“Does the left have a future?” asks John Harris, citing the changes in the nature of work (see previous post), political fragmentation and the rise of nationalists and the populist right as challenges to mainstream leftwing parties throughout the western world.
Labour is engulfed by the same crisis facing its sister parties in Europe. Political commentary tends to focus on politicians, and describe the world as if parties can be pulled here and there by the sheer will of powerful individuals. But Labour’s problems are systemic, rooted in the deepest structures of the economy and society. The left’s basic ideals of equality, solidarity and a protected public realm should be ageless. But everything on which it once built its strength has either disappeared, or is shrinking fast.
The western left faces three grave challenges, which strike at the heart of its historic sense of what it is and who it speaks for. First, traditional work – and the left’s sacred notion of “the worker” – is fading, as people struggle through a new era of temporary jobs and rising self-employment, which may soon be succeeded by a drastic new age of automation. Second, there is a new wave of opposition to globalisation, led by forces on the right, which emphasise place and belonging, and a mistrust of outsiders. And all the time, politics rapidly fragments, which leaves the idea that one single party or ideology can represent a majority of people looking like a relic. The 20th century, in other words, really is over. Whether the left can return to meaningful power in the 21st is a question currently surrounded by a profound sense of doubt.
It’s difficult to disagree with any of that. The Labour Party is in dire straits at the moment and many other social democratic parties are not faring that much better. But is the rise of populism in Europe only a problem for left-wing parties or could it present challenges for the mainstream right as well? And does the term ‘right-wing’ adequately describe Europe’s populist movements?
Let’s take the EU referendum as a starting point. It tends to be seen as a victory for the populist right but the Brexit vote is the most anti-business poll result we have had in Britain for over 40 years. No vote since the election of Harold Wilson in 1974 can have caused so much dismay in corporate boardrooms. Companies find themselves having to set aside money to do things they hadn’t expected, like changing their supply chains, relocating staff and trying to understand and anticipate the new regulatory environment. Potentially being shut out of the single market, thereby losing access to customers and a ready supply of skilled workers, will severely hit their profits over the next few years. When it comes to sticking it to the bosses, then, the vote to leave the EU was the most anti-capitalist thing the British have done since they voted for nationalisation in the post-war period.
The Brexit vote was, at least in part, a re-assertion of old workerist ideas; protect the British worker from foreign competition, foreign workers and globalisation. It certainly wasn’t a vote for a smaller state. The sheer complexity of disentangling the UK from the EU and setting up new trade agreements will require an army of lawyers and civil servants. Even when these are in place, there will need to be a bureaucracy to maintain them. Immigration controls, too, need to be policed. The tougher they are, the more control will be needed.
There is a strong correlation between Brexit voting and authoritarian attitudes. Brexit voters tend to want harsher punishments and longer sentences, all of which implies more public spending, both to catch and punish the offenders. It is also likely that most are in favour of re-nationalising the public utilities.
Surveys of UKIP voters have found attitudes we usually associate with the right, like wanting tougher sentences and more discipline in schools, but also with the left, like support for re-nationalisation and the NHS, distrust of big business and the belief that wealth is not fairly distributed. As the British Social Attitudes Survey commented:
It seems that on this central issue of political debate in Britain, UKIP supporters are far from being on the right.
Similar attitudes can be found in other populist movements in Europe and among Donald Trump’s supporters in the USA. A combination of economically left-wing and culturally right-wing views, diametrically opposed to the prevailing political climate over the past three decades during which, as Alan Wolfe said, “The right won the economic war and the left won the cultural war.”
The thing is, though, this is not a new kind of politics. It’s an old one. My grandfather, a former soldier, miner and trade union activist, would not have found any of this at all strange. He was a socialist who believed in workers’ rights, nationalisation and the welfare state, while having a low opinion of those who simply ‘shirked’ and a mistrust of foreigners that I would not describe as racist but more as a mild xenophobia. What he would have made of gay marriage is anybody’s guess. Such things were not discussed. But Grandad would have no truck with ‘blackshirts’ as he still called the far-right. No party led by former fascists and racist street fighters would ever have got his vote. Many people still hold this combination of left-wing economic views and right-wing social attitudes. No-one would have questioned Bob Crow’s credentials as a left-winger yet he was in favour of capital punishment.
As it pushed its socially liberal agenda forward, the Labour Party failed to take many of its voters with it. As it emphasised its social liberalism and toned down its socialist policies, many voters began to wonder whether it still represented them.
The only reason parties like the National Front and BNP made no headway was because, like my grandfather, most voters would have no truck with such people. Every so often, a party of the far-right would try to make itself ‘respectable’ by swapping boots for suits but no-one was fooled. Then along came UKIP, the first populist right-wing group not to be founded by former leaders of racist or fascist groups and one which didn’t go in for marches and violent confrontation. It started out as a party of the libertarian right and it still describes itself as such but these days there is almost nothing libertarian about it.
There were hoots of derision from the left when James Peterson, a UKIP candidate in South Wales, described himself as “very left-wing” and UKIP as “the truly left-wing party” but looking at its policies on the NHS, the minimum wage, workers rights and the scrapping of the bedroom tax, there is plenty there to attract traditional Labour voters. More importantly, the prevailing attitudes among its target voters suggest that the party may need to shift further to the left on economic issues. As the New Statesman said, the departure of Nigel Farage may open the way for Red UKIP, which could present a serious of a challenge to Labour in places like south Wales.
