Mainstream left needs a reboot
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British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn deserves congratulations. His party did much better than expected in the June 8 parliamentary elections, pulling an impressive 40 percent of the vote.

That normally would result in a large majority of seats in the House of Commons. But the Conservatives still got a lot more seats than Labour (318 vs. 262) and, fortunately for Corbyn, are stuck with the nasty problem of trying to govern. It’s much easier for Corbyn to snipe from the far-left populist platform that earned him the generational-warfare-fueled votes of young Britons and the support of some former U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) populists, and to revel in Bernie Sanders’ expression of delight at Labour’s showing.

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Sanders should have exercised caution, however, before characterizing Labour’s result as part of a worldwide popular “rising . . . against austerity and massive levels of income and wealth inequality.” It’s actually hard to generalize from the U.K. election, widely deemed an unnecessary, not to say cynical, action by Prime Minister Theresa May, who then demonstrated herself to be utterly devoid of charisma and authenticity. There was a significant protest vote, and one could argue that May's Conservatives lost the election, but no one actually won. 

The first round of the French legislative elections on June 11 indicated that the condition of the mainstream left in Western countries is far from rosy. France’s Socialist Party has all but disappeared, after more than 30 years of sharing France’s political mainstream in a not-quite two-party political system. In 2012, the Socialists won the presidency and a hefty parliamentary majority. In the first round of this year’s presidential balloting, however, Benoît Hamon, a virtual unknown from the party’s left wing, pulled a mere 6.4 percent of the vote.

In Sunday’s first round of legislative balloting, the Socialists won only 7.44 percent, compared to 29.4 percent in the first round in 2012. The Socialists and their allies are expected to win only 20-30 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly, compared to the 280 that the Socialists themselves netted in 2012. Unlike the Labour Party in the U.K., the French Socialists were unable to cast themselves effectively as the populists of the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s closest French counterpart was really Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose La France insoumise (France unbowed) handily beat the Socialists in the voting on June 11, although it should end up with a roughly comparable number of legislative seats after the second round.

The mainstream, moderate left elsewhere in Europe should not be expecting pleasant surprises along U.K. lines. The German Social Democrats, for example, despite a leadership change that raised expectations, already have been shellacked in state elections. In Italy too, where elections are required by February, things don’t look good for the governing center-left Democrats, who are running neck-and-neck with the populist Five Star Movement. As for the Democratic Party in the U.S., its difficulty in devising a winning message and strategy is richly illustrated in Shattered: Inside Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonComey responds to Trump with Mariah Carey gif: 'Why are you so obsessed with me?' Trump dismisses reports of Russian meddling, labels them Democratic 'misinformation campaign' The new American center MORE’s Doomed Campaign, this summer’s poster book for political junkie schadenfreude.

There is, in fact, a systemic crisis in the moderate left of the traditional political mainstream in Western societies. How these parties address five main challenges is central to their prospects for future success, and to recovery for the most badly wounded. 

1) The British and French cases indicate there are different ways of playing the left-wing populism card. Nostalgia for the glory days of the social welfare state, roughly the first three decades after the end of World War II, is palpable, even understandable. Particularly among the young, who rightly believe that the postwar “social market economy” was constructed without much attention to ensuring benefits for those coming after the Baby Boomers and perhaps Generation X. But just because left-wing populist talking points get votes in the immediate term, is this “back to the future” (or perhaps “forward to the past”) approach a responsible or even simply feasible one?

It will be hard, admittedly, for the moderate left to build a distinctive and attractive political brand with pragmatic policies that aren’t simply in denial about more than forty years of dramatic changes, under the impact, broadly speaking, of globalization. No doubt, the moderate left has spent too much time at the Word Economic Forum in Davos, celebrating globalization while sipping really good wine. But avoiding Davos won’t be enough.

2) Party leaders are often in denial regarding the intrinsically combative and competitive nature of politics, and no longer know how to handle themselves in a tough political fight. They take for granted that they have an ethical and intellectual superiority that entitles them to govern. Politics is a blood sport. Live with it.

3) A quick makeover or new faces are not enough. Martin Schulz has not rescued Germany’s Social Democrats, and Hillary Clinton’s efforts to “reintroduce” herself to American voters failed. Long-term survival and success for the mainstream left require a solid and sustained process of genuine reflection, not just makeovers at the top.

4) The mainstream left is having a hard time deciding to whom and for whom it speaks. The defense of marginalized identity groups is a meritorious project, but members of dominant population groups also genuinely can suffer under the impacts of globalization. Addressing both should not be allowed to become a zero-sum game. Social and economic class identity does still count, and populist upstarts can exploit it effectively.

5)  Finally, can the moderate left reclaim the nation as a site for solidarity across social dividing lines? The important yet vaguely defined  “international community” is not a place where individuals believe they can exercise some control over their own fates. It is the national state where, under the right conditions, democracy actually can take place, and the state remains the crucial provider of security, something people have a right to expect, even though it requires difficult and controversial decisions.

It’s a daunting agenda. But unless the mainstream left manages to address these challenges, electoral disappointments will continue.

As a U.S. Foreign Service officer, Eric Terzuolo analyzed and reported on political trends in the Czech Republic, France, and Italy. Since 2010, he has taught West European area studies at the Foreign Service Institute, the Department of State's professional development unit.


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