“Since the decline of the industrial proletariat, and more precipitously with the end of the Soviet Union, the left in the West has been shorn of its agent, its project, and even its story.”
I recently stumbled across the above paragraph in an essay1 by the late historian and critic Tony Judt. The essay was written in September 1997, just four months on from the high-water mark of New Labour and Tony Blair’s first election victory. Yet two decades later it explains the left’s predicament rather well. Almost everywhere in Europe the centre-left is in crisis. In the year 2000 social democrats or socialists were in power in 10 out of the 15 countries that made up the European Union of the time2, whereas today only a handful of recognisably left-leaning governments hold power.
Even when things look more favourable from the outside a closer inspection reveals something less encouraging. In Germany the Social Democratic Party may be in government – but it is propping up Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat administration – and has slipped behind the hard-right Alternative for Germany (AFD) in the polls. In the Czech Republic an ostensibly social democratic President, Miloš Zeman, arguably has more in common with populist leaders like Viktor Orbán than with the ‘third way’ politicians who dominated the European scene until recently. In Portugal things look a little more encouraging for the left, but even there the Socialist Party has had to forge an alliance with the Communists and the Greens to get into power.
40% Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpectedly large share of the vote in Britain’s 2017 general election contrasts with the collapsing performances of most of Europe’s centre-left parties
For those who had failed to grasp the scale of the crisis afflicting Europe’s centre-left, recent elections in Italy and France ought to have driven the situation home. In 2017 the French Socialist Party (PS) failed to even make it through to the second round of voting. Meanwhile the Italian election of 4 March this year saw Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party fall to its worst result since the end of the Second World War. Just prior to that the Labour Party in the Netherlands lost three-quarters of all its parliamentary seats.
One of the reasons Jeremy Corbyn continues to inspire such fierce loyalty among his followers is his apparent success (Labour won 40% of the vote at the 2017 General Election) against this inauspicious backdrop of decline. As the tainted compromisers of the Blair era are wiped-out across Europe and beyond, Corbyn – a man who stood firm when mainstream politics was leaving him behind in the 80s and 90s – is having his moment in the sun. His three-decades long existence at a tangent from New Labour’s reconciliation with market capitalism is finally paying off. The reason for this is that Corbyn has offered voters something at once distinctive and more daring than his vacillating predecessors. This carries obvious attractions at a time of widespread and growing discontent with the status quo.
Indeed, few assumptions look as improvident in hindsight as the notion that voters were increasingly disinclined to turn out at elections during the consensus years because they were satisfied with their prosperous lot. I spent much of 2016 travelling around Britain researching a book and it quickly became apparent that all was not well. This was especially true in parts of the country that had once been thriving centres of industry and manufacturing. It was here that I found the remnants of a once proud working class floating in and out of precarious employment or whittling away time at home or in the pub. “I know a lot of boys who worked in the mines…some of them [are] drinking, there’s one or two stays in the house, you don’t see them, they don’t even wash” – this was relayed to me by a former collier whom I met showing visitors around the South Wales Miners’ Museum in Port Talbot. The faded trade union flags and dusty memorabilia that decorated the place offered a forlorn reminder of a vanished world.
The centre-left’s predicament – not only in Britain but in Europe and America too – relates partly to the loss of this distinctive working class culture, a culture which was the product of an exceptional set of circumstances to begin with. The industrial revolution – which gave birth to the labour movement and its consequent reformist and revolutionary wings – was supplanted several decades ago in most of Western Europe by the rise of technology and the digital economy. The contemporary purveyors of optimism, such as the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, are correct to say that the unprecedented fall in worldwide extreme poverty is evidence of material progress set in train by market economies. But the relative material prosperity of countries like China and India has come at a cost for the working class in the developed world. One is reminded here of a point made by George Orwell: that the emancipation of the British empire would entail the British working class losing a degree of its material prosperity.
The centre-left will never defeat European populism if it fails to first understand it
Yet Orwell got it the wrong way round: the empire was in practice a burden on the British treasury. Moreover, the expected pauperisation of the working classes under capitalism – a widely held assumption among Orwell’s generation in the 1930s – did not come to pass. Instead, rather than losing its material advantage at the turn of the twentieth century the British working class saw the beginning of the erosion of something far more fundamental – its self-image. Today, whether in Merthyr Tydfil, Shirebrook or the old mill towns of Lancashire, what has gone is the world of institutional affiliations and work-related support networks which at one time functioned as an extended family.
With the consequent shrinkage of its electoral base, at the end of the previous century social democratic parties began to adjust their electoral pitches, pivoting to people who held quite different assumptions to their traditional bases. As the New Labour pollster Philip Gould phrased it in his appositely titled book The Unfinished Revolution, Labour’s appeal was dwindling in the 1980s because it was seen by middle class English voters as “the party of the winter of discontent; union influence; strikes and inflation; disarmament; Benn and Scargill”.
The question for a resurgent left in Europe today is how to forge a coherent social democratic programme on the first principles of the past without re-enacting the failed statist projects that have so often accompanied them. Corbyn may have bucked the wider social democratic collapse, yet I’m not sure this is because voters expect a dramatic break with capitalism should Labour come to power – Labour’s 2017 manifesto was after all social democratic rather than socialist in nature. Rather, Corbyn has succeeded so far by inverting one of the central pillars of the third way: that one must sound more moderate in rhetoric than one intends to be in practice. In an age when ‘authenticity’ and outpourings of emotion are all the rage, Corbyn’s formula (or more likely, it is just who he is) has been to lay out a set of monosyllabic first principles – ‘peace’, ‘fairness’, ‘justice’, ‘equality’ – without proposing anything solid enough to frighten away the middle classes.
Beyond that, the nature of anti-capitalist transformation apparently favoured by some in Corbyn’s inner circle is I suspect as opaque to the true believers as it is to everyone else. Even so, should Corbyn decide to pursue a more radical course then the antecedents are spectacularly unpromising. In 1981, Francois Mitterrand’s Socialist Party came to power in France pledging a radical “anticapitalist transformation”, yet a mere two years later Mitterrand was in full retreat under pressure from global markets. Something comparable happened in Greece in 2015 when Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the radical left party Syriza, looked briefly over the precipice only to fall back into line with the country’s creditors. Moreover, while the unfolding crisis in Venezuela is far from the minds of most British voters, it is hard to completely wipe from memory the fact that the Chavez/Maduro project was the apple in the eye of many left-wing politicians and pundits as recently as 2013. The point is not to instrumentalise the misery of that country to score cheap political points here in Britain. Yet it isn’t unreasonable to expect a degree of reflection and contrition on the part of those who got it so spectacularly wrong. Some words at least – rather than a mere deflection of the blame – would be nice.
In the public mind at least, Jeremy Corbyn’s socialism is surprisingly free of association with the failures of the past, perhaps because the socialist era feels as remote today as the liberal capitalism of the 1920s and 1930s must have felt to voters in the 1980s. But should Corbyn triumph at the polls he will face a challenge no less daunting than that facing the besieged centre-left: how does a left-wing government pursue a path which is economically literate and has cross-class appeal in an age of interdependent market economies? And how does it do this when grim monuments to the big state solutions of the twentieth century lie scattered about the European mainland? Left-wing claims to have found a radical solution to this conundrum – even if a degree of schadenfreude at the ignominious collapse of the centre is understandable on the part of those who have been on the fringes for most of their political careers – are premature. In truth, nobody knows what happens next if Labour wins power, not even Corbyn’s true believers.
How the Left destroyed its voter base