All good news for the Conservatives then? Well maybe not. Both our major political parties fused different and potentially contradictory sets of attitudes together in electoral coalitions that were remarkably long-lived. The Labour Party was an alliance between socialism and social liberal progressivism while the Conservative Party brought together traditionalism, social conservatism and free market economic liberalism. Just as Labour’s social progressives won out, so did the Conservatives’ free marketeers, in what David Goodhart called the triumph of the two liberalisms, the social liberalism of the left and the economic liberalism of the right. Some of the traditional conservative voters were not at all happy with the outcome of the liberalised world.
Ed West criticised the Tories for being right-wing about the wrong things:
What is it with the Conservatives? They seem to be Right-wing only where no one wants them to be Right-wing. Theirs is a conservatism that cares nothing about British sovereignty, marriage, natural justice, defending the borders, law and order or the armed forces, but that cares deeply about reducing the rights of British workers. Contrary to the idea banded about in the less thoughtful areas of political discourse, conservatism is not about protecting the rich: it is about creating an environment that is safe, sober, crime-free, respectful, educated, gentle and high in social capital and trust. In other words, about protecting the poor and weak. Until the Conservative Party realises this, they will continue to haemorrhage support.
Peter Hitchens thinks that Thatcherism ruined Britain and that “Neoliberal free market Thatcherism is the enemy of conservatism.” You’d be pushed to find many Conservatives who would criticise Margaret Thatcher quite so bluntly but many are uneasy about the way things have turned out. They would no doubt share his opinion that the Conservative Party let “the roar of commerce” blast away communities, Christianity, marriage and the family while doing “little or nothing to reverse the demoralization brought about in the 1960s”.
Some of these disgruntled Tories shared the concerns of socially conservative Labour voters and, like them, defected to UKIP.
John Harris fears the ascendency of a new right, epitomised by the Britannia Unchained authors Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss. But the populist right is a very different sort of right from that of Raab & Co. Most of those who voted Brexit would be unlikely to go for their vision of a deregulated and Uberised economy. After all, these are the politicians who called British workers lazy. That’s not likely to go down well on Teesside. They are, as Ed West might put it, the wrong sort of right. UKIP understands this, hence its emphasis on workers’ rights.
So, it seems, does Theresa May. As Chris Dillow said, her speech about workers being exploited by unscrupulous bosses, the unhealthy gap between employees’ and bosses’ pay, the clampdown on tax dodgers and the proposal to put workers on boards made her sound a bit like a Labour prime minister. Despite some pressure from employers, she plans to go ahead with the increases in the minimum wage. Appealing to both traditional Tories and many Labour voters, she has promised of a big reduction in immigration.
The Conservative Party, then, may look like a beneficiary of the post-Brexit policies but, like Labour, it has to manage its internal contradictions. A lot of its business supporters are even more worried about restrictions on immigration than they are about the minimum wage. And, while most are resigned to leaving the EU, they are aghast at the prospect of leaving the single market. It will be almost impossible to please everybody. At best, some Tory voters will be disappointed, at worst, all will be outraged.
Aside from the almost inevitable Tory troubles, there are other reasons why the left should not despair. Although Europe is experiencing a socially conservative populist backlash, studies of social attitudes in the UK suggest that things are moving in the opposite direction. We have now reached the point where the Labour social legislation of the 1960s has majority support. Most people are now OK with gay marriage and gender equality. Social conservatism is in a gradual decline, especially among younger voters. Even the death penalty no longer enjoys majority support.
At the same time, there is no appetite for the sort of state-shrinkage advocated by some on the right. There never has been. Public attitudes oscillate between wanting more taxation and spending and keeping it the same. At the moment, the pendulum seems to be swinging back towards higher spending.
Chart by British Social Attitudes Survey
That UKIP is having to adopt more left-wing policies to steal Labour votes should also give some comfort to the left. The idea of a right-wing free-market government dismantling the state, ripping up regulation and shredding employment laws is a fantasy shared by left-wingers and the libertarian right but it’s not going to happen. In its report on post-Brexit Britain, Open Europe said that a bonfire of red-tape would be unlikely as it would not be ‘politically feasible’ to scrap all regulation currently associated with the EU. That’s another way of saying that the voters wouldn’t stand for it. Some regulations are actually quite popular.
All in all, then, there is still quite a lot of support for things that the left holds dear. The one area where the left is most out of step with public opinion is immigration. As a recent Migration Observatory report said, most people think immigration should be reduced.
Even so, as an Ipsos MORI survey found, although many people think immigration is a national problem, most don’t see it as an issue in their local area.
It’s almost as though people think that, somewhere out there, there is a mass of migrants taking people’s jobs, scrounging benefits and putting pressure on public services, even though they haven’t actually witnessed such things themselves. There must, then, be some scope for the left to fight back even on its most vulnerable flank.
This is all a very long way of saying that I don’t believe the political, social and economic changes are as stacked against the left as John Harris does. He is right that the old parties of the mainstream left will have to change but so will those of the mainstream right. He is also right to point out that the response of left-wing parties and trade unions to changes in the labour market have been inadequate but the discussion of that will require a post of its own. But to suggest that the left is doomed because we are moving inexorably into some new right-wing zeitgeist seems a bit premature. A lot of what the left has stood for in the past is still quite popular with a lot of voters.
A decade ago, people were talking about the death of the Conservative Party. That seems absurd now. Likewise, it’s a bit soon to be talking about the death of the left. It, too, will make a comeback. At some point, something will emerge from the current chaos that is capable of winning an election and throwing what looks like an unassailable government out of office. It always does in the end.