May 7, 2014 7:02 pm

Lifting the lid on the new unpopulists

The trick is to stay out of power to avoid awkward questions and the messy business of governing

In the run-up to the European elections the Financial Times is running a series on the continent’s New Populists – Europe’s Tea Parties. But this column feels these groups, the likes of France’s Front National, the UK Independence party and Greece’s Golden Dawn, have been hogging the limelight.

So to restore some balance the rest of this article will focus on the New Unpopulists: Europe’s Tupperware parties. The Tea Parties feel angry and abandoned by the political class and want fresh policies. Tupperware parties offer more of the same but kept fresh by a presentational outer shell of plastic platitudes.

The uniting feature of the New Unpopulists is that many of them were once quite popular but are now not popular at all. Some angered voters with wildly unpopular policies such as rescuing their country’s crisis-hit economy, nearly rescuing their country’s crisis-hit economy, or being ready to consider some tough choices that might one day rescue their country’s crisis-hit economy.

Since the key to being popular is staying out of power, and the key to losing popularity is winning power, the New Populists aim for a series of moral victories they can portray as stunning upsets but do not result in them actually having to govern. Their ideal people’s revolt storms the gates of parliament but is then kept waiting in reception. By contrast the New Unpopulists (slogan: “Blue skies are just around the corner”) are content with moral defeats that leave them in power.

Europe’s New Populists (slogan: “Romanians are just around the corner”) generally have one very charismatic leader who pulls the party forward; again, by contrast, the unpopulists tend to prefer one uncharismatic leader who holds them back. Sometimes, unpopulist parties court popularity by choosing populist leaders such as Nicolas Sarkozy, Tony Blair or Matteo Renzi. But this can be a double-edged sword because unpopulist parties do not like it when those leaders actually do things that might be popular.

In France, the leader of the New Unpopulists is François Hollande, whose Socialists look set to suffer a hefty defeat in this month’s poll. In an effort to boost his unpopulist party he has appointed a populist prime minister, Manuel Valls. But, although Mr Valls has shown some populist touches such as being beastly to immigrants, he has also adopted the unpopulist position of being one himself, which muddies the message.

The New Unpopulists have the New Populists worried. Europe’s far right and hard left are now warning that unpopular moderate parties could mop up two-thirds of the votes in this month’s elections, leaving unpopulists in control of the Strasbourg parliament even though the New Populists secured a larger minority of the votes than last time.

Unlike the Old Unpopulists, the New Unpopulists – who upon close inspection turn out to be the same as the Old Unpopulists – are rising to the challenge with populist rhetoric. This has led to warnings from the New Populists that, in spite of attempts to disguise it, many of the New Unpopulists do not really hate foreigners. New Populists have been sifting the public statements and tweets of the Liberal grouping in the European Parliament looking to catch them saying something nice about other nations. In Britain, Liberal Democrats were forced to disown a local councillor for once hiring a French polisher. Meanwhile Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, tried to shed his party’s image by stressing that some of his best friends aren’t foreigners. Others, including Britain’s Conservatives, reject the populists’ crude xenophobia but stand ready to be mean to immigrants on a case-by-case basis.

The rise of the New Populists has left the New Unpopulists fighting to be the less unpopular. At present, the centre-right seems to have the edge, which may point to a new role for Jean-Claude Juncker, who after 18 years as Old Unpopulist premier of Luxembourg has emerged as the New Unpopulist choice for president of the European Commission – a role not to be confused with president of the European Council, which is currently held by the equally unpopulist Herman Van Rompuy.

It was Mr Juncker who once spelt out the core unpopulist philosophy when he noted during the economic crisis: “We all know what to do; we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.” Now it is more like: “We know what to do but would rather leave it till after we’ve been re-elected.” Most voters are expected to abstain.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com
Twitter: @robertshrimsley

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