Luke Warner is the co-Director of Communications for King’s Politics. He is a third year history student at King’s with an interest in elections, international relations, and the topic of social policy in political debate. Below he argues that the centre-left is not dead, but merely temporarily restraining itself from once again returning to the heart of mainstream politics.
There is a fallacy which governs much of progressive and left-wing thinking that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice”. While a beautiful rallying cry for those of us who despair at social injustice in all its forms and envision how society might and ought to look different, it is all too common for progressives to take for granted that human development will inevitably instigate positive change. History does not travel in straight lines, nor does it move clearly in one direction or another; rather, it is propelled by the actions of those who live and operate within it in both foreseeable and unforeseeable ways.
The state of the UK Labour Party is no different and to imply any kind of inevitability to its current position is a usually politically motivated oversimplification. By all measures, Labour is flagging desperately behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. The poll of polls – the most important benchmark – shows a clear freefall in Corbyn’s popularity, with astonishingly poor scores on the NHS, immigration, and general leadership ability. Corbynistas posit that we will soon see a turnaround, but no post-election bounce seems to be coming any time soon. Added to this is the fact that, contrary to popular misconception, polling has been remarkably accurate of late, that is, when underestimating the small-‘c’ conservative vote. When David Axelrod took to Twitter to express disbelief at the futility of polling the 2015 election, he betrayed a widespread misreading of Western elections by moderates on both sides of the Atlantic.
There is little point dwelling on why a weakened left is unhealthy for democracy. Nevertheless, some diehards maintain that Corbynism is marching a 1930s-style Long March to Jerusalem. Yet, virtually all accounts of the mood in the Tory camp refer to a sense that 2020 is already won – there were even reports of champagne parties at the news of Corbyn’s second victory. To propose that the Corbyn Clique can somehow turn things around so long into their tenure is severely misled.
Is this just a national phenomenon?
Across the West, we have seen pundits refer to a ‘death of social democracy’, wherein parties in the US and across Europe have been defeated by conservative and reactionary forces almost consistently since around 2011-12. Losses in Germany, Netherlands, Finland, Spain, and the USA look set to be followed by a Parti socialiste routing in France. Similarly, Matteo Renzi’s resignation in Italy has signalled the fall of the final centre-left leader of a major European country. Some might suggest Justin Trudeau breaks this pattern and, indeed, he embodies the kind of message the centre-left needs to adopt, even if he himself is little more than a handsome and charismatic economic liberal.
To read this as the death knell for progressivism is, however, a stretch. Disgruntled Nuneaton constituents who considered Ed Miliband too weak and Corbyn too extreme do not vote with the same motivations as somebody several time zones away. Nor do voters not vote without thinking with at least some degree of critical capacity, meaning trends can easily swing violently from one direction toward the other. In a world where Trump is president, as we all know, a great many things are possible.
That said, many of the conditions which inhibit the success of social democratic and centre-left forces can be found in various forms across the West. In order to remain a force in politics, they must address the following as soon as possible:
Firstly, in many of the countries where the centre-left now struggles, it has enjoyed long recent spells in power. In Britain, this is evident with New Labour’s 13-year occupation of Downing Street. In USA, eight years of Obama provided normality. In France, Hollande has been in office since 2011. In Germany, Angela Merkel displaced the SPD in 2005 after seven years of Gerhard Schröder’s Chancellorship. Long periods in power typically breed complacency which was arguably clearest in Hillary Clinton’s utterly lacklustre campaign (since when was asking Twitter users to summarise the unaffordability of student debt in three emojis an intelligent electoral strategy?) The determination to succeed has dwindled from exposure to power and, since, social democratic forces have forgotten how to dictate the national debate. Too many centre-left figures just assume that voters will naturally swarm to them once they’ve seen sense. The question is, how long does this hypothesis last until one has to take responsibility as the previous generation of Blairs and Browns realised?
Secondly, the fallout from the 2008 Crash and the implications of globalisation on poorer and lower-middle-class communities has corroded faith in the status quo. Sections of society ‘left behind’ by economic change have been hurting from limited job security in the post-2008 settlement, particularly in outer urban and rural areas, where lower investment – both public and private – has done little to facilitate recovery. Uneven real wage growth explains in part why working-class voters in the north of England are drawn more to UKIP than those in the south-east. As such, to suggest, as Blue Labour and others have done, that simply harking on about patriotism and ‘understanding’ voters’ concerns on immigration is enough is wrong. People are able to see that “controls on immigration” causes such discomfort on the centre-left politician’s face, and any attempt at appeasement will surely simply make them seem more out of touch. Rather, a new and more tactful approach is required. The urge to combat socio-economic inequality dyes red the blood that flows through Labour and its allies; to fail to provide a radical vision would be to lend a hand in the hammering in of the final nails into its coffin.
Thirdly, the seizure of the immigration narrative by the right has prevented progressives from proposing alternatives. During the Brexit referendum and the Trump election, slogans like “Take Back Control” and “Send Them Back” proved an insurmountable obstacle for many pro-immigration politicians, who were unable to defend convincingly a policy which has proven to be of economic benefit to their host countries. Part of this comes from wage depression and the contentious issue of cultural change. Both are difficult issues but if the centre-left wants to continue to exist, it must protect immigration as a core value because, like all political movements, without its principles it is nothing. The very real economic benefits and enrichment of culture which immigration brings are something to be celebrated. The centre-left must rediscover how best to present this and share it equally in society.
Fourthly and finally, the professionalisation of politics has had the effect of furthering the left generally from the communities it claims to represent. It is indubitable that greater diversity in the centre-left is to be advocated; it is worrying, however, that the emergence of politics as a profession has attracted a specific type of person equally detestable to all – the careerist. Many of the figures going into politics since the 1990s have either very little experience of the ‘real world’ and/or have the tendency to come across as patronising, out of touch, or, in the worst cases, plainly stupid. Where are the John Prescotts, the Roy Hattersleys, the Barbara Castles, the Harold Wilsons, the David Blunketts, the Denis Healeys? Instead, we have EdStones, Socialism on an iPad, and hiding behind windows, products of a generation of politicians who have learned political communication artificially through youth groups and inner party workshops. The consequence is that for the best part of the past half-decade, the centre-left in the UK has been bereft of ideas for how to diagnose and treat the problems in society, and sell them to the public, largely because of a personnel problem. Only by remembering where it came from and for who it serves can it move on from pathetic soundbites to the serious business of government.
The centre-left has largely put itself in this position. Should its proponents choose to continue ignoring the crucial lessons they need to learn on complacency, globalisation, immigration, and remembering its roots, the forces of progressivism will remain isolated on the fringes of politics. There are figures capable of taking up the mantle and reigniting its flame, but the centre-left must first accept its need to reinvent itself.
The arc of the moral universe may not bend inevitably in any direction. Those on the far left may call moderate progressives traitors. The right may at present be dominant. But to accept these terms blindly is tantamount to capitulation. It takes courage to accept that certain principles must be put aside in order to achieve those one holds more dearly and now, more than in a long time, the centre-left must pick itself up and fight in the name of human dignity.
Check out King’s Politics‘ next event:
Is the British centre-left dead?
Friday 10 February, 7.00-8.30pm, Panel debate including:
Daniel Zeichner, Labour MP for Cambridge
Abi Wilkinson, journalist and commentator for numerous national newspapers and publications
Jonty Leibowitz, Co-Chair for the Cambridge Universities’ Labour Club
The event will be held in Lecture Room 3, Mill Lane Lecture. Please arrive slightly earlier than the event’s start to find a seat in the auditorium.