Populism, it seems, was killed off by the pandemic. As the disease swept across continents, the discontents of globalised liberalism fell silent around a pervasive atmosphere of fear. In the US and Brazil, populist cabinets wobbled, stalled and lost elections. Previously hostile to experts and technocratic elites, the masses now seemed to fall in line with their policies. Lockdowns went largely unopposed, as did mass vaccination schemes; polling still returns a consistent majority of the UK public supportive of these measures. “There is strong evidence,” says Cambridge University’s Centre for the Future of Democracy, “that the pandemic has severely blunted the rise of populism.”

Now a serious challenge to this narrative can be found in the most unlikely of places: local English politics. The past year has seen protests against Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), or so-called 15-minute cities, Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) expansion and other environmental policies make national headlines. This is largely thanks to the campaigning work of grass-roots, member-funded organisations that came together during the pandemic to oppose lockdown and vaccine mandates. They have since developed a powerful funding model, a highly engaged membership and a persuasive narrative regarding the influence of unaccountable global elites disrupting the lives of ordinary people. In 2023, they show no signs of going away any time soon.

Those advocating for seemingly benign environmental policies have met this development with a mixture of confusion and horror. From Oxford to Orpington, things have come to a head at various protests against ULEZ and LTN’s. Those taking part make their objection clear: meddling councillors are attempting to restrict access to cities and to levy fines on working people. But in some cases there is also undeniably a more abstract concern about “freedom”, culminating in the paranoia that these plans are the path to a more restricted future in the name of saving the planet. This element has been picked up by certain sections of the media. “Why do traffic reduction schemes attract so many conspiracy theories?” asked one piece in the Guardian. None of this has been helped by the clumsy response of certain politicians, such as MP Nick Fletcher, who complained confusingly in the Commons about “the international socialist concept” of 15-minute cities.

Cranks and conspiracy theorists they may appear in the eyes of their opponents, but they’ve been successful in organising local opposition beyond the paranoid fringes of the internet. One, the Together Association, stands out, in large part due to its founder, Alan Miller, who led a successful campaign on behalf of the hospitality industry against vaccine passports. Together has since gone on to lead a number of campaigns on everything from opposing the expansion of ULEZ to scrapping the green gas levy. In March, a Together-backed candidate gave the council in Oxford a fright when they came from nowhere to lose to the sitting Labour councillor by just 123 votes. Now, off the back of wider concern about the imposition of such policies, Together is setting up a “shadow cabinet” to push for government accountability and transparency in the name of public concern.

Are such groups really stoking conspiracies around environmental policies, or is this just an effective grass-roots movement against an unpopular policy? This is something I ask Alan Miller himself. “The public don’t buy it,” he says when I raise the “conspiracist” smear that has appeared in the press. He goes on to describe how such policies have been promoted by the World Economic Forum, then curiously implemented by seemingly arrogant, out-of-touch councillors at the expense of everyday people. But it’s clear, speaking to Alan, that his concern about the state of our politics isn’t just confined to local councils. “What do people really want in this country?” he asks me at one point, before naming housing, family and freedom as the key issues. “We, the people, should be at the heart of things.”

In the wake of the pandemic and the supposed collapse of populism, many writers on both the left and right have said its demise might well have been exaggerated. Thomas Fazi, in particular, has suggested that populism vs centrism remains a defining feature of British politics, with the one third opposed to lockdown inspired by an enduring distrust of media and institutions. If the populist energy of mistrust, apathy and discontent with the political class hasn’t died, then the recent protests and disruption in the quiet shires of England should raise an eyebrow. From energy policy and net zero to the implementation of green living policies, is there a future populist revolt stirring on the green front?

Judging by recent events in the Netherlands, this possibility doesn’t seem far-fetched. In March, Caroline van der Plas’ Farmer-Citizen Movement shocked the country’s political system by winning a landslide victory. The background to this electoral coup was a month of farmers’ protests against the government’s plans to meet EU climate targets by reducing nitrogen emitted by farms. It was an issue the party was able to link to government ineptitude, the housing crisis and even frustration over the government’s covid policies. These threads were tied together with a powerful narrative that presented an existential threat to a way of life beyond the cities once again threatened by an out of touch elite.

Many would argue that a similar movement in the UK is almost impossible. Not only would our electoral system work against it, but arguably we lack the equivalent industry for a populist movement to cling onto. However, what the Dutch example teaches is that powerful, anti-establishment narratives can be effectively reawakened by poorly implemented environmental policies, especially in political systems like ours where apathy prevails. Such narratives cut through the old conceptions of politics, thrive on opposition to mainstream media and draw on ideas around freedom, autonomy and local community that some feel are ignored by contemporary politics. Although on a local scale and yet to send seismic waves through our national politics, Together have smuggled the unresolved challenge of populism through the pandemic, now with a renewed focus on environmental policy.

Our media and many of our politicians seem to have so far shown little interest in learning from the previous struggle against populism

Presented with this new challenge, much of our media and many of our politicians seem to have so far shown little interest in learning from the previous struggle against populism. This seam of mistrust that runs through our society is dealt with by a mixture of frustration and downright contempt. “Let’s call a spade a spade,” said the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, at a recent public meeting discussing ULEZ. “Some of those outside are part of the far right, some are covid deniers, some are vaccine deniers, and some are Tories.” Contempt may work in the short term, but perhaps the most salient lesson from recent years is that it has the unintended consequence of fuelling the populism it seeks to rebuff.

The great environmental debate is perhaps in its relative infancy. At present, a justified concern about our planet’s changing climate has seen policy painted with big brushes around grand ideas of net zero and a “greener future”. What is yet to be determined is how far policies aimed at tackling the problem play out among a large minority deeply distrustful of the very institutions tasked with saving us from the apparent apocalypse of climate change. One enduring impression from speaking to Alan Miller is the confusion he feels on behalf of the public around what exactly net zero is and how it will be achieved. He may well have a point. A recent Unherd poll asked if “the government spends too much time on green issues.” The majority of respondents (29%) neither agreed nor disagreed. There may yet be space for this apathy to once again crystallise around the old populist narrative concerning the elites and the left-behinds.

For those who want to save the planet, this is a potential dilemma that should be taken seriously. This is a tough task. Not only will it have to deal with unresolved and ongoing tensions of pre-pandemic populism, it will also have to communicate environmental policy concerning pollution and climate change from a platform of mistrust and division in media and institutions post-pandemic. There’s now a statesman’s job to be done in achieving this, and it may well have to speak to the values perceived to be once again at stake: freedom, community, dignity. If not, the old ghosts of populism may yet be stumbling blocks on the path to their desired future.

Fred Skulthorp is a freelance writer and journalist

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April 2023, Main Features

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