Left populism emerged as a political tendency in the years after the global financial crisis. Early on, it was often hostile to electoral politics, as in Occupy Wall Street and the “movement of the squares” in Europe. But left-populist energies were soon rechanneled into political parties. By the middle of the 2010s, some saw in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Unbowed movement, Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Germany’s Left party, and the Left Bloc in Portugal a new radical-left formation that could sweep away the discredited center-left establishment. Syriza’s victory in the 2015 Greek parliamentary vote and Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the Labour party the same year marked the high point of this optimistic view.
Just a few years later, left populism was in retreat across Europe, due sometimes to its abject capitulation to the establishment, as with Syriza, sometimes to its electoral failures, notably Corbyn’s crushing defeat in Britain’s 2019 general election. This arc was so accelerated that by the time Verso Books published the manifesto For A Left Populism (2018), by the movement’s leading thinker, Chantal Mouffe, the political project’s collapse was imminent.
Three years on, the same publisher has offered a sort of system update in the form of James Schneider’s Our Bloc: How We Win. The book offers a chance to review Britain’s experience of left populism from the perspective of one of its leading strategists. A co-founder of Momentum, the grassroots pro-Corbyn movement, Schneider became a key spokesman for the Labour leader. Schneider’s short book is a useful one, since it outlines a clear direction for left populism in the wake of its failure. But it doesn’t directly tackle the contradiction that doomed Corbynism: how the movement approached Brexit. This fatal omission makes clear that any left populism that follows Schneider’s lead will remain in thrall to the same anti-majoritarian attitudes that led to Corbyn’s defeat.
Schneider presents his book as a blueprint for left populists disillusioned with the post-Corbyn Labour party’s rightward turn under Keir Starmer. As he outlines it, the path to victory for the British left doesn’t necessarily include Labour. A decade after left populists pivoted from horizontal organizing to party politics, Schneider calls for a reversal: a new “movement populism” that puts greater weight on social movements than parties.