Owen Jones is a columnist for The Guardian. His most recent piece, “To move on, Labour must learn lessons from the left’s failure worldwide,” is up to his usual standards but curiously leaves out the obvious conclusion to which his argument clearly leads.
Jones adroitly lays out the worldwide left’s trend of failure. Left-wing parties suffered dramatic losses in the U.K., France, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Greece to name but a few. Hard-right governments have taken hold in Poland, Hungary, Brazil, India, and the U.S. We can’t expect Jones to provide us with a silver bullet answer to the left’s recent electoral difficulties, but a better try at answering the question is in order. I will offer the beginnings of an answer, or at least one aspect of the answer.
The left in the year 2020 find itself stuck in a self-inflicted malaise several decades in the making. It is a problem that most older leftists can’t or won’t admit and younger leftists lack the historical perspective to even recognize. In short, the left got complacent, started to slip then panicked and lost their way.
To use an imperfect analogy: Sometimes, when a sports team runs up a big lead, they start to ease off—the match is won, they think. And sometimes, when they ease off, the trailing team digs in, makes adjustments, and comes roaring back. The leading side suddenly find themselves behind and don’t know what to do or worse, stop doing the things that earned them the big lead and make their situation poorer.
In the mid-20th century, the left, after a long struggle, won significant gains in human rights and structural political reforms. The post-WWII period saw an implementation of progressive policies and social and economic prosperity for many. In the 1960s, the left won major victories on civil rights and women’s rights, felt they stopped the Vietnam war, and was seeing a loosening of social strictures on free expression and life choices. The left saw itself as leading, if not having won.
What failings the right has, their greatest strengths are that they don’t give up and they play the long game. In the 1970s, while the left became complacent, the right plotted a counter strategy to take back power. Fair dues: they planned well and executed their game plan. They elected Thatcher and Reagan and they asserted the institution of corporatism as the ideology of a new socio-political vision. But rather than rest after a few electoral victories, the right embarked on solidifying their power base.
The 1980s and early 1990s belonged to the right. They rallied corporations and their executives and stockholders to donate millions to right-wing political parties and most importantly, coordinated with those wealthy interests to bring news media under the ownership of those friendly to the right. With the help of the right-leaning corporate media, the right built social networks (the old fashioned pre-Internet kinds) to support their political parties electorally. They parleyed these synergies into electing candidates at all levels of government from the ground up. The right copied the machine politics of organised labour but made the machinery friendly to corporate interests.
The left responded to the surging right in the worst way possible. They tried to be more like the right. The Clintons in the U.S. and the “Blairites” in the U.K. adopted what they called “the third way,” maintaining some liberal social policies but pivoting to more pro-corporate economic and regulatory stances. In short, the left stopped doing the things that earned them their original gains and shifted to the right. Not surprisingly, corporations rewarded this shift with closer ties and more money. Other parties in other countries followed suit. The old left of workers’ parties had been co-opted. Jones briefly acknowledges the “third way,” but afterwards leaves it out of the equation.
What Jones’s appropriately calls “the left’s failure worldwide,” is the result of the left’s quarter century of equivocation over who they are. People are reluctant to follow parties that do not provide a clear identity and vision. Many formerly left-wing parties, but especially the Democrats in the U.S. and Labour in the U.K., have offered a muddled picture of who they represent: the people or big business. Even Barrack Obama, who rode a wave inspired by his progressive campaign promises, tacked to the right once in office, alienating some of the coalition that elected him enough to throw Congress back to the right. The centre-left in most of Europe, having gone “third way,” has all but disappeared, their support disintegrating away to parties to their left and right. The Democrats and U.K. Labour are still political forces but greatly weakened.
All is not lost though for the left. Most notably within the Democratic and U.K. Labour parties are emerging movements to return the parties to their original progressive base. Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have led these charges. Both are grizzled veterans of the old guard, yet they both appeal to the younger more progressive demographic who are waking up to how the major parties—now centre-right and full-right—are doing nothing to solve the problems of economic inequality and the climate crisis.
Jones hints at this return back to the left as the path forward for the worldwide left. He mentions how shifting leftwards has worked in Portugal and Spain. Those parties gained electorally by talking about old progressive economic issues and the new progressive issue of addressing the climate crisis. Jones is correct that the progressive left can point to victories while the “third way” can point to none save centrist Emmanuel Macron’s empty victory.
It is here that I fully expected Jones to connect the dots, but he does not. He instead writes that the answer for the left is to unite the “older demographic with capital and socially conservative views [with] disproportionately younger voters with progressive social values.” This misses what the left’s problem is—the battle between the progressives and the “third way.” A lack of support from old rich people with socially conservative views was not what sunk Sanders, whose movement’s victories were squashed by the corporate wing of the Democratic Party. Similar for Corbyn except his refusal to abandon his idiosyncratic support for Brexit is what grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory for Labour.
Portugal and Spain will have progressive governments because left-wing parties were willing to be left-wing parties again instead of trying to shave a few points their way from the centre-right. There is the lesson for the worldwide left: go back to your roots.