Red Tory to Blue LabourHow Spiked and Unherd are Keeping National Populism Alive
Jon Bloomfield and David Edgar look at the reach and influence of an unlikely coalition of ex-Trotskyites, traditionalist Tories and communitarian Labourites
So, now the dust is settling, what is the ideological future of the Conservative Party? With kamikaze supply-side Trussonomics so thoroughly discredited, will Rishi Sunak and his – relatively – big-tent Cabinet return to a 2020s version of Cameronian fiscal austerity? If so, what happens to the Johnsonian cocktail of high public spending and social conservatism which proved so palatable to the voters of the Red Wall?
As the next general election approaches, will the Conservatives abandon the national populism which proved so successful in 2019? And what is the role of online ideologues – notably writers for the websites Spiked and Unherd – in the battle for the party’s soul?
We fear that the death of national populism – both praised and mourned in the brief moment of Trussite market ascendancy – has been much exaggerated. Despite the heartening – but whisker-thin – victory of Lula da Silva in Brazil, national populists have gained ground in Sweden, won power in Italy, and are edging closer than ever to the French presidency. While the American mid-terms checked the expected resurgence of Trumpist Republicans, the Grand Old Party remains heavily under the influence of conspiratorialist Trumpians.
Within the Conservative Party, Liz Truss was brought down partly because her tax-cutting agenda was seen in economically-left Red Wall constituencies as playing down levelling up and favouring the rich. National populist commentators like academic Matthew Goodwin certainly saw the Kwarteng budget as a betrayal of Johnson’s successful statist economics/social conservative alliance.
Already, by reversing Trussite policies on high-rate tax cuts and fracking, the Sunak/Hunt administration is clearly playing to the crumbling Red Wall. And, despite his alleged “zero interest in fighting a so-called culture war”, Sunak spent early August backing the Rwanda plan, threatening Channel 4, and attacking ‘left-wing agitators’ for “taking a bulldozer to our history, our traditions and our fundamental values”.
Most importantly, British national populism has proved much more than just a short-term political tactic, unexpectedly successful in the Brexit referendum and re-conceived as an election-winner three years later. Like the free market ideologues of Tufton Street, national populists are organised into influential groups of intellectuals and political campaigners who have gained considerable reach into mainstream media.
The role of The Spectator is well-known but this article focuses on the profound influence of two websites: Unherd and Spiked.
What makes these sites so significant and successful is that many of their lead writers originate not on the right but on the mainstream and indeed the far left, and now promote ideologies that seem contradictory but – in practice – are increasingly allied.
To understand how these ideologues have gained such influence, it’s necessary to go back to the origins of national populism in the social-democratic accommodation with neo-liberal economics and the consequent crumbling of the traditional electoral coalition which underpinned the British left.
Breakdown of Traditional Alliances
For the 200 years since the French revolution, progressive social change in Europe has come from alliances between the popular masses and the progressive middle classes. And it’s been a similar story elsewhere, from President Roosevelt’s New Deal, the civil rights movement and President Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ welfare programme of the 1960s to the post-war anti-colonial struggles across Africa and Asia,. Forms of this alliance have been responsible for most of the major progressive social and economic reforms of the 20th Century. Yet when these alliances crumble or when in-fighting predominates, then reaction follows.
Since 1989 this alliance has broken down across Europe, in the US with Trump’s ascendancy, and most dramatically by the failures of the Arab Spring. Following the fall of the Berlin wall, Francis Fukuyama announced ‘the end of history’; Tony Blair and Bill Clinton believed him; most of social democracy followed their ‘Third Way’.
The traditional working class – ‘Old Labour’ – was left with no political defenders at the very moment when the computer revolution was transforming economic life and decimating the mining and manufacturing industries on which the 19th and 20th-century labour and socialist movements had been built.
A political vacuum was created as trade unions declined, the old cultures associated with work shrank and a prolonged period of wage stagnation ensued across Europe and the US. This left propitious conditions for the rise of national populism and the re-emergence of parties rooted in European fascist and pre-war reactionary nationalist traditions. With the mainstream left compromised when popular discontent grew after the 2007-8 financial crisis, the nationalist right stepped into the breach.
As Conservative thinker Tim Montgomerie describes it, national populism seeks to reshape politics by redefining it around issues of nation, culture and identity rather than economics, in opposition to the unfettered globalisation championed by both the orthodox Right and the Third Way left.
As with Trump in the US, Meloni in Italy, Le Pen in France and Orban in Hungary, the Brexit Conservatives sought to change the nature of the right, seeking to create new cross-class coalitions and to caricature and marginalise the left. This draws a new fault line across the political map, pitting economically-interventionist social conservatives against economic as well as social liberals while enabling a nationalist right in the UK, the US and across Europe to dismantle the previous boundaries between orthodox Conservatism and the racist, authoritarian and neo-fascist right.
Rather than this moment being the end of history, the hard Right has sensed the chance to rewrite it – in their own image.
Over the last fifty years, across both Europe and the US, the emerging middle classes – the urban, professional salariat of the informational age – have helped to put the issues of sex, race and the environment firmly on the agenda. In Europe today, we live in a more socially progressive society – with the liberalisation of divorce, legalisation of abortion, anti-discrimination legislation and the establishment of equal marriage, as well as a growing awareness of the climate emergency.
Reactionary redoubts remain in Poland and Hungary; legislation does not of itself eradicate discrimination or secure equality; climate sceptics are still influential. But the line of travel to a more socially liberal Continent has been secured more firmly than in America, in no small measure due to the actions of the mainstream Left and its liberal progressive allies. It is these movements which are the main targets of the ideologues of national populism.
