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Does the left have a future?

All over the west, the left is in crisis. It cannot find answers to three urgent problems: the disruptive force of globalisation, the rise of populist nationalism, and the decline of traditional work.

by John Harris in The Guardian

There is more than one spectre haunting modern Europe: terrorism, the revival of the far right, the instability of Turkey, the fracturing of the EU project. And in mainstream politics, all across the continent, the traditional parties of the left are in crisis.

In Germany, the Social Democratic party, once a titanic party of government, has fallen below 20% in the national polls. In France, Fran├žois Hollande’s ratings hover at around 15%, while the Spanish Socialist Workers’ party has seen its support almost halve in less than a decade.

The decline of Greece’s main social democratic party, which fell from winning elections to under 5% in less than a decade, was so rapid that it spawned a new word, “pasokification”, for the collapse of traditional centre-left parties. Even in Scandinavia, once-invincible parties of social democracy have been hit by increasingly disaffected voters, as rightwing populists stoke anxiety about immigration and its impact on the welfare state.

The reinvention of left politics in the countries most harshly affected by the Eurozone crisis might appear to offer grounds for new optimism. In Spain, Podemos rages against the political establishment it calls “la casta”, while Greece has seen the rise of Syriza, the upstart radical party that has been in government since 2015. The energy and iconoclasm of these two movements finds echoes elsewhere – witness the unexpected wave of support in the US for the Bernie Sanders campaign. But beyond the torrid Greek experience, these developments still feel more like an expression of protest and dissent than a sign of the imminent acquisition of power.

In Britain, the Labour party embodies almost all of the crises of the modern left. Labour still does well in big cities such as London, Bristol, Leeds and Manchester, but flounders in the south and east of England. The party may also be losing its hold on its old industrial heartlands, and in Scotland it looks headed for extinction. Labour’s poll ratings have been stuck in the same lowly place since before 2010.

This is not fundamentally about the party’s current internal strife. Labour is engulfed by the same crisis facing its sister parties in Europe. Political commentary tends to focus on politicians, and describe the world as if parties can be pulled here and there by the sheer will of powerful individuals. But Labour’s problems are systemic, rooted in the deepest structures of the economy and society. The left’s basic ideals of equality, solidarity and a protected public realm should be ageless. But everything on which it once built its strength has either disappeared, or is shrinking fast.

 The western left faces three grave challenges, which strike at the heart of its historic sense of what it is and who it speaks for. First, traditional work – and the left’s sacred notion of “the worker” – is fading, as people struggle through a new era of temporary jobs and rising self-employment, which may soon be succeeded by a drastic new age of automation. Second, there is a new wave of opposition to globalisation, led by forces on the right, which emphasise place and belonging, and a mistrust of outsiders. And all the time, politics rapidly fragments, which leaves the idea that one single party or ideology can represent a majority of people looking like a relic. The 20th century, in other words, really is over. Whether the left can return to meaningful power in the 21st is a question currently surrounded by a profound sense of doubt.

On the morning of May 8 2005, Tony Blair stood on the steps of Downing Street, after an unprecedented third consecutive Labour election victory. On the face of it, this provided proof of Labour’s newfound dominance, and another occasion for union jacks, talk of a new dawn, and the same blithe optimism that had carried Blair to power in 1997. But this time he took a much more hard-headed stance. Labour had just been been re-elected on 35.2% of the vote, with the support of only 22% of the electorate. The first-past-the-post system had worked its strange magic and taken the party back into government – but on the lowest figures for any government in the democratic age.

That day, Blair seemed contrite. “I’ve listened and I’ve learned, and I think I’ve a very clear idea what the people now expect from the government in a third term,” he said. “And I want to say to them very directly that I, we, the government, are going to focus relentlessly now on the priorities that people have set for us.” He spoke of the idea that “life is still a real struggle for many people”, and devoted one section of his speech to rising public angst about immigration.

Five months later, Blair made his 12th annual conference speech as party leader, and all traces of humility had vanished. His essential message reflected one of the key strands of his political theology: the mercurial magic of modern capitalism, and his mission to toughen up the country in response to the endless challenges of the free market. “Change is marching on again,” he announced, in that messianic tone that had begun to emerge in his speeches around the time of 9/11. “The pace of change can either overwhelm us, or make our lives better and our country stronger,” he went on. “What we can’t do is pretend it is not happening. I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.”

