Populism: Activism’s Evil Twin

A word has been washing around in the media, spilling from the plump and pouted lips of politicians and journalists everywhere, with a meaning that is surreptitiously adapted at every convenient opportunity. It’s as though they’re all in on the act, utilising the word to make specious claims about things which in reality they have no factually-based ideas. The only certainty about this term is that it serves a receptacle function, enabling any debate within which it plays a significant role to be argued from divergent purposes, ever evading truth and certainty. Is it a Trojan Horse, a decoy, a false premise, or just utterly confused empty talk? What are people really talking about when they speak of ‘populism’? 

One answer is that populism denotes a society with a heightened degree of political engagement. In which case, the term ‘populism’ has recently been used as a veil to mask what is otherwise known as democracy, disguising it as an undesirable, even radical ideology deserving of great criticism. When sold under the guise of an “-ism”, the term becomes categorised alongside real ideologies, truly deserving of our concern (be it socialism, capitalism, fascism – now rebranded, the ‘alt-right’ – etcetera). And when the term is propagated by the media, given precedence in discourse above some truly heinous, yet increasingly popular alternative political and economic systems, more important issues relating to the corruptive intention of this term’s use become buried and forgotten under pages and pages of hypocrisy: Long live democracy, down with populism! This is the layman’s view, and has been interpreted by many as David Cameron’s view also.

Perhaps, however, populism isn’t about the political actions or championing of the common folk and their expressions against whichever branch of the politico-economic elite that they deem either (at best) detached from the needs of society or (at worst) entirely uncivilised. Maybe it has nothing to do with political empowerment or mobilisation whatsoever. Maybe it’s simply a descriptive term, used as shorthand to express a state of democracy, whereby the people take democratic action as a consequence of the system force-feeding them ‘untruths’ within a ‘post-factual’ era – still implying that it is the people and not the system that is untrustworthy, denigrating the value of democracy without appearing to do so. Indeed, a world in which the people’s opinions can do easily be called into question would be utterly enticing, would it not? Opportunities to defend the infallible necessity of radical paternalism would regularly present themselves, clearing the road to a seemingly democratic plutocracy! Bliss. Oh what a beautiful world… I kid, of course, but that’s how Donald Trump’s cabinet seem to be benefiting from populism (12).

But then, maybe it is not the political system that is populistic. Maybe it is the politicians themselves who are the populists – popularising themselves and their prejudices via vicious demagoguery and nationalistic fear mongering. If this is the case, then it appears as though populism isn’t being used as a veil but instead creates the veil through which the electorate are presented a skewed and biased version of democracy. (This leads one to consider whether contemporary populism is a symptom of neoliberalism – read here).

In one sense, these two ideas – that populism describes a state of true democracy and that it is the leaders, the protagonists and not the people who are the populists – both hold true. Just as an activist movement can be described as democratic action, so too can a populist movement. Similarly, activist and populist movements and groups share the characteristic of being led by those who we might also refer to as activists or populists. This might suggest that activism and populism are one and the same; activists are populists and populists are activists.

However, what differentiates these two schools (as far as I see it), if they are truly differentiable at all, is that activism is led by the virtuous and populism is lead by the incongruous. What this means is that, quite unfortunately, well-intentioned, politically-engaged people, who might otherwise be seen as activists, unknowingly become populists when their chieftains decide to take the low road, promoting their positions through deceitful means, justifying them using pseudo-academic literature. (Which is suggested by the rhetoric and subsequent rise of history’s most prominent populist leaders as being so tightly associated with and attributed to post-fact politics. As two examples of this rising trend, Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump come to mind here. Hence, whilst Bernie Sanders may be described, perhaps even criticised as a champion of activism, Trump is populism’s equivalent, as was Hitler during his rise). In short, populism is activism’s evil twin.

So, whilst activism is the attempt by the people to perpetuate democracy through social empowerment, populism is the attempt to perpetuate politico-economic empowerment through pseudo-democracy. Populism is democracy gone wrong. And whether or not you find this conception compelling, one thing is for sure: ‘populism’ is rarely ever what is seems.


A.C. Stark

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

“[I]nstead of making excuses tomorrow to our children and grandchildren, we should be taking action against climate change today.”David Cameron, COP 21 Summit in Paris


I haven’t had much time to write recently. Besides working a day job I’ve been supporting Campaign Against Climate Change with their current campaign, Going Backwards on Climate Change – a cause that’s well worth the sacrifice.

Going Backwards will reach its climax on the 7th and 8th of May, as communities around the UK, in London, Bristol, Manchester, Brighton, Leeds, Leicester, Nottingham and Sidmouth will take to the streets in protest against government backtracking on laws and initiatives fundamentally created to tackle anthropogenic climate change (click here for full event details). 

For a while I’ve been wanting to write a post about what inspired this campaign. Thankfully, courtesy of Claire James from Campaign Against Climate Change, my work has been done for me. Here, in full, is her article.

Going Backwards on Climate Change

In 2008, an unprecedented law was passed in the UK: the Climate Change Act, committing the UK to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. Recognising the crisis faced and the need for urgent action, all major parties supported it: just five MPs voted against.

