Should social democracy tack towards populists wooing its electorate with xenophobic slogans? The crisis of the left demands instead a positive alternative to social insecurity.
These are grim times for the left across Europe. It has been losing votes and intellectual support almost everywhere. For social-democratic parties this decline has in many cases been catastrophic—obliterated in Poland, Hungary and Greece; wiped out in the Dutch general election and the French presidential contest; spiralling downwards relentlessly in Germany, and losing the bulk of working-class support in Italy. There are two main exceptions: the UK, where the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has explicitly broken with the orthodoxies of the ‘third way’, and Portugal, where the Socialists have done so not only on policy but also politically, going into coalition with two parties way to their left.
The philosophy and thinking of the former US president Bill Clinton and the British ex-premier Tony Blair, encapsulated in the ‘third way’, was not a new, more right-wing version of social democracy but, rather, a clean break from it. The unique global circumstances of the late 1990s—the end of the cold war, the opening of Chinese and ex-Soviet markets to the commercial world and the impact of the information-technology revolution—presented a moment when this thinking acquired a certain plausibility. It was possible to believe that capitalism had abolished its own contradictions.
The financial crisis of 2008 however left this belief in ruins. It showed that Labour and its ‘third way’ European followers had got the economics of modern capitalism wrong, mistaking a temporary phenomenon for a permanent one. Those engaged in the ‘New Labour’ project have been very slow to acknowledge this, while across the European Union most social democrats remain wedded to the ordoliberalism of the Maastricht treaty and the Stability and Growth Pact.
With social-democratic parties unable to confront their own shortcomings, alternative explanations have come into fashion. When assessing why the left has lost support among its traditional working-class electorate, some analysts have brought a new framework into vogue.
In the UK and most of Europe the last 20 years have seen the material realities facing working-class households worsen: a decline in real incomes, a multiplication of low-skilled, casual jobs and a crumbling of public services. Instead of focusing on these questions, however, these commentators have focused on the purported ‘cultural’ concerns and ‘anxieties’ of the indigenous white population.
In a mirror image of those on the left who pursue identity politics focused on race, religion, gender or sexuality, they talk about ‘white’ identity and pose those living in smaller towns and industrial centres against those living in the big cities. This new way of framing politics gives primacy to cultural identity rather than the economic or social. In Britain, David Goodhart has been the long-time proponent of this thinking, now joined by Eric Kaufman and Matthew Goodwin.
There is a standard litany of terms these authors use to frame political debate: ‘metropolitan elite’, ‘the white working class’ and ‘social conservatism’, which have become standard reference points in wider politics. None of this repertoire stands up to scrutiny.
‘Metropolitan elite’ is repeated endlessly—a term of abuse with no real substance. At times, it means anybody who has gone to university. Occasionally, though, Goodhart is more precise and talks about ‘the global villagers’, people at the heart of globalisation processes who live and work internationally. He estimates this at 3 per cent of the population—not far removed from ‘the 1 per cent’ defined by the Occupy movement as the key movers and shakers in the globalised economy. But such specificity would deny the wider focus of Goodhart and others on a divisive sectionalisation of the working population. Hence, the recurrent use instead of the sneer ‘metropolitan elite’—in counterposition to the ‘white working class’.
After three decades of amnesia, the working class is coming back into fashion—but only in a certain narrow sense. The working class in these authors’ eyes is never black or Asian. Indeed, their ‘white working class’ doesn’t appear to be Irish, Polish or Latvian either. Furthermore, it is never clear in which workplaces this class actually exists.
Go to car plants, warehouses, offices, hospitals and fast-food joints and you’ll find a mixed working class, not a purely white one. There are mainly-white, working-class neighbourhoods to be found on housing estates on the neglected edge of larger cities or in selected districts within smaller, old industrial towns but it is very unclear to what extent these promote an exclusive ‘white’ identity.
Take Wolverhampton in the English midlands, the one-time Conservative parliamentary seat of the late Enoch Powell, which voted substantially for ‘Brexit’. Fifty year to the weekend after Powell delivered his notorious ‘rivers of blood’ speech, predicting racial disaster for the UK stemming from Commonwealth immigration, Wolverhampton Wanderers were promoted to English football’s Premier League. Its squad was composed of six Portuguese players, six Africans, several other Europeans and a handful of English players, two of whom were black and one a Sikh of Punjabi origin. Thirty thousand locals cheered them on, undisturbed by this challenge to their team’s ‘white’ identity of 50 years previously.
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Thirdly, it is asserted that these places are ‘socially conservative’, whereas the large cities (and those who went to university) are ‘socially liberal’. Again, the evidence is scant. There have been immense social changes over the last four decades in relation to gender, race and sexuality. Vast swaths of the population have shifted their attitudes over this period. The slowest rate of change has been amongst the oldest. The crucial determinant has been age, not class, education or geography. The contraceptive pill and easier divorce have changed the material circumstances of women’s lives, above all working-class women. They have shifted their ‘common sense’ and ‘natural’ horizons in smaller towns as well as the big cities.
Is there less divorce in these towns? Are women there less keen to undertake paid employment? Is there less premarital sex? Do town dwellers not go to Indian or Chinese restaurants? Are there fewer inter-racial relationships? Goodwin asserts that ‘blue-collar workers, non-graduates and small-town or rural inhabitants tend to be socially conservative’, yet still notes and welcomes the decline of everyday racism across society. The argument simply does not stack up.
Rather, the issues that trouble Wigan and Walsall, Rochdale and Rotherham—and scores other old English industrial towns, as elsewhere in Europe—stem from this model of hyper-globalisation and the collusion with it by the main political party which historically stood up for workers’ rights and sought to ameliorate the worst excesses of capitalism. Once Labour, and its European counterparts, abandoned that role, the field opened to all sorts of far-right populists to promote their alternatives and for commentators to find ‘cultural’, ‘racial’ and ‘nationalist’ explanations for this shift.
Social democracy, not culture wars
What should these parties do? Goodwin wants them to prioritise ‘cultural’ issues and pursue a tough line on immigration. Kaufmann advocates a more explicitly ‘white’ immigration policy. Goodhart, like ‘Blue Labour’, argues for a broader ‘socially conservative’ agenda harking back to the halcyon days of the 1950s. They all offer a dead end for any progressive movement. Instead, three things are needed.
First, social-democratic and socialist parties need to repudiate explicitly the philosophy of hyper-globalisation they have so unwisely embraced. That is the crucial first step to their revival. Across Europe, that means breaking with the austerity policies and anti-Keynesian orthodoxies of the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers and the European Commission. If they remain within that straitjacket, the remorseless decline of European social democracy will continue.
Secondly, these parties need to present policies specifically designed to address the economic and social concerns of those in the most precarious position in the labour market and those towns which the world of globalisation has passed by. That means economic policies which support a high minimum wage, encourage effective protection of employment rights in the workplace and promote trade unionism, along with regional policies to tackle uneven development.
Thirdly, the left has to offer a positive vision on migration. It is a fact of the modern world. There is no going back to the monocultural world of the 1950s, least of all in the cities of Europe. My book Our City, on the migrant experience in Birmingham, refutes the pessimistic musings of the tabloid press and authors such as Goodhart. The presence of migrants has reshaped Britain’s second city. It shows that they have put down roots, see Birmingham as their home and have an affection and affinity with the city and the country. Their integration has been a positive story that is all too rarely told.
That is a social-democratic vision of the future, which holds for European cities from Berlin to Barcelona. It is a story progressives and parties of the left must not be afraid to articulate, in the face of populist nationalism.