Europe’s Centre-Left Risks Becoming Political Outlier

Lydia Bowers

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Europe today is in crisis. Economically, much of the continent suffers from growth stagnation, high unemployment and rising inequality. Right-wing populism is going from strength to strength partially as a result of this and the rapid decline of the traditional centre-left parties. This increasing political instability has made the feelings of disillusionment with the Establishment and domestic institutions palpable.

  Labour was once the party of “the working man” but in today’s world of de-industrialisation, the “gig economy” and temporary jobs it is clear that the centre-left’s model needs a serious makeover.

SIPTU workers protesting- photo credit Sinn Féin
SIPTU workers protesting- photo credit Sinn Féin

The academic debate on the cause of the extreme right surge in liberal democracies focuses on migration and economic hardship. In the absence of a strong and progressive Labour movement, fears over these issues are always going to fuel the right. In the United States deep reserves of fear and hatred for the status quo are what the pollsters and Hillary Clinton’s camp underestimated. Clinton would surely have had stronger support if she had read the public mood like Bernie Sanders and orchestrated a clear left-wing campaign with a strong message. Donald Trump was successful because he harnessed anti- Establishment anger and Hillary Clinton, the ultimate Establishment figure, represented a continuation of the same.  The Democratic candidate tried to counteract Trump’s outlandish, sensationalist claims that America was the land of crazy muslims and Mexican rapists with the equally untrue fairy-tale that America is the land of boundless opportunity for all.

 

Donald Trump- Photo credit: Jamelle Boule
Donald Trump- Photo credit: Jamelle Boule

 

Trump’s campaign showed that much of the American right has a deep contempt for the Federal Government. They believe their economic difficulties lie in unchecked corporate power and technological transformation.  Trump focussed his campaign on the four democratic states in the rust belt of the Upper Great Lakes- Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. He stoked the fires of their fury by hammering Hillary relentlessly on her support of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which helped to destroy the economy of the Industrial States of the Upper Midwest. He then won them over even further by condemning her support of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other trade policies that have left the people of these four States out in the cold. It didn’t matter that Trump was not a likeable character or that his policies were haphazard, what mattered was he wasn’t one of them and Hillary was. It was just like Brexit all over again where the embittered working class of middle England wanted to shake things up.

 

Brexit and the election of Trump is a wake-up call to all. If Europe’s left do not unite there is a strong likelihood that Marine Le Pen will also be elected to the French presidency in May. New poll results from February 14th indicate that the National Front leader now stands to win 27 per cent after the first round of voting. There is a large disconnect in Britain between the Labour Party and the communities they have represented for generations. The decline of the mainstream left is having a causal effect on the rise in momentum for the populist right according to many spectators but it’s more a case of what comes first, the chicken or the egg? The greatest loss to people in these smaller communities in America and Europe is through deindustrialisation with manufacturing and heavy industry jobs going elsewhere as a result of globalisation. Trump’s major appeal lies in the belief that he is going to bring back the heavy industries of the rust belt and the good union jobs that went with them. Marine Le Pen sells herself as a nationalist anti-establishment figure. She has championed public services – for non-foreigners – and presented herself as a protector of workers and farmers in the face of “wild and anarchic globalisation”.

Marine Le Pen Gives Speech- Photo Credit Blandine Le Cain
Marine Le Pen Gives Speech- Photo Credit Blandine Le Cain

What resonates most with people is the idea of taking back control. This message of ‘Make America Great Again’ coined by Trump and ‘Take Back Control’ by Boris Johnson and the Brexiteers sent a powerful message to those who have been left poor or jobless in a globalised world. The disconnect of the left in Europe has left a gap that has been filled by the likes of Nigel Farage and UKIP on the right as people desperately search for someone who can be a face or spokesman for how they are feeling.

The mainstream left’s current model is failing and if there is no clear plan to counter the extreme right wing sentiment that is sweeping the western world then it could be marginalised to the point of political irrelevance. The deep reason lies in its absorption of the policies of the centre-right, going back almost three decades. They are all but indistinguishable from their opponents with their pro free trade agreements and de-regulatory stance. Tony Blair’s New Labour won the British General Election in 1997 with the championing of the Third Way Project, along with Gerhard Shróder in Germany in 1998 – a narrative the centre-left still clings to today, perhaps believing it is their only option in order to win elections. From centralising their macroeconomic policies they had nothing new to offer the people when the financial collapse struck in 2007. Voters’ trust in such parties took a blow in the economic crisis of the late 2000s, to which parties of the centre-left responded with cuts all but indistinguishable from those made by the right. They bailed out the banks and promoted austerity just like their centre-right counterparts.

So far Europe’s mainstream left have not emerged as agents of change and this has been their major setback. The rise of populist parties in Europe has eaten into the left’s traditional working-class support. What the left urgently needs is a new role model to show it how to deliver difficult reforms while maintaining public support. The left can’t concede in the war against racism, misogyny, Islamophobia or homophobia but it needs to find a way to return to speaking a language that resonates with what it once considered its natural constituency and begin to reconnect with these sectors of society who have felt alienated by them.

One thing for certain that we have learnt from Brexit and the result of the U.S. election is that fear and raw hate is rife in liberal Democracies right now and if these disillusioned populations who feel abandoned cannot find a voice of comfort within the Establishment that they believe has let them down for so long they will look for it from extreme sources.

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Lydia Bowers