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What’s Left of the Left?

Written by Simon Toubeau. 

The paradox of the contemporary European left is that while many of the burning issues defining political debates- growing economic inequality, employment precariousness, the sustainability of health spending or pension entitlements- are traditional left-wing concerns, Social Democratic parties seem incapable of credibly addressing them either in office or in opposition.

So, what’s left of the left? The origins of the paradox stems from the mis-match in the architecture of authority between democracy and capitalism, rendering the notion of democratic capitalism ever more hollow. This tension has compounded broader demographic and economic transformations to divide the electoral base of the left. In France, the UK, the USA and elsewhere- there is a split between those in favour of regulated openness and those in favour of nationalist closure.

These divisions are well-known: the old industrial working-class, typically white, male and living in the traditional strongholds of the British Labour Party or French Parti Socialiste have turned towards UKIP and the Front National which want to restore national control over borders and the economy. The other segment in the left’s base- public sector employees, liberal professionals, urban residents with a cosmopolitan outlook- continue to espouse socially liberal ideals and economically centrist policies.

This fragmentation was perfectly illustrated in the first round of the French presidential elections: the Parti Socialiste lost votes to the far left (Melenchon), to the centre (Macron) and to the far-right (Le Pen), all of which took around one-fifth of the vote. The Labour party faces a similar threat of disintegration to working-class English nationalists (UKIP), who are now turning to the Conservative Party, to the Scottish nationalists (SNP), and to the Liberal Democrats.  In Spain, the PSOE has lost support to Podemos on the left and to the centrist upstart, Ciudadanos.

So how have centre-left parties responded to this predicament?

There appears to have been something of a revival in left-wing parties that augur if not a resurgence of socialism, then at least a rejection of nationalism, that might help to counter this fragmentation.

Corbyn’s dramatic election as leader of the Labour party in 2015 was made possible by a sudden growth in the number of young and committed party members. Macron’s equally impressive victory in the French presidential election seemed to signal a similar popular momentum. Matteo Renzi took the helm of the Partito Democratico in Italy, committed to tackling the country’s deep structural problems, on the back of an immense surge of popularity.

But unlike the emergence of the ‘New’ Left in the 1990s, incarnated in the by Clinton in the USA, Blair in the UK, Schroder in Germany and Jospin in France, these contemporary movements do not share the common ideological vision or political organization that is required to make them successful in winning office and implementing their programmes.

Corbyn’s is a well-known but unpopular tribune speaker with rehearsed socialist ideas that will not pass muster with the average British elector. But, he is the leader a powerful ground-level organization with a large membership and deep organizational roots.

Macron is the opposite of Corbyn: a capable and well-liked political novice, with a pragmatic but reformist programme that can woo centrist voters. His problem is that he might have difficulties implementing his programme. He leads a loose movement (En Marche!) rather than an established party. And it is not clear if this movement will be organized enough to field candidates in the forthcoming legislative elections, which will determine the composition of the government.

Renzi’s problem is also one of implementation.  He was a bright and dynamic young leader, at the helm of a dominant left-wing party, that wished to solve Italy’s deep-seated economic problems and to tackle vested interests. However, he lost his gambit to reform the Italian political system, where the diffusion of power across institutions threatened the implementation of his programme of reform.

Given this record of false dawns, what is needed for a successful revival of the centre-left?

The conditions for success appear to be those that combined the best of protest, personality, policy and organization: one in which Macron’s reforms could draw upon the groundswell of support offered to Iglesias, the organizational depth of Corbyn’s party and the systemic dominance of Renzi’s party.

There are five main points that Social Democratic parties can adhere to if they wish to be successful.

  • Emphasising the importance of social justice issues like long-term unemployment, health funding or pension reform- which have always been at the heart of Social Democracy- relative to other issues like immigration and identity, which tend to push voters into the orbit of far-right parties.
  • Advancing concrete reformist policies that credibly deal with social justice issues, but that also recognize the complexity and constraint of living in an open world. Taking inspiration from Macron and Renzi’s programmes, that means: reforming pensions and a sclerotic labour market, using state instruments to prevent the worst forms of deprivation and spending public funds to provide social investments- in health, training and industry- that will boost the supply side of the economy.
  • Mobilizing the younger generation of voters to whom such a message might appeal. The split within the left is partly a generational one, and the younger generation are more rewarding current and future electoral bank and more sympathetic to reformist ideas. So, they must be compelled to turnout to vote. This will require the transformation of loose movements into formal party organizations with resources, personnel and members.
  • Accepting the need to govern in coalition with other like-minded forces, given the split of the leftist electorate and the fragmentation of the political landscape. For instance, the only alternative to the Conservative government in the UK is a coalition of Labour, Lib Dems and the SNP. Similarly, in France, Macron will likely require the legislative support of both Socialist and Republican deputies to implement his programme. Failure to coalesce may result in the failure to win office, as Pedro Sanchez, the fallen leader of the PSOE realised only too late.
  • Pursuing their reformist programmes at different scales of democracy. They can begin by testing their policy ideas and buttress their electoral support by winning in local or regional government. But, they can also develop trans-national coalitions between similar social segments across different countries, for instance in the European Parliament, and thus help to bring back in harmony the architecture of authority.

Simon Toubeau is an Assistant Professor in Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. Image credit: Screencap/Youtube.

Published inBritish PoliticsEUEuropean PoliticsLabour

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