The Left’s Working-class Problem?

The recent Lewisham by-election may attract some interest since it highlights the tension in Labour’s Brexit strategy. What is easily missed however is what appears to be a political realignment among voters. In certain recent YouGov polls, the Tories appeared to have gained a large lead among working-class voters, that is what in NRS social grades are called C2DE. This appears to be anecdotal but highlights a growing broad political realignment; the social classes of the past no longer vote as they once were. Working class is no longer a bastion for the Labour Party. So, is this a problem for the Labour Party and for the Left at large?

To understand whether this is a problem, we need to understand the political circumstances and contexts behind the change. Deindustrialisation and automation have reduced the political power of trade unions and in effect reduced the political power of the working class. Owen Jones’ Chavs: Demonization of the Working Class argues that the decline in the industrial economy allowed the working class to become irrelevant and mocked by other parts of society. The decline of manufacturing also leads to a shift in trade union emphasis, from advancing the cause of the industrial proletariat to becoming mouthpieces of public sector workers. However, the political shift within the Left itself is far more problematic for Social Democratic parties.

The development of the New-Left in the 1960s, through the anti-war movement (that Jeremy Corbyn is a part of, being the ex-president of Stop the War Coalition), LGBT rights causes, gender and race equality movements ended the Left’s focus on advancing working class people and instead focusing on social equality movements. The New-Left abandons the Left’s concern for the community and replacing it with empowerment for oppressed individuals such as ethnic minorities, women and LGBT movements. To understand the Left’s focus on oppressed individuals over communities can be summarised by the phrase “Politics is personal”. That is not to say that politics has no effect on individual lives but to say that individual social injustices are structured into society. The focus on advancing the rights of oppressed people leads to policies such as political correctness The New-Left’s effect on the Left has transformed the Left. Indeed, the New Left is now so ingrained in Left-wing politics that gay rights and ethnic equality arguably unify the political Left than economics, which causes schisms in the Left.

The New-Left in many ways is the reason why the working-class has abandoned the Labour Party and The Democrats in the USA, plus the virtual annihilation of Social Democratic Parties on the European continent. Whilst it is regularly cited that austerity and Neoliberalism have led to the decline of Social Democratic parties, it ignores one very interesting detail. If people simply felt betrayed by Neoliberalism and austerity-driven Social Democratic parties, why has the Far-Left barely made any traction in Western Europe? It is regularly cited that moving to Neoliberal economics doomed the mainstream Left. This is a very good point of discussion and one that I agree with, that Neoliberalism has undermined Left-wing parties. However, it completely ignores the failure of alternative Left-wing parties to increase their vote share in Western Europe. Indeed, despite many countries such as Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Italy having some form of Proportional Representation system, the far-Left in most of Western Europe exists on the fringe. In Germany, the 2017 election showed the populist-Right AfD party massively increase their vote share, whilst Die-Linke the Far-Left wing party of Germany didn’t increase their share of the vote. The failure of the Die Linke in Germany highlights the issues of the Left in general.  This I have argued before on, that simply adopting Neoliberalism has not undermined the Left as much as adopting New-Left wing ideas of social justice movements.

Why then do the Social Democratic parties decline whilst Far-Left wing parties stagnate? By adopting social justice politics of the New-Left, the Left-wing parties across the developed world no longer represent the ordinary people that once voted for them. The preservation of communities and community life which should give the Left a raison-d’etre. Instead, its defined as “racist” because of the need to reduce the scale of immigration, despite serious research from Robert Putman arguing that ethnic diversity damages the civic health of a community by reducing trust and civic-mindedness of people. The Left pursues social liberal attitudes but ignores the communities that it once embraced. By embracing socially progressive values, it no longer can be a champion for ordinary people. Whether Social Democratic parties that are threatened with extinction or alternative Left-wing parties that lie on the political fringe, it seems the Populist-Right is now the champion of the working-class. What a grim future we face in politics.

Article by Daniel Clemence

Photograph: Sky News

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