The future for centre-left politics after the Trump disaster
Sunday National, November 8th 2020
The most dramatic US Presidential election in recent times has caused the emergence of a host of issues about power, democracy and power. The election of Joe Biden and defeat of Donald Trump throws up questions about politics beyond the US – including how progressive politics can refashion what they stand for in a world of continual change and turmoil.
Centre-left parties used to be anchored in organised labour and the politics of class. In Western Europe this grounded the appeal and rationale of a host of social democratic parties such as British Labour, the German Social Democrats and Swedish Social Democrats – along with, in a different context, the American Democrats. Today the politics of class and labour offer less secure foundations. Trade union membership has fallen across the Western world while the politics of class have become more fluid and volatile in an age of inequality, insecurity and individualism.
This leaves centre-left parties with a dilemma about economic management. Do they attempt to compete on the same ground as the centre-right – on low taxes, fiscal restraint and reassuring markets? Or do they attempt to challenge this and set out an alternative economic logic? A politics of embracing capitalism worked for Blair, Bill Clinton and Gerhard Schroder during an era of growth and rising prosperity; but this approach was not conducive to the more difficult times of capitalist crisis, crash and recession.
Pivotal to centre-left parties and their appeal has been how they adapt to capitalism – domestically and internationally. During the 1945-75 era, global institutions and managed currencies underpinned a managed capitalism across much of the West.
That era of capitalism has long gone – ending with the floating of the US dollar in 1971 and the twin oil shocks of 1973 and 1979. We now live in an age of disruptive, destructive capitalism – from the banking crash of 2008 to how it has managed the COVID-19 pandemic.
This impacts on the room for manoeuvre that centre-left parties have. How big a state can they envisage and make the case for? How widespread a degree of redistribution can they dare to argue for? And how do centre-left parties address inequalities – socio-economically, regionally, generationally, and by gender and ethnicity?
One of the most important areas of left politics is the principle of solidarity – of people collectively co-operating to look after each other and share risk. This has become problematic as societies have become more divided and fragmented. The writer David Goodhart has controversially argued that welfare solidarity is weakened by increased immigration in societies – and that the left’s enduring support of multiculturalism is slowly undermining the appeal of solidarity.
Increased immigration has proven a thorny issue for centre-left parties. It has been weaponised by right-wing populists and racists to gain traction and to weaken the case for progressive government. Tony Blair’s New Labour misjudged the immigration issue: agreeing when Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and others joined the EU in 2004 to allow for open immigration and underestimating the numbers coming to the UK. This brought Labour under Blair to consider curbing the right of asylum applications, leading Derry Irvine to say to Blair and David Blunkett: ‘I don’t know why you guys don’t just adopt the Zimbabwean constitution and have done with it’ – a path which led inexorably to the rise of Nigel Farage’s UKIP and ultimately Brexit.
This raises questions about the role of government. The impact of COVID-19 has remade the idea of the state. The two previous historic expansions of the role of the state were at the aftermaths of the First and Second World Wars. Each led to more state intervention and a greater role for organised labour across the developed world and it looks likely that we are on the brink of a third era.
Just as critical is the nature of the social constituencies to whom parties give voice and claim to represent. This used to be something which anchored parties like British Labour and the German SPD, but has now weakened and broken. The Spanish and Portuguese Socialists have carved out distinct appeals, but these are fledgling democracies which escaped from fascism 40 years ago and have younger, more working class electorates.
Then comes the issue of leadership, standing for principles and having a vision of society. Successful centre-left politicians leading popular governments at the moment include Jacinda Ardern who just won a landslide for New Zealand Labour, and Antonio Costa who has led the Portuguese Socialists in office for the past five years.
One problem version of leadership on the centre-left has been that of Blair, Bill Clinton, and Schroder, who represented a politics which accommodated the forces of the right, embraced ‘the third way’ and what was called ‘triangulation’ – which in the US became associated with the Democrats championing harsh welfare reform and criminal justice that cost them dear for decades to come.
Centre-left parties have to learn from the right, and the positives and negatives of prominent right-wing leaders – from Reagan and Thatcher to Merkel, and even the power of demagogues Trump, Orban and Erdogan. Politicians such as Reagan and Thatcher articulated a set of political principles and a direction that went against the prevailing consensus, that they used to make sense of their compromises and contradictions. Reagan was underestimated and patronised by liberals but was a powerful communicator and storyteller who could wrap his political vision in a sense of hope: ‘It’s morning again in America’, his 1984 re-election theme being one of the great campaign slogans.