What has changed since then? More greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, inducing record heat. Even climate scientists were surprised by the record-breaking temperatures in January and February 2016, following 2014 and 2015 consecutively being the warmest recorded. More extreme weather events linked to climate change, including severe flooding in the UK in recent years. Clearer science, including a better idea of the (diminishing) carbon budget we can afford to burn. In short: even greater urgency.

But that cross-party consensus on climate change has fractured. This is not admitted openly: David Cameron still felt able to deliver a speech urging negotiators in Paris “Instead of making excuses tomorrow to our children and grandchildren, we should be taking action against climate change today”. But the sense of urgency in tackling climate change at home has clearly slipped away. And since the current government took office on 8 May 2015, there have been a series of major policy reversals taking us backwards on climate action, just when we should be pressing forward with a shared understanding that the alternative is unthinkable.

We call on the government to start going forwards again – to base all policy-making in a clear recognition of the reality of our situation, facing catastrophic climate change…

Going Backwards on Solar
In December subsidies for solar panels on homes were cut by 65%. The Government has also imposed a cap on the total subsidy paid out, meaning the rate of domestic solar installations is set to halve, according to the Solar Trade Association. Larger solar installations (more than 1MW) on roofs and in solar parks have had their support cut by 85% and 71% respectively, meaning the market for the most cost-effective projects is all but dead.1

The industry said the planned cuts announced in the summer have already cost 6,500 jobs. The government’s impact assessment for the changes shows that between 9,700 and 18,700 jobs in the solar industry could be lost as a result of the cuts.2

Going Backwards on Wind Energy
Perhaps it should not be a surprise that this government has been less than green: the Conservative manifesto even contained a pledge to ‘halt the spread of onshore wind’. Onshore wind farms are the cheapest form of clean energy, recently found to be competitive with burning coal or gas.3 And despite some active campaigns against them, they are relatively popular with the public compared to other forms of energy generation.

New planning obstructions were introduced to make wind farms more difficult to build, and then the tap was turned off on government support. New onshore wind farms are excluded from the Renewables Obligation subsidy scheme from 1 April 2016, a year earlier than expected (with a grace period for projects which already have planning permission).

Going Backwards – Taxing Renewables
The Climate Change Levy (CCL) is a tax on business energy use, from which electricity generated from qualifying renewable sources was exempt, to encourage a switch to clean energy. But this exemption was removed in July 2015 with almost-immediate effect. The additional tax on renewable energy was estimated at £450 million in 2015/16, rising to £910 million in 2020/21, a total of £3.9 billion over the next six years. This is now expected to be even higher from 2017 onwards, because of changes announced in the 2016 budget.

Going Backwards on Warm Homes
The UK’s renewable resources mean we can quit our dependence on fossil fuels – if we cut down our energy waste by becoming more efficient. CO2 emissions from housing currently make up nearly a third of all the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions4 and we have among the poorest-insulated homes in Europe. There is an immediate human cost to this: there were 43,900 excess winter deaths in 2014/15, of which 9000 are directly attributed to people living in cold homes.5

First the Green Deal was scrapped. With no forewarning or consultation with industry, the scheme offering loans for energy efficiency measures was killed off. Then ECO (the requirement for energy companies to fund energy efficiency measures, targeted on poorer households) was cut back: to be replaced in 2017 by a ‘cheaper’ option.6

The number of energy efficiency measures installed in British homes has fallen by 80% since 2012. During the last Parliament 5 million households were helped but only 1.2 million households are expected to receive energy efficiency measures this Parliament.7

Much more effective than retrofitting existing homes is ensuring new ones are efficient, but the government has also scrapped the Zero Carbon Homes requirement. This would have ensured that all new dwellings from 2016 would generate as much energy on-site – through renewable sources, such as wind or solar power – as they would use in heating, hot water, lighting and ventilation. This was to be supported by tighter energy efficiency standards that would come into force in 2016, and a scheme which would allow housebuilders to deliver equivalent carbon savings off site.8

 Going Backwards – Fossil Fuel Subsidies
For decades, exploitation of the UK’s North Sea oil reserves brought in billions in tax receipts (although whether this was wisely invested is another question…). Now with low oil prices and oil companies pulling out of the depleted fields,9 it is no longer a cash cow.

But in February 2015 the Infrastructure Act legally bound all future governments to ‘maximise the economic recovery of UK petroleum’, in direct contradiction of climate change obligations.10 George Osborne has been throwing tax breaks at the sector (the only G7 country to dramatically increase fossil fuel subsidies, despite a pledge to phase them out).11 Further tax breaks in the 2016 budget mean that between 2016 and 2021 oil companies will be actually receiving up to £1.2 billion a year from taxpayers because of tax repayments to loss-making operators.

There is only one way to protect jobs in the long term: a plan for a carefully managed transition to a sustainable economy based on clean energy, not a desperate scramble to extract every drop of oil while pulling the plug on jobs in renewables and energy efficiency.

