What Ernesto Laclau can teach us about the Brexit Party

What Ernesto Laclau can teach us about the Brexit Party

The political theorist’s ideas perfectly capture Nigel Farage’s vapid brand of populism.

In his attempt to capture the largest share of “the people”, Nigel Farage has left his old outfit behind. His Brexit Party is currently leading the pack, frequently by impressive margins, making it the foremost competitor to the main parties in the European elections. Part of its success hinges on Farage’s shrewd calculation of detoxification

Ukip’s thuggery has escalated under its new leader Gerard Batten. Where it once strove to appear moderate, the party’s darker characteristics are now a proud flag. Farage’s abandonment was a shrewd calculation to rid his image – and his movement – of Ukip’s toxicity.

Argentine political theorist Ernesto Laclau, who spent the majority of his career at the University of Essex, captured the logic that underpins the Brexit Party’s recent success. Laclau was well known for his work on political discourse, and how this related to successful populist movements. In a 2006 paper titled “Why constructing a people is the main task of radical politics”, Laclau laid out a compellingly simply theory: politicians invent ideas, and people unite around them.

The Solidarnosc movement in Poland became a case study for Laclau’s theory. Solidarnosc (“Solidarity”) began as a workers strike and captured swathes of the population with a vague idea of reform. Its miscellaneous supporters – trade unionists, the anti-Soviet left, the Catholic Church and democrats with varying demands – united to fight for free elections.

The movement’s ensuing campaign for a self-governing republic free from Soviet repression was a clear example of what Laclau termed a ”signifier”, a symbol around which all these groups could coalesce. It was vague and broad enough to become a catch-all for a myriad of interests. without presenting a concrete policy agenda.

As Laclau foresaw, the success of populist movements depends on a symbolic signifier that can unite varied demands under a single umbrella. The Brexit party’s empty signifier is Brexit, uniting a variety of voters under its banner; Farage loyalists, grassroots Conservatives, George Galloway, and the Communist Party. Its genius lies in its simplicity: an ideologically empty home for those angry at what they perceive as a Brexit betrayal by corrupt elites.

The party has transcended left and right and avoided boxing itself into a particular constituency or voter demographic. Ukip, on the other hand, no longer has a unifying signifier. Under Batten’s leadership, it has hardened into repository for far-right conservatism. Its candidates include the misogynistic Carl Benjamin, Mark Meechan, a frequenter of racist online forums, and racist tweeter Keith Cubar.

Meanwhile, the Brexit Party’s line-up of doctors and veterans scream normalcy, and help wash the poison from Farage’s platform. But the history of its leader still festers. Farage’s speech at the party’s launch was hate fuelled – yet nobody else seems as capable at simple, emotive politics.

To defeat right-wing populists, you must understand how to create your own unifying signifier to construct or catch the greatest share of your own “people”. For other electoral contenders …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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