His next passage was positively evangelistic. “The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.”

I watched that speech on a huge screen in the conference exhibition area. And I recall thinking: “Most people are not like that.” The words rattled around my head: “Swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.” And I wondered that if these were the qualities now demanded of millions of Britons, what would happen if they failed the test?

Listening to Blair describe his vision of the future – in which one’s duty was to get as educated as possible, before working like hell and frantically trying not to sink – I was struck by two things. First, the complete absence of any empathetic, human element (he mentioned the balance between life and work, but could only offer “affordable, wraparound childcare between the hours of 8am-6pm for all who need it”), and second, the sense that more than ever, I had no understanding of what values the modern Labour party stood for.

If modern capitalism was now a byword for insecurity and inequality, Labour’s response increasingly sounded like a Darwinian demand for people to accept that change, and do their best to ensure that they kept up. Worse still, those exacting demands were being made by a new clique of Labour politicians who were culturally distant from their supposed “core” voters, and fatally unaware of their rising disaffection.

In 2010, under Gordon Brown’s butter-fingered leadership, Labour fell to a miserable 29% of the vote – its lowest share since 1983, when it came within a whisker of finishing third. Five years later, despite opinion polls suggesting a possible Labour win, Ed Miliband could only raise Labour’s vote share by a single percentage point.

If the party hoped to reassemble the electoral coalition that had just about held together through the second half of the 20th century, the world that gave rise to it had clearly gone. Trade union membership was at an all-time low, heavy industry had disappeared, and traditional class consciousness had waned.

As those foundations crumbled, so did the party’s old nostrums of nationalisation and redistribution. In their place, and in unbelievably favourable circumstances that veiled Labour’s underlying weaknesses – a long economic boom, and a Conservative party incapable of coherence, let alone power – Blair and Brown had come up with a thin social democracy that stoked the risk-taking of the City and used the proceeds to spend huge amounts of money on public services. But the financial crisis had put an end to that model as well.

Meanwhile, as deindustrialisation ripped through 20th-century economies, the instability and fragmentation embodied by the financial and service sectors was taken to its logical conclusion by new digital businesses. In turn, the latter have spawned what some now call “platform capitalism”: a model whereby goods, services and labour can be rapidly exchanged between people, companies and multinational corporations – think of Uber, eBay, Airbnb or TaskRabbit, which link up freelance workers with people who need help with such tasks as cleaning, deliveries or moving home – with little need for any intermediate organisations. This has not only marginalised retailers and wholesalers. It calls into question the traditional role of trade unions, and further reduces the power of the state, which is now locked into a pattern where innovations take rapid flight and it cannot keep up.

In retrospect, the left’s halcyon era was based on a straightforward project. When the archetypal factory gates swung open, out came thousands of men – and by and large, they were men – united by an unchanging daily experience, and ready to support a political force that would use the unions, the state, and the fabled “mass party” to create a new, much fairer world in their monolithic image.

Now, an atomising, quicksilver economy bypasses those structures, and has fragmented people and places so thoroughly that assembling meaningful political coalitions has begun to appear almost impossible. These are the social and political conditions that define relatively prosperous places such as the commuter towns of Surrey, or Essex, the centres of the knowledge economy to be found around Cambridge, and the gleaming new town of Livingston in Scotland. And in a very different way, these new conditions can be experienced just as powerfully in the tracts of the UK that modernity seems to have left behind.

In the spring of 2013, a couple of days after the death of Margaret Thatcher, the Guardian dispatched me to the post-industrial south Wales town of Merthyr Tydfil, to talk to people about the legacy of her time in power. I had been there many times before, and always beheld a place in which Labour’s decline was not a matter of symbolism and metaphor, but something to be directly experienced.

