Don’t write the left off yet

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.

He says:

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.

Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 12.05.14

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.

screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-18-01-28Even 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.

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10 Responses to Don’t write the left off yet

  1. Roger says:

    An excellent and well argued piece supported with interesting data.

    You should send it to the Guardian or Torygraph or something as it deserves a wider audience.

    Thanks for writing it.

  2. Patricia Leighton says:

    Not a lot about more moderate, centrist parties that often do hold the balance of power. Most European governments are coalitions or compromises-the ‘Left-Right’ thing is a bit old hat, isn’t it?

  3. tony says:

    Good. Though I wonder if conservatives aren’t better at saying one thing and doing another (and our media is hopeless at noticing). See, Osborne talking about cutting the deficit while reining in austerity; almost everything the Republican Party has been doing in recent decades.

  4. patrickhadfield says:

    Thanks for that – interesting.

    As an aside… A “bonfire of red taps…”! Cold water only from Open Britain, then!

  5. gunnerbear says:

    “Many people still hold this combination of left-wing economic views and right-wing social attitudes.”

    And both Reds and Blues gave us the finger……well and truly….

  6. Truth to Power says:


    In 1867 a Royal Commission recommended the legalisation of Trade Unions, and by 1871 the government had made them legal. The Trade Unions sought to reform socio-economic conditions for working men in British industries. By 1900 they had decided to change society through politics and formed the Labour representative Committee which by 1906 had evolved into the Labour Party.

    Throughout the 1800’s and early 1900’s workers children were poorly educated and their main hopes of employment was to follow in the footsteps of their fathers into professions such as mining, iron and steel industries, etc. (these professions ran in their families), others gained trades and skills from their fathers (if the father was a skilled worker) and through apprenticeships. Perhaps not surprising the Trade Unions were highly protective of their members and formed ‘closed shops’, which barred others from entering that profession (the actors trade union EQUITY was such a union which ran a ‘closed shop’). To gain employment in certain industries, workers needed to gain admittance to the appropriate Trade Union – leave your union, or upset your union officials, then you would find that you no longer have a job, and you would be unemployable within that profession. This was a form of bullying, intimidation, and dictatorship, that creating an environment where some workers feared their Trade Unions and their members. Personality’s evolved such as ‘Red Robbo’ who destroyed the relationship between their Trade Union Officials and the workforce, and names like Author Scargill who arguably lead his workforce to meet his unions political objectives. Many may remember Eddie Shah who set up the ‘Today Newspaper’ who was confronted the print workers trade unions (another ‘closed shop’ that was resistant to change) at his Warrington print works and the Manchester news offices in 1983 when he tried employ non union members, and tried to use new technologies not previously used within that industry, he was threatened by the unions. In the November of that year he received death threats (as many MP’s have receiving for their lack of support for Jeremy Corbin). Shah was confronted by 4,000 trade unionists (‘flying pickets’) at the doors of his print works, because of not recognise the trade unions, police had to protect his property and workers had to be bussed in. In 1989/1990 the Labour party was forced by the European Union to stop supporting ‘closed shops’ which the Conservatives government made illegal in 1990 (1990 Employment Act – This year Jeremy Corbyn is considering reinstating such practices and re-introduction of ‘closed shops’, ‘flying pickets’, etc., in some professions (

    Stepping back to the early 1900’s workers had been trapped into occupations, and often exploited by employers, so sought ways of freeing their children would have better lives. Workers clubbed together and funded universities such as Durham University (formed in 1832), University Colleges of Wales (formed in 1893), to provide their children gateway’s from the pits and steel industries.

    During the 1960 we saw the emergence of Polytechnics. These provided degrees in applied sciences, had lower entrance standards, these were generally regarded as inferior places for those who could not achieve the grades necessary to attend university. In 1975 as few as 4% of school leavers had the opportunity of gaining a University Education, less than 4% went to Polytechnic’s, whilst others took apprenticeships, or were employed in industry.

