Why Does the Left Keep on Losing?
You’d be excused with Brexit and the renewed threat of nuclear war, but If you weren’t aware in elections across the West the Left has been consistently losing. It’s time for a major rethink.
Those that know me, know I’m not a big fan of political generalisations across borders, especially those involving the United States. They aren’t often that useful. This is something we need to talk about however.
This year there have been elections in Germany, New Zealand and Norway, as well as here at home in the UK. In all of these the Left has failed to uproot the prevailing conservative governments and challenge the increasingly skewed state of political discourse, both of which depend on turning us against each other: rich against poor, immigrants versus natives, young versus old.
Successive parties across the west have failed to build successful coalitions around renewed arguments for a strong, supportive state, the idea of collective risk bearing, solidarity and mutual respect. The scale of the Left’s problems does vary, nonetheless.
In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn came close to toppling Theresa May in June, but the General Election still marked Labour’s second consecutive defeat. Sadly, this domestic example is an outlier. In most of the West, the Left lies stagnant or in a state of perpetual decline — growing increasingly out of touch and cut out of political debate.
This wasn’t always the case. Twenty years ago, politics across Europe was dominated by the ideas of the Third Way. In the UK, this was epitomised by Tony Blair, at the time Britain’s most popular politician, and his landslide election victory in 1997, which saw the Conservatives relegated to their worst result since 1834. This was the era of Gerhard Schröder of Germany, Wim Kok of the Netherlands, Wim Kok of the Netherlands, António Guterres of Portugal, Helen Clark of New Zealand and of course Bill Clinton in the White House.
Today, only 7 out of 28 or 21% European Union states have social democratic governments. This is significantly down from the domineering 12 out of 15 or 80% in 2000. Those Left-wing parties lucky enough to be in government today are in steep decline and face massive hurdles when their mandates come up for renewal.
What made the Third Way so successful? Politics is all about having the right message and policies at the right time, and the Left of the 1990s and early 2000s epitomised this — drawing on the feelings of modernity, prosperity and cultural liberation of the time.
In hindsight, we often undervalue the achievements of centre-ground and ‘spin’ obsessed Third Way politics but it was truly transformative — not economically but socially. Despite their faults in entrenching the growing Neoliberal consensus, Blair and his contemporaries were responsible for massive shifts in social attitudes — the engendering of progressive, socially liberal attitudes that raised public consciousness of the poor and disadvantaged. Without such, achievements such as LGBT rights and equal marriage; proper female participation in the labour market or the cancelling of Third-World debt wouldn’t have happened. It is this transformative politics that the Left need to rediscover. Whereby the harnessing of the feelings and energy of a period allows for significant radical political change — shfting the mainstream through changing public perception.
What exactly is going wrong for the Left now that wasn’t before? To do this we have to indulge in a bit more specifics.
In most countries the centre-lefts forms a key or in some cases dominant pillar in countries’ political traditions. Obsession with tradition or taking such a priviledged position for granted has often led to the Left apearing to lose its sense of mission — making its tax and spend policies seem unecessary and the parties and their leaders tenocratic and out of touch. This was eptomised by the recent elections in Norway, where the passionless technocratic leadership of Jonas Gahr Støre saw the Labour Party’s programe of progressive tax rises become absolutely divorced from the boosted public services and renewed safety net they would pay for. The SPD in the recent elections in Germany, has faced similar problems. Clever positioning and manouvering by Merkel, after two terms of a Grand Coalition with the SPD, has seen the SPD lose meaning in elections, especially after not really changing for the last two decades. Ultimately, even the candidature of the mighty Martin Schulz was not enough to renew interest in the party.
In other cases, they indulge in political infighting splintering the Left’s traditional base, often accompanied by an obsession with past conflicts which creates a culture of nastiness that alienates and scares voters. Such is increasingly the case in Spain, between PSOE and Podemos, and is a growing problem within Corbyn’s Labour.
Even the supposed success stories are disappointing. Both Jacidamania in New Zealand and Corbyn’s late surge ended in disappointment. Both suffered from too narrow a coalition, ones which were too often seen to prioritise the urban over the rural and the young over the old. Their radicalism, although powerful, failed to inspire many swing voters with their proposals being seen as excessive and lacking in credibility. However, despite their failures, both offer a guideline for the Left’s future success — it simply needs refining.
Both correctly identified that, unlike the social nature of the Third Way’s time-dependent transformative politics, the next front is the economic realm. Neoliberalism has resulted in a dangerous all-consuming predatory capitalism, putting profit above everything, which now threatens to destroy itself, as well as any idea of a social contract for younger generations. It’s by-products of environmental degradation; unaffordable housing; burgeoning private debt; an unwillingness for firms to train their staff; spiralling health care costs and an ineffective safety net — all threaten our collective prosperity. All can be challenged by a bold progressive government — they just need to win.
Transformative politics of the Left draws support across social boundaries, drawing on our common values, inspiring with a message of hope and a vision for the future in which all are included and better off. Arden and Corbyn were unable to mobilise a coalition for radical change — largely due to lacking an appeal to older, wealthier and rural voters. Such groups and their families face the same threats as those already supporting change but they were sceptical and felt threatened. They are not the Left’s enemies; our enemies are social structures and ideas. They too stand to benefit from progressive politics. Only by reaching out to such groups and analytically justifying our policies, rather than just boldly asserting our values can the Left win again, change the mainstream and be truly transformative!
A shorter version of this article was published in the inaugural October issue of Bath Time, University of Bath’s Student Magazine