James Wood explores the sources of populism in the United Kingdom, its recent developments, and what this means for the country’s 2024 general election.

This article is part of a series seeking to understand the issues of political economy driving populist movements around the world as we proceed through the “year of elections.” We will publish a new article every week, which you can find here.

The anticipated 2024 general election in Britain presents an important moment to assess the trajectory of the country’s “long” populist politics. Although an oft-maligned term, many definitions of populism focus on a core antagonistic relationship between “the people” and a corrupt or incompetent “elite.” Populists argue the “will of the people” has been ignored by “the elite.” who prioritize the rights of individuals over the preferences of the majority. Britain can be said to be suffering the effects of long populism, as populist political actors have proven ineffective in addressing “the people’s” problems, despite their promises to do so, leaving a lasting legacy of political discontent.

The source of Britain’s long populism

The 2016 referendum on Britain’s exit (Brexit) from the European Union is often viewed as the major populist moment in recent British politics. Leaving the EU in 2020 was viewed as a long-standing demand by the voting public that was ignored by metropolitan, elitist British politicians who prized EU membership. However, Brexit was a policy solution looking for a problem, as leaving the European Union was not considered a political priority for voters until after the referendum was announced in 2015. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as the EU was not the cause of Britain’s economic, political, and social problems, leaving the EU has not resolved them.

Regional economic inequalities were a key driver of Brexit and are still a major source of political division in Britain. London and the South East have much higher levels of productivity and prosperity than the rest of the country, and the United Kingdom has one of the highest levels of regional inequality across the OECD economies. These regional inequalities are largely a result of Britain’s failure to successfully adapt to deindustrialisation and the rise of the knowledge economy, as indicated by the decline in the manufacturing share of GDP from 16% in 1990 to 8% in 2022, and the increase of the service sector share from 68% to 72% during this same period. Many former manufacturing-focused regions in economic decline were reliant on government support and, therefore, were further negatively impacted by the austerity spending cuts implemented after the 2008 global financial crisis.

The Conservative Party’s “levelling up” program was introduced in 2019 under Prime Minister Boris Johnson to reduce Britain’s regional inequalities. However, the program has not achieved its aims. As of March 2024, only 10% of levelling up funds were allocated and The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities was criticized for failing to provide “any compelling examples of what had been delivered.” Furthermore, the levelling up funds have failed to offset a decade of cuts to council funding from the central government. As such, the Conservatives’ flagship program to reduce regional inequalities has failed to significantly regenerate those regions “left behind” from the decline of manufacturing industries challenged by globalization.

Furthermore, whilst Britain’s populists asserted that leaving the EU would allow Britain to “take back control” over its trade negotiations to support the exports of its waning manufacturing sector, post-Brexit trade agreements have provided marginal economic benefits to the country. Overall, Britain’s economic malaise that the Leave Campaign associated with the EU shows no sign of ending despite Brexit.

Immigration from the EU was also thought to be a key driver of Brexit. This was not strictly a “cultural backlash,” as Brexit supporters were not significantly concerned about the cultural impacts of EU migration. Furthermore, areas with high levels of EU migrants tended to vote remain in the EU and thus keep open channels of immigration. Rather, it was persistently perceived by Brexit supporters that EU migration posed an economic threat to British workers. Consequently, populist figures were able to garner popular support in Britain by advocating for greater autonomy in immigration policies (Farrell & Newman, 2017). However, post-Brexit Britain has seen an increase in net migration from 336,000 in 2015 to 606,000  in 2022. This has led to the development of extreme policies to curb migration, such as placing migrants on offshore barges or sending them to Rwanda whilst processing their applications, which are performatively draconian in nature, whilst not being particularly effective.

Democratic decline, cakeism and long populism in Britain

Addressing the economic insecurity underlying Britain’s political instability has been beyond successive prime ministers since the promises of Brexit were made, leaving voters dissatisfied with the quality of their democracy and the country facing a continued battle with long populism.

Anti-elite sentiment remains strong in Britain. According to recent opinion polls, 64% of British voters believe the country is in a state of decline. Such pessimism coincides with a pervasive anti-system sentiment, with 70% of polled voters perceiving the economy as structured to favor wealthy elites, whilst 66% also believing traditional political parties are indifferent to voter concerns. 62% of British voters call for increased government spending to address their economic concerns, particularly on healthcare, public safety, education, infrastructure, job creation and reducing inequality. Yet only 28% of voters believe the government should increase taxes to pay for additional public spending. Such political “cakeism” (to have it and eat it too) is a key issue, as the British electorate struggles to calculate the trade-offs necessary to develop sufficient solutions to those complex problems.

This relates to a dilemma that is peculiar to the British public: we want to be taxed like the Americans and have the social services of Scandinavians. However, we currently have the converse, as the tax base is the highest it has been in decades, but the provision of social services is crumbling, and the beloved National Health Service is on its knees. Yet, this paradox of long populism shows no sign of abating, with politicians still promoting the seemingly impossible combination of pre-election tax cuts and promises of social service improvement.