Essentially, it is a place defined by absences: of the coal and steel industries, and the huge Hoover factory that closed in 2009 – but more generally, of the ideas and institutions that once defined the Labour party and the wider Labour movement. Between 1900 and 1915, Merthyr was represented in the House of Commons by Keir Hardie, Labour’s first leader and founding icon. In 1997, the party received an astonishing 77% of the vote in the town. But by 2010, that figure had crashed to 44%, as local politics belatedly reflected a lingering sense of dismay and loss that dated back to the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985.

As I drove into town, I clocked an EE call centre, which pays its customer services operatives around £16,000 a year. Outside the town’s vast Tesco, I spoke to two retired men, who understood what had happened to Merthyr as a kind of offence to their basic values. In the past, one of them told me, “a man wanted to be a working man: he didn’t want to be in here, stacking shelves”. When I asked him about the legacy of the miners’ strike, what he said was full of pathos and tragedy. “Thirty years ago, whatever … it’s still embedded in us down here, he said. “We still talk about it every day: what might have happened if it had gone the other way.”

In the town centre, I then met an 18-year-old who was finding it impossible to get a job. “I’ve applied and applied, and it’s all been declined,” she said. She wondered whether there was something wrong with her CV: the idea that there were perhaps larger forces to blame for her predicament did not enter the conversation. I wondered, did she know what a trade union was? “No,” she said. “I don’t. What’s that?”

One in seven Britons is now self-employed. In the US, Forbes magazine has predicted that by 2020, 50% of people will at least partly work on a freelance basis. In 2015, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reported that since 1995, “non-standard” jobs – which is to say, temporary, part-time or self-employed positions – accounted for the whole of net jobs growth in the UK since 1995.

Such is the rise of the so-called “gig economy”. Economists and sociologists talk about “the precariat”, a growing part of the population for whom work is not the basis of personal identity, but an on-off part of life from which they often need protection. Some of this, of course, is down to the venality and greed of businesses. But the central momentum behind it is rooted in technology, and what Marxists would call the “mode of production”. In a world in which businesses can survey their order books on an hourly basis and temporarily hire staff at the touch of a button, why would they base their arrangements on agreements that last for years?

Merthyr is still said to be a Labour heartland. But like so many other places, it is brimming with a sense of a politics now hopelessly out of time: older people whose sense of a meaningful Labour identity is tangled up in an increasingly distant past, and younger residents who know nothing of any of this, and have little sense of the relevance of politics to their lives. In Merthyr, 56% of voters supported Brexit; at the Welsh assembly elections of 2016, Ukip won 20% of the local vote. In such places, the sense of Labour’s fall is palpable.

Go to any traditional Labour area, and people will tell you that Labour was once “the party of the working man”. Even now, from its name onwards, this reductive understanding of Labour, its people and its essential mission still runs deep, not least within the party itself. In place of “the working man”, the New Labour years ushered in a politics pitched at “hard-working families”, a term partly intended to reflect people’s increasing antipathy towards people on benefits. Even when it was advocating enhancements to childcare and pre-school provision, Labour tended to do so in terms of getting new mothers back into paid employment as soon as possible.

Today’s Labour party has not shed these outmoded ideas about the nature of work. Both Owen Smith and Jeremy Corbyn have sketched utopian plans to somehow magic the world back to some unspecified time before 1980. Smith wants to revive the Ministry of Labour, done away with by Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1968. Corbyn’s “10-point plan to rebuild and transform Britain” is all about “full employment and an economy that works for all”, and promises to restore “security to the workplace”. These visions are either naive or dishonest, but they reflect delusions that run throughout Labour and the left.

In a world in which work is changing radically, modern Conservatism applauds these shifts. For clued-up Tories, it is time to rebrand as “the workers’ party” – in which the worker is a totem of rugged individualism, not a symbol of solidarity. For proof, read Britannia Unchained, a breathless treatise about economics and the future of Britain co-authored by five Tory MPs who entered parliament in 2010: Kwasi Kwarteng, the new international development secretary Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss, who Theresa May appointed justice secretary in her first reshuffle. According to Britannia Unchained, the ideal modern worker is represented by the drivers who work for the London cab company Addison Lee. These people “work on a freelance basis. They can net £600 a week in take-home pay. But they have to work for it – up to 60 hours a week.” In this vision – taken to its logical conclusion by Uber – the acceptance of insecurity becomes a matter of heroism, and a new political division arises between the grafters and those – as Britannia Unchained witheringly puts it – “who enjoy public subsidies”. In other words, the “skivers” versus the “strivers”.

