Whats Wrong with Populism

19 December 2017

In November the Trust support a group of NI VCSE sector representatives to attend the World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg. 

In the third of a series of reflections from the event, Lyn Moffett of Building Communities Resource Centre writes about the issue of populism and its role in spurring racism and anti-migrant sentiment.


The best boss I ever had, the late John Darby, once wrote an essay called What’s Wrong with Conflict[1]? in which he argued that, while violence can be destructive, conflict in the form of open discussion of difference and division has the potential to lead to constructive change.

The theme of the World Forum on Democracy this year was “Is Populism a Problem?”  So what is wrong with populism, why has “populism” become a pejorative term if the OED defines it as:

“a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite”?

As a loose sort of liberal socialist, that sounds pretty attractive to me – a philosophy which looks after the needs of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of our society, strives for equity, and shares resources. Or maybe not… The decision of the British people to leave the European Union, the election of Trump in the United Sates, the rise of far-right parties in several European countries and an increase in anti-migrant rhetoric have all been attributed to a rise in populism.  So, just how populist have we become?  If I have learnt one thing over the last couple of years, it is not to assume that my views represent those of the “silent majority”, or indeed, that the “silent majority” shares a single view.  I now believe that my understanding of populism is not shared by others who have “hijacked the political debate” and whose aim is to

 “curb political pluralism and freedom of expression, and undermine the judiciary, media and multi-lateral institutions that can hold them accountable” (World Forum for Democracy Programme 2017)

Speakers at the Forum were particularly adamant that we must acknowledge racism and populist responses to migrants, rather than attempt to ignore or deny their existence. I share that view and believe that it is equally important that we don’t divorce political discourse from grass roots political opinion, and that we make it possible for all voices to be heard as part of the discourse.

My organisation works to both support members of BME communities and migrant workers, and promote inter-culturalism within the host community, so I took a particular interest in panels and contributors who were looking at responses to anti-migrant populist rhetoric and action. In some cases, it was good to hear initiatives already underway in Northern Ireland reinforced by experiences in mainland Europe, and that, to quote Joseph Malins,

“It’s better to build a fence at the top of the cliff than to keep an ambulance down in the valley”. 

Effective responses to racism and anti-migrant sentiment must include:

Local and National frameworks for Inclusion, which are backed up by legislation and implemented. The old Coleraine Borough Council developed a Cohesion Strategy called Tomorrow Together which aimed to promote a sense of belonging for all members of the community. These strategies must address cultural fears including Islamophobia and fear of migrants.

Civic leaders and a media who engage in more balanced discourse about migration and social issues.

Sanctions against media and political leaders who promote hate speech.

Life-long learning – education initiatives which form part of the school curriculum, but also extend out into the community at all levels and for all age groups.  Mythbusting in all its forms delivered by BME support organisations who can act as a bridge between incomers and the host community.

Negotiating for better trading environments, improving workers’ rights as well as the economy. Creating more employment, and ensuring equality in the workplace should reduce perceptions that “they’re taking our jobs”

Trade and progress must go hand in hand while all the time supporting citizens through transitions and change. We must find new partners with whom to promote inclusion, including businesses and major employers.

Create more inter-cultural social activities to promote cultural enrichment.  In Northern Ireland we can point to examples such as the Belfast Mela, Chinese New Year, and campaigns such as “One Day Without us”, which value the input of migrants and the benefits of diversity.

At the end of the day though, we must choose our battles wisely and be realistic about whether we are engaged in damage limitation or are active agents for change. Which brings me back to What’s wrong with Conflict or What’s Wrong with Populism? I am reminded of what was, for me, the most invigorating exchange of the Forum.  A young questioner aggressively challenged one of the stand-out contributors to the debate, Carmen Perez, wanting to know why she continued to talk to racists, to engage with populists and members of right wing groups.  Her response was:

“We need to talk to the racist, not shame them.  We need to understand why. We need to create an entry point for people to come into our movement.  By speaking to racists we are not making them feel comfortable, we’re letting them know it is okay to feel uncomfortable”

If we don’t engage with populists we will not be able to address the fears and misconceptions that drive them, and none of the antidotes to populism will have any hope of being effective in creating prosperous and cohesive societies.


[1] http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/csc/reports/conflict.htm

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