Where should the left go from here?

Lili Bidwell 6 January 2017

Across the west, it seems as if the left has been routed. In Poland the right-wing Law and Justice party, after winning an overall majority in the 2015 elections, has attempted to challenge liberal values, attack independent institutions, intimidate the media, and erode civil liberties. In Hungary, prime minister Viktor Orban has claimed to support ‘illiberal democracy’ and has also attempted to cajole independent institutions and ride rough shod over civil liberties. Coupled with the rise of Marine le Pen in France and the election of Donald Trump in America, the west appears to be lurching to the right.

But it isn’t that simple.

The notion of what is left and right has morphed in recent years, with many supposedly right-wing parties adopting a traditionally left-wing attitude to welfare and state intervention whilst shunning immigrants and criticising globalisation.  

The Law and Justice party in Poland is a good example of this. The journalist Remi Adekoya, writing in an opinion piece for the Guardian, asserts that "while PiS [the Law and Justice party] is strongly rightwing on social issues, its economic approach can be described as leftist. It emphasises the need to tackle inequality and propagates strong welfare policies."

Right-wing parties increasingly seek to champion the rights of workers. Right-wing parties have become ever more protectionist and against free trade in their attempt to protect individual workers from the worst globalisation has to offer. The right appears to be taking up a fight, something which used to be the territory of the left. Donald Trump’s talk of tariffs and his attempt to bully and intimidate corporations in order to keep jobs in America are not what we might expect from a candidate running on the right. But this is nothing new.

For some, it seems as if the left has given up the fight for working people. Since the neoliberal revolution in the 80s, the left has increasingly espoused globalisation, free markets, and high immigration. Adopting some of the key tenets of Reaganomics whilst claiming to offer an alternative, has perhaps made the left’s promises ring hollow. Globalisation and immigration, while certainly broadly positive for the economy, affect low-skilled workers significantly more than high-skilled workers. According to research conducted by the Bank of England, immigration depresses wages slightly overall but has a greater negative impact on workers in the ‘semi/unskilled services occupational group’. The left has so far had little to say about trying to minimise this depression of income.

The Labour party has certainly become more critical of neoliberalism with the election of Jeremy Corbyn, but it is still losing votes to right-wing parties among working class voters over issues like immigration. UKIP, a party which is staunchly anti-immigration, has taken a large proportion of the working class vote. Labour under Blair ushered in an era of mass immigration, and Jeremy Corbyn, perhaps the antithesis of Tony Blair, has continued to support this policy. The party is more concerned with building an open society with liberal social values than protecting income and maintaining social stability. The values of openness and multiculturalism have become tainted with a sense that they are coupled with elitism and wealth. Perhaps then, this is why we see a rejection of liberal values among disenfranchised and unrepresented voters.

Those on the left who asked, perhaps reasonably, how a billionaire like Donald Trump could champion the poor failed to see this blatant contradiction for what it was – evidence that the left has failed to provide an alternative to globalisation and has lost touch with its core base of voters. According to Pew Research, a polling organisation, college graduates backed Clinton by a 9% margin, while voters without college degrees voted for Trump by an 8% margin. This is more than double the difference in the 2012 election between Obama and Mitt Romney. The Republican candidate was able to gain the support of low-skilled workers in key states that have suffered from globalisation such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. It was these states that decided the election – their combined electoral college votes would have seen the election shift in Clinton’s favour.

So what is the future for the left? Should it turn away from liberal social values? Should it turn against immigration and globalisation and pursue the protectionist policies that made Trump so popular in the 'rust belt' states? In my view, that would be a violation of the open values so essential for a liberal democracy. Instead, the left should seek to lessen the damage of globalisation and immigration to workers and the poorest in society. It has been suggested by some that the Government could couple high immigration with increased investment in the areas affected to try to lessen the economic impact. The Government could also pursue policies which raise low skilled wages, such as a higher minimum wage.

If the left wants to fight back against the rise of the right wing in Europe and America, it must reclaim its legitimacy. It needs to start listening to the poorer voters, the very people it claims to fight for.