Blair tried to lead New Labour in this direction, but his attempts always jarred against his party’s ingrained support for the traditional welfare state and its attachment to increasingly old-fashioned ideas of secure employment. But in the context of the modern labour market, lionising work for its own sake will never bolster support for a politics built on those values. Instead, it may push people to the right.

People who work, after all, are no longer part of a monolithic mass: many increasingly think of themselves as lone agents, competing with others in much the same way that companies and corporations do. In the build-up to the 2015 election, I saw vivid proof of how fundamentally this erodes the left’s old understanding of its bond with its supporters.

In Plymouth, I watched a woman answer the door to a Labour canvasser with the words: “I’m a grafter – you ain’t doing nothing for me.” I spoke to a man in the north-eastern steeltown of Redcar who told me he would never vote Labour “because I work”. In the bellwether seat of Nuneaton, two women told me that Ed Miliband would probably win the election because “all the people on benefits” were going to vote for him. As these people saw it, Labour was no longer the “party of work”.

This is a hell of a knot to untangle. But for the left, a solution might begin with the understanding of an epochal shift that pushed politics beyond the workplace and the economy into the sphere of private life – a transition first articulated by feminism, with the assertion that “the personal is political”.

Belatedly building this insight into left politics does not entail a move away from the kind of regulation and intervention that might make modern working lives much more bearable, nor from the idea that government might foster more rewarding and useful work, chiefly via investment and education.
But beyond the old gospel of hard graft and the dignity of labour, any modern centre-left politics has to surely speak powerfully to elements of people’s lives – as citizens, carers, friends and parents – which it has long underplayed, and for which the incessant demands of modern capitalism leave little room. People on the left should be thinking about extending maternity and paternity leave and allowing its reprise when children are older; reviving adult education (often for its own sake, not just in terms of “reskilling”); assisting people in the creation of neighbourhood support networks that might belatedly answer the decline of the extended family; and, most obviously, enabling people to shorten their working week – think about a three-day weekend, and you begin to get a flavour of the left politics of the future.

The deep changes wrought by our ageing society will anyway begin to increase the numbers of people beyond working age, and accelerate the shift away from paid work towards caring. But the most radical shift will be caused by automation and its effects on employment. If the Bank of England now reckons that as many as 15m British jobs are under threat from technology, and if a third of jobs in the retail sector are predicted to disappear by 2025, does the myopic, often macho rhetoric of work and the worker really articulate any meaningful vision?

The left naturally embraced the mantra of the Occupy movement – the glaring division between the super rich and the rest of us embodied by the slogan “We are the 99%”. Objectively, the idea of a division between a tiny, light-footed international elite and everybody else holds true. But in everyday life, this division finds little expression.

Instead, the rising inequality fostered by globalisation and free-market economics manifests itself in a cultural gap that is tearing the left’s traditional constituency in two. Once, social democracy – or, if you prefer, democratic socialism – was built on the support of both the progressive middle class and the parts of the working class who were represented by the unions. Now, a comfortable, culturally confident constituency seems to stare in bafflement at an increasingly resentful part of the traditionally Labour-supporting working class.

The first group has an internationalised culture, a belief in what the modern vernacular calls diversity, and the confidence that comes with education and relative affluence. It can apparently cope with its version of job insecurity (think the freelance software developer, rather than the warehouse worker on a zero-hours contract). But on the other side are people who have a much more negative view of globalisation and modernity – and in particular, the large-scale movement of people. In the UK, they tend to live in the places that have largely voted Labour but supported leaving the EU, and whose loudest response to globalisation is to re-embrace precisely the “custom and practice”, as Blair put it, that modern economies tend to squash: to emphasise place and belonging, and assert an essentially defensive national identity.

Does anyone on the left want to write off the working-class voters who chose Brexit as a mass of bigots and racists?