Going Backwards – Fracking and Local Democracy
The government continues to look to fracking in search of a new oil and gas bonanza. But they face two obstacles. The first is growing evidence that any significant exploitation of shale gas would breach UK carbon budgets.12Claims that it could be a cleaner ‘bridge fuel’ to replace coal have been shattered by alarming research is emerging from the US on the scale of leaks of the greenhouse gas methane from fracking sites.

The second is determined local opposition. Campaigners in Lancashire celebrated last year when the local council rejected Cuadrilla’s fracking application, but were then told that the decision could be taken away from the local council by the Secretary of State. Councils had already been told to fast-track decisions on fracking or ministers will step in13 (as announced shortly after making it harder for wind farms to get planning permission).14 The consistent message from government has been that fracking is of such national importance that local concerns can be overridden.

Going Backwards –  Coal
The government announced that coal power stations would be shut by 2025 (“if we’re confident that the shift to new gas can be achieved within these timescales.”)15 But in last year’s ‘capacity market auction’, handing out subsidies for electricity generation, a total of £139 million of subsidies were to be awarded to coal power stations in 2019, in addition to £176 million over the next 15 years to small-scale dirty diesel generators.16

Coal burning in the UK needs to stop, and so does opencast coal extraction. However there are currently applications for new or extended opencast coal mines in Wales and North East England. In 21st century Britain, local communities should not be having to mount a defence against these threats to the local and global environment.

Going Backwards on Sustainable Transport
It has been estimated that £30 billion of public money from various sources will be spent during 2015-2020 on roads. This spending is predominantly on large-scale new roads, widening motorways etc.17 In his 2016 budget, the Chancellor announced £75 million funding for research into a Trans-Pennine tunnel, a project which if it goes ahead would have a £6bn budget. Meanwhile local bus services are being slashed under the pressure of shrinking local authority budgets.

Fuel duty has now been frozen for six years. And in July 2015 Vehicle Excise Duty was reshaped to remove incentives to buy less polluting cars. After the first year, rates for new vehicles would be set at a standard rate unless their CO2 emissions were zero. So owners of efficient vehicles get a tax rise, owners of the most polluting cars get a big tax cut, and to round it off, the income will be ring-fenced for spending on roads.

Going Backwards on aviation expansion
The lack of concern for carbon emissions is shown most dramatically in Cameron’s own personal U-turn on a third runway at Heathrow – emitting more than the whole of Kenya, this would make it impossible for the UK to meet its legally binding climate targets, even if a coherent carbon-cutting policy was adopted for the rest of the economy.18

Going Backwards – One Step Forwards, Two Steps Back?
To avoid being accused of caricature or unfairness, it should be said that not every decision made by the government in the past year has been relentlessly negative for the climate. However, overall these decisions have taken us in the wrong direction. And the way decisions have been taken has seemed almost designed to undermine the confidence of potential investors in clean energy or energy efficiency. Drastic changes have been made at short notice with no forewarning or consultation; existing schemes scrapped with a vague promise of replacing them at some point in the future; and despite ambitious long-term targets, there is a lack of clarity on how the UK will meet them.

 Going Forwards on Climate Change
Looking globally, there is a huge shift underway to clean energy. But it’s not happening fast enough. The only thing that can get us on the right track in the UK is huge public pressure. We are building a mass movement and it needs participation from people from all walks of life. There is an urgent need for both inspiring direct actions and millions of conversations on climate change among ordinary people – breaking the silence and bringing the message to politicians that we will not accept any more backtracking on climate change.

1. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2015/dec/17/uk-cuts-renewable-energy-make-a-mockery-of-its-pledge-paris-climate-talks1

2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-35119173 

3. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/oct/07/onshore-wind-farms-cheapest-form-of-uk-electricity-report-shows

4. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jul/10/uk-scraps-zero-carbon-home-target

5. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/fuel-poverty-killed-15000-people-last-winter-10217215.html

6. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/energy/12017361/autumn-statement-2015-30-energy-bill-saving-as-Chancellor-cuts-insulation.html

7. http://www.ukace.org/2016/03/treasury-slammed-following-9000-cold-home-deaths/

8. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jul/10/uk-scraps-zero-carbon-home-target

 9. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/02/23/north-sea-oil-standing-at-the-edge-of-a-chasm/

10. http://www.desmog.uk/2016/03/29/not-even-osborne-s-1bn-fossil-fuel-tax-break-can-convince-some-oil-companies-stay-north-sea

11. http://www.desmog.uk/2015/11/12/uk-government-has-ramped-fossil-fuel-subsidies-nearly-6-billion-year

 12. http://www.carbonbrief.org/mps-brand-fracking-incompatible-with-uk-climate-targets

13. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/aug/13/government-will-step-in-if-councils-dont-fast-track-fracking-applications

 14. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/giving-local-people-the-final-say-over-onshore-wind-farms

15. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-34851718

16. https://sandbag.org.uk/site_media/pdfs/reports/Capacity_Mechanism_analysis4.pdf

 17. http://www.bettertransport.org.uk/blog/roads/231114-road-spending-30-billion

 18. http://www.aef.org.uk/2015/06/19/aviation-emissions-to-soar-under-airports-commission-proposals-new-aef-report-shows/