In a previous article, I discussed how the public seeks alternatives when centrist politics no longer offers serious reform and ceases to be a credible option for national government, as well as how, quite often, it is nationalist politics that challenges the centre.
In that article, it was shown how the perceived reluctance of centrist parties to accept the public mood for change contributed to the willingness of people who would not consider themselves extremists or nationalists to vote for parties widely described as such. Having exhausted the options of the political centre, the public sought change from amongst those untested voices who, like them, were calling for change.
There are of course voices other than nationalist ones which call for radical political change, but which, in the UK at least, have been far less successful, than their right-wing counterparts. It is to left-wing politics that I wish now to turn my attention.
The public appetite for change in UK politics is undeniably very strong, and one aspect of that change is a hunger for left-wing reform. The left-wing reformists, while no doubt differing greatly from each other in their social backgrounds and political aims, can for the most part be recognised by some uniting arguments and characteristics.
The first of these is their criticism of the policies of the current Conservative government. Reserving their strongest criticism for the government’s taxation decisions and welfare priorities, the left-wingers have for the past seven years tried to portray the government as prioritising those already with considerable wealth and deliberately disadvantaging those towards the bottom of the income spectrum. Reductions in welfare spending and a decrease in the top rate of income tax have been used by the left to portray the government in these terms.
Another regular complaint and prospective area of reform is the perceived inequality in income distribution in the UK. In particular, the critics point to the enormous incomes of some businesspeople (in particular those working in banking and the highest-earning executives of major companies) which compares to what they allege is the unacceptably poor quality of life of those on below-average incomes. Intertwined with criticism of this inequality is the unspoken but often implied suggestion that enormous wealth gained through success in business is immoral or dirty and that poverty is something imposed on people by the successful.
This is related to, but subtly different from, the complaint of “excess” in the UK economy. This criticism specifically relates to the belief that the economic difficulties the UK has experienced since 2008 are in part caused by the reckless behaviour of those high up the tiers of major companies. The rest of the population, so we are to believe, has suffered directly because of these actions. “Excess” in itself implies that there is too much of the national wealth concentrated in one industry, or one group of people, and that the majority of the population do not, therefore, receive their fair share of that national wealth.
Redistribution, fair taxation, and proper supervision of business comprise some of the major themes of left-wing criticism of the political status quo. They are not new to UK politics. Indeed, these specific criticisms and similar ones have been made against Conservative and Labour governments for decades.
These arguments should be particularly pertinent at a time when it should be obvious to all politicians that the public mood is in favour of change. And some politicians have adopted these causes as their own, Prime Minister Theresa May, for example, stating her objective to make people struggling with social and economic hardship her priority.
But these reforms have not managed to dominate the agenda of “change” in UK politics in recent years. While they have certainly been live political issues, but while May’s so-called “Downing Street Speech” shows that these issues are on politicians’ minds, the left have failed to shift the debate towards dealing with these issues. The questions we must answer is why this should be so: why, if public resentment of the enormously wealthy is so potent, have the left not been able to shift the debate about political change in favour of left-wing social and economic reforms?
One possible answer to this question concerns the nature of modern socialist arguments in the UK and the specific political circumstances in which the UK finds itself.
The recent consensus of left-wing politics in the UK has broadly been tolerant of high EU and outside EU immigration levels. It has, with some exceptions, been more favourable towards the EU than, for example, the Conservative Party, which has experienced numerous crises over the UK’s membership of the EU. The left has also been more readily identifiable with multiculturalism and less so, perhaps, with distinctly British culture than its right-wing competitors.
Without arguing that these features are inherently undesirable, there is an argument to be made that it is exactly these features that have caused the left to become less relevant in contemporary UK politics.
The most significant example of this argument is the issue of immigration. The vote to leave the EU in 2016 is widely understood to have demonstrated voters’ dissatisfaction with immigration levels to the UK and a desire to see them reduced. While there were several factors contributing to voters’ decisions to vote Leave, immigration, and the feeling that the current levels were placing too much stress on public services, must be considered one of the most influential ones.
Immigration has long been a major political issue in the UK, and the current government had tried, without much success, to reduce immigration. The left-wing of UK politics, however, has resisted lower immigration for many years. Even since Brexit and the decisive vote to reject current immigration levels, the Labour Party has still not accepted this and has refused to set out how a Labour government would reduce immigration.
In failing to recognise the very real public frustration felt over immigration, and, it might seem to voters, choosing to ignore the clear desire for less immigration manifested in Brexit, the Labour Party offers no option of change to those voters who passionately want to see politicians listen to their opinions and enact reforms.
Furthermore, in pro-actively supporting the EU, the Labour Party, like the Conservative Party, has had to readjust to the reality that the people want to leave the EU. The difference, however, is that the Conservatives have handled that adjustment much more effectively than the Labour Party. In delivering Brexit, the Conservative government naturally gains the upper hand in the debate over which party is delivering change. Labour, on the other hand, has offered little clarity over its own position on Brexit or the future of UK immigration.
The left, then, has become what Tony Blair has described as “managers of the status quo in circumstances where people want change”. We have recognised that the left offers the public far-reaching reforms in social and economic issues. But the circumstances of politics in 2016/2017 dictate that immigration and Brexit are the most important priorities, and on these issues, where there is an equal demand for change as in economic and social issues, the Labour Party is offering the public no change.
There is another explanation for the lack of success of the left, an explanation I also discussed in the previous article. This is the problem of appearing discredited and unsuitable for government.
I will not go into the debate concerning Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Labour Party, specifically, or any other individuals in Labour, but as a whole, in the last 18 months Labour has lost ground in opinion polls, having created the impression of being disorganised and unstable. Numerous Parliamentary rebellions against Corbyn, Shadow Cabinet resignations, and regular criticism of Corbyn’s leadership have prevented the party appearing mature enough and focussed enough to be trusted to form a government. Questions about its policies on taxation, spending, security and defence have not yet been answered by the new leadership, which in itself contributes to the lack of trust in a party that has failed to commit to lowering immigration.
While Labour purports to offer the kind of economic change it says most people desire, it is the policy area on which it offers no change that has disadvantaged it in recent months. While there is nothing to say for certain that if Labour explicitly adopted a policy of lowering immigration it would suddenly become more popular, it is clear that its inability to reconcile the implications of Brexit with the left’s attachment to a liberal immigration policy that has rendered the party in the public consciousness as what Blair calls the “status quo”.
It is ironic that the party demanding the most thorough changes to the UK’s social and economic system should become associated with the status quo which it so often criticises. But this serves only to highlight how immigration which has come to eclipse many other formerly preeminent issues in UK politics.
But in stating the importance of immigration, we cannot overlook the effect disorder, schism and immaturity can have on a political party. Labour face the twin challenges of, first, adjusting their immigration policy, and, second, of providing a coherent and convincing case for a left-wing government in the UK. At the moment this case simply does not exist, undermined as it is by the cross-purposes of various factions within the party.
If it is to make its arguments worth listening to, Labour, while not ceasing to have any disagreements whatsoever, must handle its internal disagreements in a much more respectable and professional manner. It must demonstrate that the debates which matter to people should be entrusted to Labour because the party can think clearly about them and provide the solutions, and the change, the country needs.