The financial crisis of 2007-2008 was supposed to present an opportunity for the left. It would be a “social-democratic moment”. Radicals spoke of the potential collapse of capitalism, while Keynesians were determined to make capitalism safe for the world once more.
The left was correct to anticipate that the economic shocks would convulse our politics. It was wrong, however, to assume that this would be to its benefit. In the UK and elsewhere, the left has lost ground to populists and to establishment conservatives. On 23 June, Britain voted to leave the European Union, a project in which progressives had vested so much. There is no turning back.
The centre left has endured crises before – notably in the 1930s and the Thatcherite 1980s – and recovered. But the situation today feels different. The left appears to be in structural, rather than merely cyclical, decline. Its historic electoral coalition of the liberal middle class and the industrial working class is fracturing, as Robert Ford, Ros Wynne-Jones and John Harris write in this issue’s cover feature.
The Brexit vote reflected and reinforced the schism in the Labour Party. Those who voted Leave and those who voted Remain viewed each other as citizens of different countries.
The left’s weakness is not simply one of electoral failure but one of political intent. It possesses no project comparable to the socialism of the 1930s and 1940s, the Keynesianism of the 1950s and 1960s, or even the “Third Way” of the 1990s. To an insecure and distrusting electorate, it has appeared neither bold enough nor credible enough.
Throughout the West, we are witnessing a turn towards populism: blue-collar Democrats in the United States defecting to Donald Trump’s Republican Party, French Socialists turning to Marine Le Pen, Social Democrats in Germany embracing Alternative für Deutschland. Populists of left and right thrive by offering seductively simple answers to economic and cultural grievances. We are witnessing a surge of separatist or nationalist movements – in Scotland, Belgium, Italy, Spain and the Balkans. Meanwhile, the centre right is able to secure and maintain power in many countries by trading on its perceived competence and pragmatism.
Globalisation has undermined the left by weakening class solidarity and loosening the cultural ties that bind. It has spurred the rise of a defensive identity politics, to which progressive cosmopolitans have struggled to respond. And it has led to grotesque inequalities.
Left-wing parties are not, however, without purpose. They exist, as David Runciman writes on page 41, “to use the power of the state to rectify unjust distributions of power in society”. Yet these parties must also understand the trends remaking the economy and society: automation, the power of global networks and digital technology, the rise of self-employment and the gig economy, increasing life expectancy, nationalism, the fracturing of class loyalties.
The left must seek to harness the productive potential of these transformations while ensuring that their benefits are fairly distributed. Having too often centralised power, it should unambiguously embrace devolution and pluralism, as Lisa Nandy, Marc Stears, Neal Lawson and several other contributors suggest. By transferring responsibility downwards, politicians can increase trust, reduce inefficiency and enable innovation.
In an age of sharpened national identity, the left must craft a progressive patriotism that can counter the exclusivism of the right. Finally, it must unite cosmopolitans and communitarians around common causes and projects.
The Brexit vote and the accompanying increase in national responsibility provide an opportunity to reconsider the purpose of the state. In this week’s magazine, John Gray suggests that Theresa May has glimpsed the future and is prepared to run with it, as the Thatcherites did at the end of the 1970s.
So is this a post-liberal moment? Must these new times be associated with the ascendancy of the right? For the left, the threat of permanent marginalisation is real. Its social and cultural roots are no longer deep enough for it to assume that the electoral wheel will eventually turn in its favour. The risk is of a future in which the left protests while the right governs.
This article appears in the 15 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times