Even the anti-model of Trump provides some clues on what to do and what not to do. For all his serial lying Trump has proven a distinctive communicator, knowing how to say outrageous things which redefine the debate whilst destabilising his political opponents. The emotional connections, and sense of authenticity and ownership, between Trump and his supporters gave power and legitimacy, in this case to a shared politics of bigotry and hatred. But this offers insights into how to challenge all sorts of existing norms and conventions and has lessons for the centre-left.
Centre-left parties are meant to embody greater democracy and democratisation. But historically they have also stood for the power of the central state to stand up to vested interests, have resources for redistribution and embody equality. This results in deep contradictions running through the heart and soul – and intellect – of centre-left parties in government. In places like the UK it means that Labour embraced the Empire State; in France it means the Socialists could not fully break with the legacy of Empire, while in more decentralised countries such as Germany and the US it limits the power of the centre which had to engage in cohabitation with alternative political centres in the regions and sub-state level.
The UK, Spain and France have seen nationwide centre-left parties struggle to understand territorial politics and movements for self-determination which challenge the power of the central state and its legitimacy. The success of the SNP and Catalonian Nationalists has been one that Labour and the Spanish Socialists have been unable to come to terms with, while also weakening the politics of the central state – one of the two vital pillars of centre-left politics.
All of this illustrates that there are no easy answers for centre-left parties. It is not practical to pose simple binary politics as the choice for an electable left between, for example, centrism and radical leftism, Biden and Bernie Saunders, or Keir Starmer or Jeremy Corbyn. It is not serious politics to pose a left rhetorical politics which assumes that all that is needed is the correct leadership and never compromising; although this for many was (and still is) the appeal of Corbyn. Nor is a politics that puts electoral success above all other principles anything but a dead-end for the left, where many felt Tony Blair took Labour.
An underlying tension in centre-left parties is how they view power and government. Parties of the right, even when led by ideologues such as Thatcher or Reagan, never debated the cost of being in power – compared to compromising their principles. On the left, this distinction runs through the heart of the centre-left, and means that members of left parties tend to question whether the party has sold out once they have been in power for a while. This is a perennial issue and illuminates that the right always prioritises holding political power and affecting real change, whereas large parts of the left have an ambivalent relationship with power.
Where is the next left to come from? And specifically, a left which stops accommodating with finance capitalism, that presents a vision of the future and builds a popular coalition which wins election. It has to be a left which does not hide behind the slogans of the Blair or Bill Clinton era, but nor can it – as many do on the left – just repeat endless mantras such as the ‘Green New Deal’ and the universal basic income, as if they absolve the need to create detailed policies. These totems are just slogans: not only are they not policies, they are not stories which fill out the values and vision of the next left.
The next left wave will have to deal with a set of multiple crises – COVID-19, the climate emergency, the economic failures of corporate capitalism, and the hollowing out of democracy by the forces of reaction and privilege. It has to stop the barbarians at the gates in the form of populists and demagogues, but it also has to find the confidence to stand up to zombie capitalism: both of which trade on powerlessness and people feeling they have no agency to challenge the status quo.
The next era of the left has to and will emerge. The failures of the neo-liberal order are all around us; the developed world is characterised by grotesque inequality, insecurity and millions in poverty in countries defined by wealth. Similarly, across the global capitalist order there is seismic instability, lack of security and a retreat of multilateral co-operation.
Yet for centre-left politics to be successful, to win power and govern effectively, it has to have to have credible domestic agendas and visions which such parties have not had for some time. The era of Blair, Clinton and Schroder saw people who could win electorally accommodate their agendas to the forces of finance capitalism, privilege and reaction. That ultimately failed to remake the political weather and saw the rise of a virulent, populist right.
The outline of the next left is already evident in Scotland, the UK and globally. It will avoid simple binaries between the old moderates and the old new left, and will embrace being green, feminist, about a vision of the good society and state which is firmly rooted in individual and collective autonomy and the power of self-government. It will link the best of the early traditions of the socialist movement with parts of the new left and the emerging radicalism of the 21st century. The existing global order is exhausted and discredited, while the old mantras of the left – whether moderate or radical – are no longer sufficient. We have not only a world to win, but a world to save.