Where is the left’s energy and animating purpose? It is currently in power in much of Latin America and in major western countries such as the US, Germany, Spain and Australia. The UK Labour Party has a good chance of returning to government next year.
But the Spanish socialists are set to lose next month’s snap election and Germany’s Social Democrats are polling behind both the centre-right Christian Democrats and, in some surveys, the far-right AfD (Alternative für Deutschland). Joe Biden is far from assured re-election, while Labour faces an uphill struggle to win an outright majority of seats in Westminster. Once again it seems the left’s forward march is halted, stopped in its tracks before it has really got going.
Part of this phenomenon can be attributed to a tough geopolitical and economic context of radical uncertainty, which favours right-wing themes of state sovereignty, border control and national identity. But the fundamental reason is the left’s lack of political self-confidence, linked to its lack of intellectual curiosity. The left is not dominant because it does not set the agenda or the terms of the political contest.
In the battle of ideas, the left has followed timidly where the right has not feared to tread. First, during the Clinton and Blair years in the 1990s and early 2000s, it embraced the market individualism introduced by Reagan and Thatcher. After the 2008 financial crash the left offered little else than austerity-lite. In the wake of Covid it was the American and British political right that expanded the state and argued for a new age of protectionist support for domestic industry and higher wages, with much of the centre-left clinging to the liberal utopia of global free trade and low wages subsidised by public welfare.
And now the left largely accepts the right’s case for a fiscal straitjacket, with the Bidenomics attempt to rebuild the US national economy being the exception that proves the rule. Hence Labour’s watering down of its £28bn-a-year green investment pledge in the name of an “iron grip on public spending and tax receipts”, as Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, put it to the New Statesman. Caution and competence are necessary but insufficient to build a broad cross-class, cross-cultural coalition that can win majority support.
Why is this? Compared with the right, the left has so failed to build an ecology of institutions that provide a place for vibrant political debate. Left-wing parties are top-down machines of command-and-control with little interest in challenging the prevailing consensus, or else flat networks that don’t develop constructive alternatives. Either way, they retreat to comfort zones of old orthodoxy or revolutionary rhetoric that bear little relation to reality.
Even the Corbyn experiment with Momentum and the World Transformed – the hard left political festival – has left no distinctive legacy. A feeble attempt to revive 1970s Bennite ideas of a state that owns and controls the commanding heights of the British economy, combined with technological determinism, offered a world without work or workers – just a new networked generation inhabiting a virtual reality while living off a universal basic income that would further entrench permanent welfare subsidies of low wages.
Left-leaning think tanks do earnest policy work but hardly set the world alight with ideas that are transformative yet realistic. Most of the output adds to the progressive politics that speaks to graduates in metropolitan areas and university towns where Labour’s votes are concentrated, but has little to say to people in suburban, rural and coastal areas – areas where Labour needs to pick up votes if it is to win a seat majority and govern unencumbered by the LibDems and the SNP.
The left may have solidarity with workers in countries where free trade unions are banned, like China, and a commitment to preserve the natural world against the ecological ravages of global capitalism. But why can’t it be interested, too, in work, family, pride of place, a sense of attachment to the nation?
Most progressives mirror the culture war obsessions of the right by engaging in ever shriller identity politics. In so doing, they forget not only the left’s legacy of class politics and the defence of the labour interest, but also the point that contemporary culture reflects capitalism’s core value of consumerist liberation. Thus, right-wing culture wars and left-wing identity politics are two sides of the same capitalist coin – opium for the masses to obfuscate the loss of fundamental freedoms, of agency and of dignity.
The left sneers at the right’s attempt to renew itself at gatherings such as the recent National Conservatism conference, dismissing it as an expression of reactionary conspiratorial anti-enlightenment hysteria. But as the New Statesman’s Will Lloyd has chronicled, the NatCons managed to mobilise a diverse youthful crowd in search of new ideas and political debate.
By contrast, much of what happens on the left is sterile and sanitised. Little wonder that the closing of the progressive mind leaves the left unable to build a broad mass-membership movement reflecting society. Yet that is precisely what an older left managed to do when it was in the ascendancy – whether the New Deal in the US, the post-war settlement under Attlee, the civil rights movement in America, or in Eastern Europe in 1989 with the trade union Solidarity in Poland and Václav Havel’s Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia.
The right is at once more interested in ideas and ruthlessly pragmatic in its political positioning. If the left is serious about winning and governing for the common good, it needs to recover intellectual courage and renew its ethical purpose.