    The Higher Education Act 1992 abolished the ‘binary divide’ between universities, polytechnics and technical colleges, and brought about the creation of a large number of ‘post-1992’ universities. It is debatable whether this was a good thing as it eradicated more practical forms of education. Today approximately 60% of school leavers now attend university. This devalues degrees and as a method of selecting the brightest and best graduates, in today’s market the name of your secondary school, whether you have a private education, the name of your university, and your grade, have increased in importance. The governments and the electorate need to understand the values of having a ‘full spectrum’ education policy, rather than a monotone system which is driving towards uniformity ( – listen to the views of the electorate in first half).

    In the early 1900’s workers aspirations were limited, and as explained they were locked into professions due to their:


    Today these issues have largely been addressed by:

    • HEALTH AND PHYSICAL FITNESS – is addressed by the health service and medical advances.
    • the LACK OF EDUCATION has been addressed by our modern education system.
    • SKILLS AND CRAFTSMANSHIP has become less important due to automation and robotics.
    • toxic TRADE UNIONS have been constrained by legislation.
    • KNOWLEDGE, EXPERIENCE, CREATIVITY OR INVENTIVENESS cannot be addressed by education alone.
    • LACK OF WEALTH is relative, so though living standard may have improved the rankings have not changed and relativities have increased. Things like ‘minimum wage’ increase migration, maintain low pay, and because of immigration provide insecurity to our workforce. Though politicians may argue this is good for our economy, it is bad for our workforce, bad for the countries from where they have come and widens the disparity thus causing instabilities in population
    • THE NEEDS TO PROVIDE FOR FAMILIES has to some extent been addressed by the benefits system.

    The concerns of the workers have changed and the needs for Trade Unions has largely disappeared. In pursuing their ideologies, largely rooted in the time of their inception (1900’s), there has been a gradual parting of company between the Labour Party and their voters.

    Attempts were made by the Labour party to re-align itself (New Labour) and this was rewarded by some success from 1997 to 2009 and tried to create a space between the party and the Trade Unions ( Scotland was drawn away from its traditional support of Labour towards nationalism, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). New parties have emerged like the United Kingdom National Party (UKIP) which aligns more closly with the wishes of the electorate, and has been bleeding supporters from both Labour, Conservative and other parties. Most have created defensive shield against them (explained in the next paragraph). The Labour party ideologies have started to pull the party back towards its old self and away from the modern electorate, it has become unstable, and has been drawing disconnected and disaffected people in as supporters (Corbynistas

    What do the electorate want? Many of the electorate would like to see restraints of the differentials between the highest and lowest paid in their companies (which can only be achieved through legislation). Many would like to see a curb on the free movement of people who constrain pay, are a burden on our social services, and jeopardise employment (which means leaving the EU). Many would like to see a curb on passing our government overspends onto our children (are sympathetic towards austerity). Many see the importance of our defence (which labour would like to trade to increased expenditure in our health services). Many parents want their children to children inheriting their wealth when they pass away – but this most certainly is not the view of the Labour Party. The ideologies of the Labour Party need to be brought in line with needs of the bulk of the electorate, and not simply pander to charities, good causes, immigrants, the small factions of disconnected and disaffected members of the electorate, social engineering and Politically Correct (PC). They must also stop bullying people by calling them ’sexist’ (Emily Thornberry criticised Sky News presenter Dermot Murnaghan of sexism, ‘racist’ (accusations frequently made by the left – particularly against Nigel Farage, anti-British (notably Emily Thornberry’s tweet about ‘white van man’, in an attempt to side-line their arguments and pushing the true views of the electorate underground, together with being anti-imperialistic (Corbyn refusing to sing the national anthem This so called PC is toxic to most normal people.

    Today people want to be recognised, establish their own identities, strive towards individualism, and reap the rewards of their efforts. It is these things that motivate people to innovate, take risk, which is at the root of capitalism (individualism).

    Socialism is the exact opposite, it is striving to achieving collectivism, wishes to re-distribution the wealth of the successful to the less advantaged. It favours ‘diversity’ – not ‘intellectual diversity’. They are seeking to remove national identity, and aspire to the achievement of global ‘uniformity’ of wealth and opportunities. Their ideologies kill capitalism and replaces it with a socially engineered society of equality, uniformity to produce a world in which very few people would aspire live.