The construction of this new divide has encouraged strange, paradoxical political alliances – exemplified in the mirroring of the Red Tory and Blue Labour tendencies within the two main political parties. Even stranger is the ideological overlap between the website of a formerly Marxist, now right-libertarian think tank and the main online home of anti-liberal communitarianism. So why – on the issues that are tearing Britain apart – do Spiked and Unherd appear to be bedfellows?
Both are prolific sites supplying a daily flow of political and cultural commentary. Spiked is an outgrowth of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which developed an increasingly eccentric version of Trotskyism with its magazine Living Marxism, and was successfully sued by ITN over allegations of fabricating pictures of Serbian concentration camps and closed down.
Launching the website Spiked in 2000, its cadres – including former RCP guru Frank Furedi, polemicist and now Brexit-supporting peer Claire Fox, and Munira Mirza, later to become Boris Johnson’s policy chief – continued the RCP’s trajectory towards anti-statist, economic libertarianism while retaining its original Leninist discipline and capacity for harsh polemic.
Unherd has more conventional origins within the Conservative party. Its founder Tim Montgomerie set out its stall in Prospect arguing for a “social Thatcherism,” which would re-balance “from a conservatism of freedom to a conservatism of locality and security.” Montgomerie argued that within the Conservative Party “the magnetism of national sovereignty has finally overtaken the magnetism of free markets.”
However, Unherd has also attracted former left polemicists, including ex-Labour-supporting, Prospect-editing and Demos-running journalist David Goodhart – now ‘Head of Demography, Immigration and Integration’ at the right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange; academic turned national-populist advocate Matthew Goodwin; trade union activist and anti-woke campaigner Paul Embery; and the ex SWP-flirting, Tory-convert vicar Giles Fraser.
Embery’s recent anti-woke polemic in Spiked adds him to a growing list of pundits who happily write both for the right-libertarian Spiked and the communitarian Unherd. As we write, Spiked is running a 45-minute conversation between Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill and Unherd’s Matthew Goodwin, both agreeing that Rishi Sunak is really a cultural conservative who understands the Red Wall electorate and its cultural concerns. Perhaps most strikingly, the right-libertarian Spiked has just run long extracts from the latest book by Blue Labour guru Maurice Glasman.
The reason for this unexpected cross-fertilisation of ex-Trotskyites, traditionalist Tories and communitarian, socially-conservative Labourites is their ideological alignment on many of the key cultural controversies of the day. A fervent commitment to Brexit and belief in the unreformed UK nation-state are central, but what gives the two platforms their raison d’etre is the consistent vitriol directed at the mainstream left and the new social movements that have emerged around it over the last few decades. A bitter animosity against social liberalism and a caricatured ‘woke’ left is their most distinctive, current and common thrust.
Why Are They Important?
The two websites cover a broad spread of topics and Unherd especially attracts a range of authors. Its line-up of regular columnists demonstrates its national-populist, communitarian and culture-warrior proclivities. Similarly with Spiked. A recent (June 2022) Spiked home page advertises articles on “why gun control is racist”, “why Jamie Oliver can BOGOF”, “the cultural imperialism of taking the knee” and why “a woke police force is the last thing we need”.
Neither website is short of funds. Both receive hefty support from key figures associated with the populist Right. Unherd is funded by an endowment from Sir Paul Marshall, a senior hedge fund manager and ardent supporter of Brexit, who gave £500,000 to the Tories in 2019 and is a supporter of and for a short period chaired GB News. Spiked’s backing includes $300,000 from the Koch brothers, who have been one of the most substantial funders of Donald Trump.
Both have significant readerships. In April 2022 Unherd’s monthly figure was 2.7 million while Spiked’s figure was 1.4 million (by comparison, the New Statesman’s monthly readership is 1.5 million). But their main impact is the way their ideas – particularly on multiculturalism and the ‘woke agenda’ – have been eagerly lapped up by the mainstream right-wing media.
Unherd editor Freddie Sayers wrote a set of columns in the Daily Telegraph throughout the COVID crisis attacking lockdowns, while Spiked deputy editor Ella Whelan has a regular column almost exclusively devoted to culture wars.
Mick Hume, former editor of Living Marxism and then of Spiked, is an established figure on the right-wing press circuit, having had a decade-long stint with The Times, as well as blasting off occasional polemics in The Sun and now enjoying a regular slot in the Daily Mail.
After the collapse of the Truss government, Hume wrote an article for the Mail calling for the re-election of Boris Johnson on a platform of “doing away with identity politics, lowering immigration and driving down taxes”. Indeed, the Mail plays a pivotal role in the dissemination of this agenda, no doubt helped by the presence of Jacob Furedi, son of Frank, as its Features editor until last year, when he moved to become Unherd’s associate editor. Unherd columnists Goodwin and Goodhart also have regular slots in the Mail.
The cultural warriors’ influence is not restricted to the Right with Unherd writers John Gray and Louise Perry contributing to the left-leaning New Statesman. Spiked’s chief political writer Brendan O’Neill is a day-time TV regular as is Whelan. At times these pundits have direct connections to government, most notably when Munira Mirza served as Boris Johnson’s Head of Policy.
With wide readerships, substantial financial backing, and significant reach into the mainstream media, the ideologues of Spiked and Unherd are in pole position to promote their ideas. Superficially, right-libertarianism and communitarianism are directly contradictory. Yet on many of the key issues of the day – particularly those with impact on the new Tories of the Red Wall – Spiked and Unherd march in lockstep.
In part two of this analysis, we’ll discuss how and why they agree and what the progressive left should do to oppose them.