The Declining Importance of the Left/Right Spectrum and its Consequences for Left Parties

Two weeks ago, liberals and progressives around the world breathed a sigh of relief as Emmanuel Macron defeated far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen by a healthy margin in the French Presidential election. The victory of a pro-European, pro-immigration centrist re-assured many concerned that last year’s Brexit referendum and American Presidential election were harbingers of a global rise in far-right populism. While Macron’s victory is indeed reassuring, it is also notable that the run-off portion of the French election was fought not between a traditional centre-left candidate and centre-right candidate but between a centrist globalist and a far-right nationalist, neither of who came from France’s traditionally strong political movements. This fits with a broader trend in politics in which the traditional left-right divides that have structured politics in industrialized countries since the second world war have declined in importance. As this has occurred, issues surrounding national identity and globalization have become more important. This has presented a significant challenge to traditional left parties.

Like all political movements, left parties are a coalition of groups with somewhat different interests. Many left parties are alliances of working class and socially progressive voters. They have been able to appeal to working class voters by championing wealth redistribution, promising increased funding for a wide range of social programs, strong minimum wage laws, and protection of unions’ rights. They have been able to appeal to socially progressive voters by supporting feminist, multicultural, LGTBQ, and anti-racism movements. When traditional left-right issues have dominated politics this coalition has been stable.

The increase in the salience of immigration and globalization, however, threatens the left coalition’s stability. Significant numbers of working class voters see increased immigration as a threat to their jobs and access to social services. Far-right parties have been able to take advantage of this perceived threat. Both Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen had success in working class areas that had previously supported left parties. These working class voters perceive globalization as a threat to their well-being. On the other side of left parties’ traditional alliance, socially progressive voters are largely supportive of immigration and, in many cases, stand to benefit from increased global integration. The British Labour party, in particular, faces a challenge when it comes to finding a balance between the positions its pro-globalization and anti-globalization voters support. Both a significant number of Labour ridings that voted to leave the European Union and a significant number voted to stay.

Left parties that have to compete on both the traditional left-right and the immigration/globalization dimensions of politics end up caught between a rock and a hard place. If they take strong anti-immigrant and anti-globalization positions they risk losing their socially progressive pro-immigrant voters as well as moderate urban voters that benefit from globalization. Increasingly these voters have options beyond traditional left-wing parties. Across Europe, green parties have emerged as socially progressive pro-immigration and multicultural parties that stand ready to benefit if left parties fail to defend issues important to their socially progressive voters. The success of the Dutch Green-Left party in this year’s election (they finished 5th with more votes than any of the other left parties) highlights this. Increasingly, moderate liberal parties such as Emanuel Macron’s En Marche or the Dutch D66 appear to be viable options for moderate left voters unhappy with a traditional left parties’ opposition to globalization.

If, however, left parties take strong positions in favour of globalization or free trade, they risk losing significant numbers of working-class anti-immigrant anti-globalization voters to far-right nationalist parties. It is not an accident that far-right parties from France, to the Netherlands, to Sweden link their anti-immigrant views to concerns over employment or over a country’s ability to continue to fund generous social programs. These claims, however misguided they are, are attempts to win over working class voters that have traditionally supported left parties. Recent elections in Europe and in the United States suggest that they have been successful in doing so.

The difficulty of holding their traditional electoral coalition together can explain why left parties have been struggling in recent elections. Neither of Europe’s most recent elections were kind to left parties. In the Netherlands the Labour party finished in 7th with only 6% of the vote, a decline of 19 percentage points from their total in the prior election. In France, the Socialist party Presidential candidate failed to win more than 7% of the vote and was never considered a serious threat to win the Presidency. In Britain, there is little indication that the Labour has much of a chance of winning government. This is all part of a broad trend that I wrote about earlier this year where left parties’ vote shares have be declining steadily of the past four decades. The more important to elections immigration and globalization become, the more difficulty left parties are likely to have holding their traditional electoral coalitions together, and the more likely the decline in left support is to continue.

The changing political environment will force left parties into some difficult decisions about what they want to be. They will have to face a choice about what side of immigration and globalization issues they want to come down on. Whichever side they take, they are likely going to lose a significant group of voters. This will make it more difficult for left parties to try to challenge for government on their own. Rather, they will have to build alliances with other, and in many cases, stronger parties. Left parties that decide to hold on to their socially progressive positions will have to work with moderate liberal parties. These moderate liberal parties are winning pro-immigration and pro-globalization voters from both left and right parties, and will likely force the traditional left parties that collaborate with them to move somewhat to the right in order to accommodate some of their voters. Traditional left parties that decide to take anti-immigrant or anti-globalization are likely to lose some of their more socially progressive and moderate urban voters to green and moderate liberal parties, and will struggle to find allies amongst other parties. If left parties are going to maintain their socially progressive values and continue to influence government, they are likely going to have to work with moderate liberals such as Emmanuel Macron.

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