At the height of the “populist moment” of the 2010s, left oppositions across North America and western Europe confronted the problem of their own success. In the US, UK, Spain and France radical electoral movements – each cohered by a single leader – began to surge in the polls, outstripping the institutions that would traditionally underpin them: powerful trade unions, civil society organisations, militant campaign groups. Socialist politicians bypassed these relics of the industrial era, yet remained aware that structural reforms would be impossible in their absence, since mass politics was a sine qua non for confronting the new oligarchy.
How did they intend to resolve this dilemma? Clearly, there was no time for these parties to constitute an active base before heading to the ballot box. It would have to be the other way around: seize the state, then ratify laws to strengthen workers, renters, students and the unemployed – transforming them into a real political subject. It was as if the left, disorientated by its rapid rise, was trying to travel back in time to create its own conditions of possibility.
There were admittedly few alternatives to this strategy in an age of financial hegemony and class dealignment. But to date it has achieved none of its primary objectives. In 2023, both Labour and the Democrats have reverted to type; Podemos has failed to overtake its centre-left rival, the Socialist Workers Party, in Spain; and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise seems unable to stall the advance of the far right. Though it temporarily disrupted the previous political settlement, left populism has proved too feeble to institute its own.
It may be premature to characterise the successor to these political projects. Yet, in parsing their afterlives, the Italian sociologist Paolo Gerbaudo has identified a trend towards dealmaking with forces to their right. Bernie Sanders has “tried to forge an uneasy alliance with Joe Biden” in chairing the Senate budget and health committees. Pablo Iglesias has been replaced as leader of the Spanish left by the Labour minister Yolanda Díaz, a “reassuring figure” whose politics are based on tripartite cooperation between businesses, unions and the state. And Mélenchon has softened his rhetoric in an attempt to “find compromises with other parties and even certain sections of capital”.
Gerbaudo sees this as a process of “maturation”, in which the left has moved away from “identity-building” towards “coalition-building”, engaging in detailed policy negotiations rather than drafting maximalist programmes. Having abandoned their redistributive aims and depleted their constituencies in the process, centre-left parties are now in a position where they may need to make agreements with socialists – who, Gerbaudo argues, can take advantage of this situation by winning modest concessions that will increase their credibility and popularity.
[See also: Why the left is still losing]
The Corbynite left is excluded from Gerbaudo’s analysis because of Keir Starmer’s refusal to countenance its policies. But this assessment is too hasty. Labour’s Socialist Campaign Group has, in fact, adopted a similar approach to its counterparts on the continent. Many of its 30 MPs hope that if Starmer wins only a narrow majority at the general election next year, they will be able to pressure the leadership to enact more social legislation. With this in mind, they are pursuing a tactic of “compromise” over confrontation: avoiding expulsion from the party by toeing the line on contentious issues such as Nato or Israel-Palestine, while waiting for a conjuncture in which they hold more leverage.
That might sound encouraging to a generation that was radicalised by the prospect of exercising state power, and views parliamentary politics as a necessary antidote to anarchist experiments or sectarian groupuscules. But despite the optimism of Gerbaudo and others, there are clear limits to this model. The evidence so far suggests that a growing propensity for “negotiation” is not an advance on the populist rebellions of the previous decade. It is rather a symptom of the left’s defeat – as well as a barrier to its recovery.
Podemos’s collaboration with the Socialists has completed its transformation into a technocratic cartel willing to sacrifice its founding principles for piecemeal progressive measures. For this it has been duly punished at the polls. Chairman Sanders has seen his campaign pledges – most notably the Green New Deal – metamorphose into Biden’s imperial agenda: militarised competition with China, backed by subsidies for green capital and increased fossil fuel extraction. And upcoming European elections are exposing Mélenchon’s weak hold over his left-of-centre alliance, which has failed to capitalise on the recent uprisings against Emmanuel Macron – ceding further ground to the right.
The conclusions, which onetime Corbynites would do well to recognise, are these: a left that devotes itself to horse-trading with opponents mistakes its fundamental purpose. Preoccupied with crafting policies to offset the system’s worst predations, its orientation becomes humanitarian rather than political. It becomes a top-down committee focused on influencing legislators, rather than an instrument for building popular power. The latter is not only neglected or deferred, as it was during the 2010s, it is actively suppressed.
Even when this strategy succeeds, and radical politicians manage to extract concessions from their rivals, it is generally the second group that benefits – as in Spain and Portugal, where progressive alliances have damaged the left and reanimated the centre. The former’s role is thereby reduced to one of stabilisation: propping up the old political caste, then quietly exiting the stage.
In theory, the end of the populist cycle could have initiated a turn to more open and democratic forms of organising. It could have replaced the “time travelling” method (of getting into government before mobilising mass support) with a more conventional chronology: first strengthen one’s forces, then target the state. But, instead, the leading figures of the Euro-Atlantic left are recasting themselves as lobbyists. The invariable result is frailty and demoralisation. Under a Starmer government, will socialist MPs avoid this trap?
[See also: The New Statesman’s left power list]