Under fire from from both sides, the centre-left is fighting for survival

Written by Adrian McMenamin on 24 February 2016 in Opinion

The centre-left is in tatters across Europe and the damage spreading to the U.S where Hillary Clinton is at risk.

Back in 1998 a senior Labour politician was searching for a way to open an address to a gathering of the newly elected centre-left European politicians of the 'Third Way'.

My suggestion – "London, Paris, Rome, Berlin: we will fight and we will win" – appealed to both his memory (he was just old enough to have recalled the days of 1968 when this was chanted in the streets) and to the idea that we had fought – and won – not just because we had beaten the right but because we had vanquished our critics on the far left too.

How distant that all seems today. Parties of the centre-left are in office, of a sort, in three of the four capitals mentioned, but none can claim to be winning very much.

In London, Labour is in the grip of the far left and further from power than for a generation, while across the rest of Europe the centre-left is in tatters, assailed by populist anti-immigrant politics on the right or under assault from leftists who channel popular anger but offer little by way of concrete solutions.

The Irish Labour Party – founded by national hero James Connolly over a century ago – faces the prospect of annihilation in this week’s election, despite having been part of a government that has delivered jobs and growth. Voters simply refuse to forgive it for the decisions it took to get there.

The disease is spreading: in the United States Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency is in some trouble thanks to the efforts of an elderly leftist who has never shown any sign of updating his ideas to fit with the times. As in Jeremy Corbyn’s case, Bernie Sanders’s supporters say this shows him to be authentic, others might suggest it is actually a sign of being out of touch.

Does it matter? After all, many businesses were probably quite pleased to see the Conservatives win a majority in last year’s elections and welcome the subsequent effort by leading Tories to reclaim the centre-ground: the best of both worlds, many may feel.

The coming European referendum may test that view to destruction. A weak Labour Party, led by a leftist whose commitment to markets – never mind a single one for all Europe – is thin to disappearing, is not likely to be much of an asset to the 'remain' campaign. Instead the brash populists of the right are hoping to seize the vacated space – and won’t be afraid to engage in a bit of business-bashing to get there.

Despite what opposition politicians tell you, of course, effective governments are not much in need of strong opponents. If they keep their judgement in balance they can usually do quite well: look at the SNP in Scotland, likely to increase their majority in the Scottish Parliament this May after nine years in office. But if things do start going wrong, not least because there is a further economic downturn, then having a volatile or extreme opposition means the assumptions of the last quarter century of pro-market consensus could break down. 

After all, if the choice before Americans this coming November boils down to Trump v Sanders, who would you rather win? Both, for instance, are firmly against any trade liberalisation, no matter what all those statistics say about growth and poverty alleviation.

In Britain, the Conservatives do not seem to be worried. Rather than let Labour live on as a wounded animal they seem determined to kill the beast. Trade union funding is to be drastically curtailed by law, boundaries are to be altered, even money for research by the opposition in Parliament is to be cut. It’s a programme not for eternal one party rule and Labour’s slump in the polls is the spur for these policies, not the cause, but certainly its framers hope for long-term dominance.

The answer is for the left to end its retreat into self-absorbed sloganizing and reality ducking. But that is not what many leftists want to hear.




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