failed, and so did Gurt Wilders in Holland, and so did the right-wing uprising in Austria (albeit Norbet Hofer did score 46.2 per cent of the vote).
But then why did Trump succeed in the US Election?
Donald Trump succeed in continuing the populist revolution after Brexit because he removed the complexities of policy and thorough economic debate from the campaign. He did this, discretely, by framing the election as a binary choice between a change and continuing with the status quo that had failed many voters, embodied by Hilary Clinton. By simplifying the election campaign it took the guise of a referendum vote.
The reason Trump was victorious was because he controlled the narrative in a way that presented voters with a simple choice.
In Italy the referendum victory against Renzi was not because of a working-class uprising but because of the middle-class voters; frustrated at the lack of economic growth whilst under the control of the EU and Renzi. The populist five-star movement in Italy, incidentally led by an ex-comedian, transformed the referendum from a constitutional issue about the framework of the Italian Government into a vote on the future of their leader, Matteo Renzi. Italian voters took this opportunity to vote against the continuing economic demise of Italy. This was felt by many middle-class voters whose businesses were closing and their jobs, once safe and paying well, being lost.
In both Italy and America the populists won, in a similar way to Vote Leave, by turning their campaigns into simpler referendum votes, where change was the operative choice.
Where populism has suffered a blow, such as in France, this was down to voters having nearly a year to see exactly what populist uprisings cause.
Whether you agree with it or not, the Brexit vote created turbulence and uncertainty. The recriminations tearing voters and this country apart created an unpretentious picture of the continent. No voters like uncertainty, and perhaps French voters were put off from voting Le Pen after having witnessed what the populist revolution in Britain had done, and also that in America.
Populists win when they are able to frame the vote as a binary choice between change or continuing along a failed path.
As the dust begins to settle after a year of political upheaval, overall, the populists have won some and lost some. Outperforming predictions made in 2015, and underperforming some predictions made following the Brexit vote.
The next elections across Europe are in Italy and Germany. Germany is likely to return Merkel again but Italy looks like it will embrace the populist five-star movement campaign. In 2018 the US will vote in mid-term elections, this may well be the first review from voters on the populist revolution that struck America. In a recent election in the US voters showed that they are still supporting Trump over the democrats — perhaps because the democrats continue to ignore the working classes; wishing only to pursue a failed agenda of liberalism, that Clinton failed to sell.
The year ahead will reveal whether populism is capable of more victories. If the answer is no, then don’t sit back comforted. Be wary, because politics happens in cycles and the clock will already have started ticking until the moment when populists rise again. But if this cycle isn’t over, then the question is: how long will the voters’ emotional anger and desire for change last for them to keep choosing it, no matter how unknown or unpredictable?