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14 November 2023

The left’s conservative turn

From Keir Starmer to Sahra Wagenknecht, a consensus of securonomics and social moderation is emerging.

By Adrian Pabst

A quiet revolution is happening in Western politics. Parts of the left are breaking with the liberal consensus, dominant for the past 40 years, that was built on an uncritical acceptance of globalisation, mass immigration and multiculturalism. Both centre-left parties and some left-wing populists are beginning to adopt an agenda of rebuilding the national economy, limiting inward migration and embracing patriotism. Where ultra-liberal economics and ultra-liberal culture previously prevailed, we are now seeing a paradoxical fusion of economic radicalism with social moderation; reindustrialisation and higher wages combined with greater support for families.

Left conservatism” captures the cultural facets. But the fundamental aspect of this turn is an increasing focus on constructive alternatives to the capitalist free market. While the right increasingly descends into forms of market nationalism, the post-liberal left seeks to renew society both nationally and internationally. Gone is liberalism’s sentiment that we are essentially isolated individuals bent on maximising our self-interest and in pursuit of ever-greater private profit and autonomy. Instead, the emphasis has shifted away from promoting greed and lust towards nurturing solidarity and celebrating fidelity to the people and the places we call home.

One of the first centre-left politicians to take this small-c conservative turn was the leader of the Danish Social Democrats Mette Frederiksen. Her pitch to working-class voters that “you didn’t leave us, we left you” in 2019 recognises that the left lost for years because it had ignored the concerns of the working class – economic and cultural insecurity linked to low-paid precarious jobs and the erosion of social bonds. Frederiksen’s balancing act has combined strict limits on immigration with strong action on integration, based on the idea of mutual obligation. The message to both indigenous people and immigrants is that everyone has not just rights and entitlements but also duties to families, fellow citizens and “strangers” who become neighbours.

[See also: John Gray on the return of David Cameron]

Joe Biden’s policy, branded by Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves as “securonomics”, seeks to provide greater economic security through a revitalised industrial policy, a more interventionist state and the “friendshoring” of production and supply chains away from hostile foreign powers such as China towards allies. This is an approach favoured by Reeves. Meanwhile, Keir Starmer has repeatedly spoken about cultural security. Last year’s Labour conference was under the banner of King and country rather than party and protest. And at this year’s gathering, the leader’s speech featured a passage on the need to “conserve what is precious” – words that would have been unthinkable during the New Labour and Jeremy Corbyn eras. A small step in this direction is Labour’s decision to drop gender self-ID and boost childcare provision.

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The most consequential intervention in Europe is the new left-conservative party launched by Sahra Wagenknecht in Germany. Her politics is not simply “left on the economy” and “right on culture”; it is communitarian and corporatist on both economic and cultural issues. That means rejecting the left-right convergence around the liberal “market-state” and emphasising that people flourish when embedded in interpersonal relationships and intermediary institutions such as trade unions, professional associations, churches and other faith communities. While Wagenknecht comes close to national populist positions on Ukraine, her critique of capitalism is persuasive. She proposes a compelling alternative, too, with mutualised utilities, cooperatives and social enterprises – instead of big business and big government dominating the whole economy. Linked to this is her opposition to free-market globalisation and to unchecked immigration.

Ahead of the 22 November Dutch parliamentary elections, the social democrats are also talking tough about immigration, like their sister party in Denmark and the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance. The New Social Contract party in the Netherlands proposes to address widespread economic and cultural insecurity by combining a more radical economic programme of higher living wages and reindustrialisation with small-c social conservatism – support for family and community – and bold political reform that devolves power to people.

All this, combined with the Biden administration’s build agenda, suggests that the left in the West is starting to offer a constructive alternative to the technocratic capitalism of the old centrists and the national populism of the radical right. The electoral realignment that brought us Brexit and Donald Trump seemed to favour the right for many years. But the new emerging consensus of economic radicalism and social moderation might just be built by the left.

[See also: Sahra Wagenknecht’s new left conservatism]

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