19 June 2015

The Left’s great global downturn


Mrs Kinnock has lost power in Denmark. Helle Thorning-Schmidt, wife of Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, has lost her battle to remain her country’s prime minister. And she has become the latest cause of gloom for the global left.

Scandinavia was once the praetorian guard of Europe’s Left but with the Danish election result only Sweden now has a non right-wing government. Labour, of course, suffered a devastating defeat in Britain last month. It was all but wiped out in both southern England and Scotland. The centre right Angela Merkel remains the dominant figure in German politics. The new Polish president is even more conservative than the last. Tony Abbott has bounced back in Australia and is now favourite to be re-elected next year. John Key won his third consecutive victory in New Zealand last September. Even where the left is in power it’s in trouble. France’s Hollande is deeply unpopular and he is currently third in presidential opinion polls – trailing both the mainstream centre right and the toxic Marine Le Pen. Barack Obama may be loved overseas but his US approval rating dipped below George W Bush’s in one recent survey. The Republicans are more dominant in US politics as a whole (when you count Congress, Senate, Governorships and state legislatures) than at any time for a century.

The fundamental reason for the Left’s unpopularity is that it still hasn’t answered the biggest question it has faced since the second world war: what does it mean to be left-wing when the money has run out? Left-wing parties used to keep their rainbow coalitions together by showering money on different interest groups. The working class members of trade unions suffered from the immigration and environmental policies favoured by the metropolitan left but left-wing parties bought peace by compensating losers through welfare cheques or energy subsidies. There’s no money for such compensation now and not just because of the global financial crash. The ageing of western populations – and hitech replacement of low-skilled jobs – mean the public finances are going to be permanently stretched. And then there’s globalisation. Because footloose companies can flee to lower tax climes we may be at a new lower ceiling for tax rates. Socialism in one country may now be impossible.

Reason two is more cultural. Left-wing parties that are doing well have embraced patriotism. The Scottish Nationalists are the most obvious example of this. Ed Miliband, in contrast, seemed embarrassed about celebrating Englishness and could only identify beautiful countryside and a sense of fair play when asked what it was that he liked about his country. Most left-wing parties seem afraid of saying they’ll put their own countrymen and women first. The left’s perceived enthusiasm for immigration and supranational bodies like the UN and EU reinforces the idea that local workers and national parliaments are not always their priority.

And then there’s reason three. You could call it the Owen Jones or Polly Toynbee factor. The Left is splitting in Britain and across the world because too many people on the Left want an ideological purity that has a student politics feel to it. The cheerleading for the unelectable Jeremy Corbyn from the comment pages of The Guardian is just one manifestation of this phenomenon. Look to Canada, Germany or Australia and you can see how splits on the Left between traditional and radical left-wingery have helped centre right parties into power. Matteo Renzi, one of the few hopes for the European Left, underperformed in regional Italian elections because left-wing purists fought against him in key battlegrounds. John Key helped retain power in New Zealand by talking about how he wouldn’t do any deal with the radical Green Party but that the “moderate” Labour party might. That campaign was overseen by Mark Textor, business partner of Lynton Crosby, Cameron’s chief election adviser. “Tex” was at Crosby’s right-hand when the British Tories focused on how the SNP would pull Ed Miliband leftwards. The tactic was not an accident – it was proven. The best thing for the Left would be if the splinter left-wing parties were always defeated but they’re not. The rise and rise of the NDP in Canada may encourage the splitters for years to come.

Nothing is forever, of course. The Right will become complacent and the Left will gets its act together – but, for the moment at least, these are heady days for conservatism.

And one final thought. The Danish result was good for David Cameron. Shortly after John Major was elected in 1992 with his thin majority the Danish people’s rejection of the Maastricht Treaty provoked a Eurosceptic rebellion on the Tory backbenches. Cameron is much luckier. This Danish vote, coming similarly soon after he secured his narrow win, gives him an unexpected new ally in renegotiation talks.

There you have it and I’ve managed to write an article about Danish politics without making any reference to Borgen.

Tim Montgomerie is a columnist for the The Times, a Senior Fellow at Legatum Institute and co-founder of the new website The Good Right.