From a sympathetic perspective, to put out a flag can be a gesture way beyond mere jingoism. It often stands as an assertion of esteem – and collective esteem, at that – in an insecure, unstable world that frequently seems to deny people any at all. Those who were once coalminers or steelworkers may now be temporarily-employed “operatives” waiting for word of that week’s working hours. In a cultural sense, by contrast, national identity offers people at least some prospect of regaining a sense of who they are, and why that represents something important. Even when it comes to resentments around immigration, a nuanced, empathetic understanding should not be beyond anyone’s grasp: people can be disorientated by rapid population change and anxious to assert a sense of place without such feelings turning hateful.

There is also a much nastier side to all this – a surge in racism, which has happened all over Europe, and appears to have been given grim licence by the Brexit vote. Even so, does anyone on the left want to write off the 3.8m people who voted for Ukip in 2012 – or the even larger number of working-class voters who chose Brexit – as a mass of bigots and racists? Even in its most unpleasant manifestations, most prejudice has a wider context, and it is clear that these modern antipathies are most keenly felt in places that have either been left behind by modernity, or represent its most difficult elements: insecure job markets, scarce housing, overstretched public services.
And this new mood is growing partly because of factors tangled up with the decline of the left: the demise of trade unions and the traditional workplace, which have left political vacuums now filled by another form of collective identity. A glaring example is the new politics of England and Englishness, which is as much bound up with class as it is with place, and has so far simmered away without finding a coherent expression.

I have met enough people who have identified themselves as “English” to know that it is usually not just a matter of national pride. It also tends to translate as a set of defiant cultural rejections, on the part of people who are not middle-class, not from London, and angry about the way that people who fit both those descriptions view the rest of the country. The UK census of 2011 was the first ever to include a question about national identity – and in England, 60% of people described themselves as English only. But the left, in Britain as much as in Europe, remains in denial about why people have taken refuge in such expressions of nationhood. This is something that applies to both so-called “Blairites”, and Corbyn and his supporters: one is so enraptured by globalisation that it thinks of vocal expressions of patriotism as a retrogressive block on progress; the other cleaves to a rose-tinted internationalism that regards such things as a facade for bigotry.

In 2014, I spent three days in and around the Kent coast, following Ukip activists, and talking to people watching their manoeuvres. In the town of Broadstairs, a group of energetic leftwing activists – who would go on to found a thriving local branch of the pro-Corbyn group Momentum – had organised a day of campaigning against Ukip, focused on Nigel Farage’s candidacy in the seat of South Thanet. I watched them debate with a man sitting on the town’s seafront, who was determined to vote for Farage, and scornful of their attempts to dissuade him.

“He’s going to be voted in, and there’s nothing you people can do about it,” he said, gesturing to them with a kind of camp contempt.

He then explained his main source of anger. His son, he said, had a speech disability, and could not find work in his chosen field of catering. “Nobody will give him a job. But a foreigner could come over here and speak not one word of English and they get a job.”

The truth of this was batted around for two or three minutes, before he came to his conclusion. “I’m brassed off,” he said, and he then spoke pointedly about his own sense of insecurity. “I’m a working man. I’ve paid all my taxes and everything. And if anything goes wrong with me or my family and I get thrown out of my house because I can’t pay my mortgage, I’ll get put in a bedsit.”

What, then, did he want? “A better England,” he said, and I could instantly sense that he had a basic set of grievances – about insecurity and unfairness – to which the political left would once have been able to confidently speak. Unfortunately, in the absence of any meaningful cultural bonds, the avowedly leftwing people to whom he was talking were residents of a completely different reality.

Can things be any different? If left politics is not to shrink into a metropolitan shadow of itself and abandon hope of gaining national power, they have to. Indeed, if British politics is not to speed towards the kind of nasty populism taking root all over Europe and calling the shots in such countries as Poland and Hungary, this is a matter of urgency – not least because as automation takes hold, the disorientation on which the new rightwing politics feeds will only increase.

Scotland is perhaps instructive. The Scottish National party’s essential triumph has been to bond with millions of people via a modern, “civic” kind of nationhood, and thereby recast a social democratic model of government in terms of identity and belonging – rather than standing on the other side of a cultural divide, as Labour now does in England. To some extent, this is a matter of clever branding, and the successive political feats pulled off by Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon: the lion’s share of SNP MPs and MSPs are almost as metropolitan and media-savvy as the scions of New Labour were. But for the time being, it undoubtedly works.

