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Why are Left-Wing Parties of the West Failing to Win Power?

How the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the 2019 General Election fits within a wider global shift to the right.

CJ Werleman on how the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the 2019 General Election fits within a wider global shift to the right.

When Theresa May resigned from 10 Downing Street in June after failing to deliver Brexit, with her Conservative Party ravaged by scandal and cloaked in incompetence, it seemed unlikely that the Tories could achieve a decisive victory in the next general election. That election has now come and gone and they have managed just that – leaving yet another left-wing party in the Western hemisphere wondering how it all went so wrong.

Over the past three years, the major left-wing parties of the US, Australia and the UK have each campaigned on the most progressive economic platform in decades, giving the US Democratic Party in the US and Labour in Australia dominant leads in the polls in the days heading into their respective ballots. With the 2019 UK General Election mired in disinformation and falsehoods – and with Boris Johnson dodging scrutiny left, right and centre – there was some expectation that the Labour Party was closer to the Tories in the polls than expected.

But, the belief that progressive politics is once again in ascendance across these three continents has been severely shaken. On the way to polling booths, voters handed all three left-wing parties devastating defeats.

Left-wing parties are yet to offer a counter-narrative to right-wing anti-immigrant slogans such as “build the wall”, “turn back the boats” or “British jobs for British workers”.

On the eve of the 2016 US Presidential Election, all of the country’s major polling firms gave Hillary Clinton and the Democrats anywhere from a 91-98% chance of winning, but Trump and the Republican Party defied predictions by winning the Oval Office and control of Congress. In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s unexpected victory over Bill Shorten and the Labour Party was so shocking that the incumbent holder of The Lodge described it as akin to a biblical “miracle”. Last week, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives secured the largest majority in the UK Parliament in decades.

So, why are left-wing political parties defying the odds in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, despite promoting economic policies which are appealing to many in their respective electorates?

There are a multitude of explanations, or even plausible excuses, including foreign interference in electoral processes, coordinated disinformation on social media, voter disenfranchisement and the pervasiveness of the right-wing media. Ultimately though, I would argue that it boils down to the world’s major left-wing parties being unable to come to terms with the fast changing fault lines in contemporary politics and the right’s willingness to exploit these changes with fear and hatred.

No Answers for Identity Fears

Since the end of the Second World War, left-wing parties have tended to promote policies favouring ‘white collar’ workers and right-wing parties have opted to further privilege those on the higher rungs of the economic ladder. But I believe that today’s fractures have less to do with economic concerns and more to do with matters pertaining to culture – specifically immigration, religion and national identity.

“Immigration attitudes are the fulcrum around which the politics of western societies are realigning,” Eric Kaufmann, a political scientist at Birkbeck College, University of London, told The New York Times.

Brian Loughnane, the former director of Australia’s conservative Liberal Party, described Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s crushing defeat in Thursday’s General Election as “the most decisive expression, so far, of the changing support for centre-right parties and the alienation of left parties from their traditional base.”

Globalisation – a process that describes the shrinking of time and distance – along with demographic changes have created racial anxieties in Western democracies, particularly among non-college or university educated white people, a voting bloc long considered the heart and soul of left-wing political parties. The election of Donald Trump, Brexit and a fear of Muslim and Asian immigrants in Australia has caused the most significant realignment of politics since US President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, which almost instantly flipped the Southern states from blue to red.

“The traditional alliances of New Deal era politics – low-income white voters without college degrees on the Democratic Party side, high-income white voters with degrees on the Republican side – have switched places,” observe Herbert Kitschelt and Philipp Rehm, political scientists at Duke and Ohio State universities. 

This realignment can trace its roots to three cataclysmic events, according to Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde: 9/11, the 2008 global financial crisis and the European refugee crisis of 2015.

The 2018 US midterm elections revealed an “unprecedented divide” between white voters with a college degree and those without one, with the Republican Party securing 61% of non-college-educated white voters but only 45% of college-educated white voters. The elections confirmed that “the diploma divide is likely here to stay – especially if the GOP maintains its alignment with Trump and the nationalist, anti-immigrant sentiments he hangs his hat on,” according to The Atlantic. “The gap is likely to be one of the most powerful forces shaping American politics for decades to come”.

Put another way, left-wing voters now tend to be concentrated in the cities, with right-wing voters more spread out across the suburbs, exurbs and rural areas in what has also been described as the “urban-rural divide”, which is creating “conflicts between fundamentally different ways of living”. Whereas voters in materially wealthy and culturally diverse cities favour more progressive policies towards minorities, climate change, same-sex marriage, immigration and gun control, those living in areas with lower education-income outcomes tend to go for stricter immigration policies and conservative positions towards gay marriage and women’s reproductive rights.

Trump and the Republican Party have successfully driven a wedge between white voters along education-income lines by “riding a wave” of racial and ethnic animosity because the Democrats don’t realise that “they are out of step with the rest of the American public when it comes to immigration and racial attitudes,” according to Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at University of North Carolina.

To this end, left-wing parties are yet to offer a counter-narrative to right-wing anti-immigrant slogans such as “build the wall”, “turn back the boats” or “British jobs for British workers” – without sounding like they’re calling for porous borders or being indifferent towards threats pertaining to national security.

When left-wing parties seek to broaden their coalition with appeals to non-white communities, particularly newer immigrants, they unintentionally give support to right-wing populist propaganda that falsely portrays the left to be wealth redistributors – but not from the super wealthy to the middle-class, but from white people to non-white people. 

In an interview with the New York Times, Rob Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester, described the predicament confronting the left in this way: “You’ll have the pro-migration, culturally liberal left saying ‘we don’t want to ally with racists’ and you’ll have the socially conservative, economically left-wing part of the coalition saying ‘we don’t ally with people who think we’re racists’ and that’s a very, very hard argument to resolve.”

While I don’t pretend to hold the answer to the left’s predicament, it could start with choosing relatable candidates who speak to voters’ concerns. In today’s cultural politics, the question of which candidate you’d most like to have a beer with may just hold more political power than we once thought.

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