    The days of Trade Unions and the Labour Party and politics are long gone, as people are becoming politically aware, they are rejecting the unions, politicians and their socialist ideologies. We are seeing these things happening now in own country, the US, Germany, the Netherlands, France, and other EU countries. Change is difficult, perhaps impossible, within an established party, so the best way of achieving change is to create a new party. That is exactly what we are seeing with the collapse of Labour, and the creation of UKIP. Traditional disillusioned Labour, and other supporters, will move to the new parties, as the traditional party’s accuse the new party of racism, sexism, …., in fact anything they can think of in an attempt to stem the flow. In parallel the hopeful, and disenfranchised, will move in hoping for a miracle, or rich pickings.

    We need to review our political system, political parties, decide a new role for politicians, and update the system to reflect the views of the electorate. THE LABOUR PARTY IS DEAD, THE VULCHERS (THE CORBYNISTAS AND MOMENTUM) ARE FEEDING FROM THE ROTTING CORPSE, WHICH THEY WANT TO TURN INTO SOMETHING ELSE, BUT IT TAKES TIME FOR THE CORPSE TO ROT (MAKING A TERRIBLE SMELL), BUT IT WILL TURN TO DUST AND EVENTUALLY BLOW AWAY.

    You ask does the left have a future – the answer is that it has served its purpose and it is now time to move on.

  7. Mike Ellwood says:

    There was and is of course, a perfectly respectable left-wing case to be made for Brexit (“Lexit”), and some people were making it (e.g Tariq Ali, George Galloway, Paul Mason (although he didn’t support Brexit-ing under the present circumstances (of it being led by right-wingers). And then there are people like Gisela Stewart and Kate Hoey (who I don’t think are generally on the left). And economists such as Steve Keen, Richard Werner, and also the MMT school.

    I’m not sure there is a need for a “Red UKIP”. More that the non-Tory parties have to be completely weaned away from neoliberalism – meaning mostly Labour and Lib Dems. The Greens certainly aren’t neoliberals, but they have unfortunately fallen under the EU spell, or at least are naive enough to believe it can be reformed from within.

    Life outside the EU may be harsh at first, but we will survive. I don’t see it as a choice between EU capitalism and American capitalism. We can develop (or go back to) our own brand of mixed-economy with a strong public sector and high public investment, strong bank regulation (and public investment banks). If we have to link up with anyone, I’d favour Norway plus the two non-Eurozone Scandinavian countries, Denmark and Sweden. At least they are not tied to the Eurozone neoliberal model, even if they still are still somewhat constrained by treaties.
    And they make nice jumpers and “noir” TV series. 🙂

  8. The problem is that people tend to be left-wing when survey questions are posed about people like them potentially getting a better deal (e.g. the little people v big business), but not when it’s other people benefiting. If you look at the British Social Attitudes survey, for example, the percentage who agree that “if welfare was less generous people would stand on their two feet” has gone from 33% in 1983 to 53% in 2013 ( In 1987, 55% of people thought more money should be spent on welfare, in 2014 it’s 30%. And this compounds with the immigration problem: the persistent right-wing myth is that it’s them taking all the welfare. We’re in danger of getting ever more into the US pattern, where government spending on the poor is regarded with hostility by the (white) poor, because it helps the wrong people as well.

    • Florence says:

      I think your figures about the social attitudes survey is a reflection of the elevation of he Nudge Unit into the cabinet and the press being de-skilled (not just the printers – journalism as a profession is rapidly becoming an unskilled job shuffling press releases).

      Many such surveys show that if you scratch the surface, beneath those attitudes about “standing on their own feet”, especially when the lack of generosity of benefits becomes understood, you will find the same people who voted to set up the health service etc. A very powerful driver of social attitudes is the perception (created by politicians and media) that certain attitude are a certainty not an option or an ideology. Many people will say “we all know” and “of course” because they feel they have to express a mainstream opinion to avoid sounding “thick”. Of course if you ask the 1 million who are queuing for food parcels, a totally different set of social attitudes will be heard.

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