Across the West, the left seems incapable of defining a politics for our age of insecurity. It oscillates between electoral caution to reassure middle-class swing voters, and impossible utopian visions to satisfy militant members. But neither strategy will deliver majority support nor engender radical reform. At a time when politics is small and inversely related to the scale of the task, the left should remember its radically transformative traditions, such as the postwar settlement ushered in by the Attlee government.
Yet both in office and in opposition, the left is rowing back its previous pledges. Prior to his election, Joe Biden promised the largest nationwide social investment programme in support of the living wage and childcare since the Great Depression-era transformation of the New Deal. Even when he had a congressional majority before last year’s midterm elections, the president failed to pass the American Families Plan and the US remains one of the few advanced economies to lack the public provision of paid paternity and maternity leave.
Take the misguided decision to extend the Ultra Low Emission Zone by London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, in the middle of the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation: it might play well with the upper middle class but is hitting businesses and low-paid workers hard. It amounts to telling people to buy a new car or van so that they can go to work and visit their elderly relatives.
The public transport infrastructure that is needed to support this policy is neither existent nor will it be on offer, given that Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is sticking to the same fiscal framework as the Tories, which rules out the kind of public investment necessary to kick-start economic growth. Labour has not just reneged on a promise to commit £28bn a year on capital spending for “green growth”, but also abandoned spending pledges such as reversing the two-child benefit cap that Starmer himself once characterised as a “vast social injustice”. Labour, which is supposed to be the party of social democrats and unionists, has also ruled out higher taxes on tech platforms or landowners, and on funding any improvements to Britain’s parlous public services.
All this confirms that the left accepts the right’s agenda and fails to change the terms of the political contest. But the danger of accepting the old economic orthodoxy while also enacting unpopular green policies is that the left further alienates working families and pours petrol on the fire lit by right-wing populists. Across the West, hard-right anti-liberal insurgents such as the Alternative for Germany, the Sweden Democrats and the Farmer-Citizen Movement in the Netherlands command growing support by playing on voters’ opposition to the bourgeois environmentalism of net zero politics that imposes green levies and eco-taxes on those who can afford the least.
The alternative is to renew the left’s radically reforming tradition. Ninety years ago, the US Democrats led by President Franklin D Roosevelt conducted an extraordinary experiment in economics and politics in the shape of the New Deal – an ambitious programme to revitalise American democracy and society as a way of resisting the temptation to do a deal with Hitler following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that lasted until 1932. Starting in 1945, the Labour government led by Clement Attlee put in place a new model society that resisted the lure of communism and began rebuilding the country after the ravages of two world wars. Both were founded on the promotion of universal human rights and a commitment to confront capital and embed markets in strong civic institutions.
At the heart of this politics lay the defence of human dignity – the intrinsic worth of every person – combined with a series of fundamental economic and social rights to safeguard a threatened democratic system and a civilised society. This translated not only into a strategy of stimulating the economy and creating jobs through greater state capacity but also of strengthening social institutions and democratic self-rule – whether by bolstering trade unions or via programmes such as the Civilian Conservation Corps in the US. From 1937 to 1946, about 3 million young people worked on the development of natural resources, helping to regenerate rural areas and equipping participants with manual and social skills, all of which is relevant for today’s challenges of environmental protection and supporting the young generation.
Faced with increasing authoritarianism at home and the advance of the autocratic axis of Russia and China abroad, the left would do well to remember its own intellectual legacy and political courage. Instead of sticking to the agenda set by the right, the task for the left is to build a politics that responds to the anxieties of our age – the retreat of democracy, the degradation of dignity in the workplace and the rise of insecurity, fearfulness, even despair.
The left can win and govern for a popular majority. But only if it recovers a distinctive ethical purpose – of upholding the dignity of the person, and of labour.