South of the border, by contrast, a key part of Labour’s crisis is that it so clearly fails to speak to swaths of England – and Wales – and leaves these places open to political forces that want to sever their residual links to left politics for good. Circa 2006, it was the BNP. From around 2012 onwards, Ukip began to slowly push into Labour’s old heartlands. Now, the millionaire Ukip donor Arron Banks is said to be mulling over a new party that might capitalise on the support for Brexit in working-class Labour areas and deliver them a new political identity. The stakes, then, are unbelievably high: if the left cannot speak for the people it once represented as a matter of instinct, much more malign forces will.

If the left’s predicament comes down to a single fault, it is this. It is very good at demanding change, but pretty hopeless at understanding it. Supposedly radical elements too often regard deep technological shifts as the work of greedy capitalists and rightwing politicians, and demand that they are rolled back. Meanwhile, the self-styled moderates tend to advocate large-scale surrender, instead of recognising that technological and economic changes can create new openings for left ideas. A growing estrangement from the left’s traditional supporters makes these problems worse, and one side tends to cancel out the other. The result: as people experience dramatic change in their everyday lives, they form the impression that half of politics has precious little to say to them.

In a political reality as complex as ours, there are inevitable problems for the political right as well. It is a long time since the Conservative party has spoken the visceral, populist language that was the hallmark of Margaret Thatcher. As with Blair in 2005, the Tories were recently elected to power with the support of less than a quarter of the electorate. Similarly, in Germany, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats once vied with the Social Democrats for the support of a majority of the population, but they are now down to around 30%. But modern challenges for the centre-right will always be less difficult than they are for the left. The former, after all, seeks to safeguard and advance modern capitalism rather than substantially change it. Even in the absence of a broad social base, the right is sustained by big business and the conservative press, which give it huge political advantages.

The left has responded to its crisis by looking endlessly inward – but occasionally, there are flashes of hope. There is a rising recognition, among both former followers of Blair and alumni of the traditional left, that Labour’s old majoritarian dreams are probably finished – and that it should finally embrace proportional representation and build new alliances and coalitions. This change would probably trigger a split between the party’s estranged left and right, and thereby bring Britain into line with the rest of Europe, where the left’s crisis is highlighted by a tussle between traditional social democrats and new radicals.

In Britain and plenty of other places, there is growing interest in the idea of a universal basic income, built on an understanding of accelerating economic changes, and their far-reaching consequences for the left’s almost religious attachment to the glories of paid employment. It is early days for such a leap. But proposing that the state should meet some or all of people’s basic living costs would be an implicit acknowledgement that work alone cannot possibly deliver the collective security that the left has always seen as its basic mission, and that space has to be created for the other elements of people’s lives.

Whether the left can come to terms with the new politics of national identity and belonging and thereby rein in its nastier aspects is a much more difficult question – but if it doesn’t, its activists may very well gaze at their parties’ old “core” supporters across an impossible divide.

Perhaps the most generous verdict is that here and across the world, the left – radicals and liberals alike – is stuck in an interregnum. You could compare it to the predicament of the 1980s, but it is even more reminiscent of the 1930s, when the aftershocks of an economic crash saw the left pushed aside by the politics of hatred and division.

In 1931, the great Labour thinker RH Tawney wrote a short text titled The Choice Before the Labour Party, casting a cold eye over its predicament in terms that ring as true now as they must have done then. Labour, he wrote, “does not achieve what it could, because it does not know what it wants. It frets out of office and fumbles in it, because it lacks the assurance either to wait or to strike. Being without clear convictions as to its own meaning and purpose, it is deprived of the dynamic which only convictions supply. If it neither acts with decision nor inspires others so to act, the principal reason is that it is itself undecided.”

No party can exist forever. Political traditions can decline, and then take on new forms; some simply become extinct. All that can be said with certainty is that if the left is to finally leave the 20th century, the process will have to start with the ideas and convictions that answer the challenges of a modernity it is only just starting to wake up to, let alone understand.

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