The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has recently called for politicians to be more honest with voters about the trade-offs between the level taxation required to adequately fund the levels of health and pension provision demanded by voters. However, honest politics rarely produces successful election campaigns, and adopting a high tax and spend policy platform is a risky strategy that only the bravest politician would adopt in Britain’s current climate. Therefore, the anti-elitism and cakeist politics at the heart of Britain’s long populism shows no sign of abating.

Starmer’s New Labour: A new hope?

The upcoming British election anticipated in late 2024 offers reasons for hope and concern. As demonstrated by Barack Obama’s presidency, the potential for political change offers hope. Sitting on a vote share of 24%, the Conservatives are performing woefully in pre-election opinion polls compared to Labour (43%). Rather than shift towards the center to appeal to the median voter behind the Labour Party’s large majority, the Conservatives have lurched further to the right to recapture disenchanted supporters attracted to the Reform Party, the post-Brexit name for the UK Independence Party (UKIP). Reform focuses on issues of illegal immigration, high taxation, and poor-quality public services that were the core of UKIP’s anti-EU campaign, but blames the Conservatives for bungling  Brexit’s benefits.

After adopting the UKIP’s policies to win the 2015 and 2017 general elections, there is historical precedent for the Conservatives to embrace such a strategy. However, history doesn’t repeat itself in cycles, and Conservative strategists have seemingly forgotten that each election is context specific. Therefore, it is likely that Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party will cruise to an election victory with a sufficient majority to enact their policy program.

Whilst change offers hope, it is questionable how much change or hope there will be in tackling Britain’s long populism. As the Labour Party has focused on many issues associated with populist politics, any Labour victory in the upcoming election offers little hope of any major political change in Britain. Starmer’s Labour targets what party strategists describe as “hero voters”: those from areas supportive of Brexit who are older, white, and identify as working class. Labour has also adopted a critical stance towards globalization, prioritizing manufacturing sectors prized by those in “left behind” regions over the service sectors associated with London. The party also embraced more socially conservative views, such as taking a tough stance on crime and being less aspirational on tackling climate issues. Furthermore, Starmer’s speeches are laden with references to traditional values, such as hard work, family, duty, and service, as well as British nationalism. Starmer’s Labour have also condemned Westminster as inherently self-serving and corrupt, playing into the notion of anti-elite populism, and liberal terms such as equality, freedom, and openness are noticeably absent from his rhetoric. Although 56% of the British public are in favor of re-joining the EU, Starmer has stated there is “no case” for doing so. The combination of these factors echoes many aspects of the populist politics of Boris Johnson and allows Labour to appeal to the “Red Wall” constituencies they lost in 2019.

Yet, Starmer’s leadership is comparatively boring to Johnson’s by design. He is a safe pair of hands after the omnishambles of Conservative leaders who have overseen the British state since they took power in 2010. Starmer appeals to British voters as he offers what they really want: a changeless change. He adopts many of the same populist politics of his Conservative predecessors, but he is not a Conservative. Therefore, it is unlikely that Britain will recover from its permanent crisis of long populism even after the election.

An optimist might argue that future policy must adopt bold strategies to address the economic inequalities underlying Britain’s permanent crisis of long populism. For example, the United States invested heavily since 2010 to develop a nationwide set of advanced manufacturing institutes and innovation hubs to spur regional economic development in “left behind” areas, including the Midwest and Rustbelt, and improve the country’s international competitiveness. President Joe Biden built on the work he undertook as Obama’s vice president to invest further in advanced manufacturing and innovation to drive regional growth and address economic inequalities. However, good policies do not always deflate populist politics, as U.S. government support for its domestic manufacturing sectors was not sufficient to stop a Trump victory in 2016, and Trump’s hold over the Republican primaries gives him a strong chance of becoming president again in 2024.

Furthermore, whether the British state can model itself after the U.S. in regard to driving innovation-led growth is highly questionable. The British government has an innovation policy unit, but the government’s inability to build an 80 mile stretch of high-speed rail line between London and “the north” on time or within budget suggests their capacity to develop a U.S.-style innovation-led manufacturing network is limited. American hegemony over the global financial system allows the U.S. government to borrow extensively and bypass difficult conversations with voters about taxation and spending. Despite the promises of Brexit, the U.K. has no such privileges in the international economy. Therefore, British politicians need to develop a political strategy enabling them to be honest with voters about the trade-offs inherent in addressing their economic concerns. However, whether such honesty is compatible with the electoral competitive struggle for power in Britain is debatable. Therefore, Britain’s permanent crisis of long populism may well continue for decades to come.

Articles represent the opinions of their writers, not necessarily those of the University of Chicago, the Booth School of Business, or its faculty.