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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The Declining Left: Mainstream Left Parties across the Industrialized World Are Seeing Declining Vote Shares

The results of Dutch elections this year have brought liberals and progressives a great deal of relief. Geert Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom was defeated by the centre-right VVD (Party for Freedom and Democracy) led by Mark Rutte. Lost in the discussion of this election has been the poor performance of the Dutch Labour party. Once a significant competitor for government, the party won less than 10 of the 150 seats available in the Dutch parliament and just over 5% of the vote. The Labour party is not likely to be the only mainstream left party that will see its vote decline this year. In France, the Socialist Party looks unlikely to make it through the second round of Presidential elections, despite the fact that current President Francois Hollande is a member of the party. Mainstream left party vote share has been declining across industrialized countries from 1980 through to today.

To understand trends in mainstream party vote share I looked at left and right party support in elections across a number of industrialized countries. Included were Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. I chose these countries because they have had reasonably stable party systems, at least compared to countries such as Belgium and Italy. In addition, unlike France, Japan, and New Zealand, they did not experience major electoral reform (a change from majoritarian to a proportional system or vice versa). I compared the share of mainstream parties’ vote, the vote for all left parties (social democratic or communist), and the vote for all left parties and green parties. I did this for elections from 1945 to 2016.

A look at the vote share of mainstream left parties shows a steady decline in vote share that runs from 1980 to 2016. The graph below shows the average vote share of the largest left party. Mainstream left parties start with an average vote share around 35% in 1980. By 2016, they were averaging just over 25% of the vote. Mainstream right parties have seen a similar decline, going from an average of just over 33% of the vote in 1980 to around 24% in 2016. Their support is, however, is much less stable over the full 1945-2016 period. Mainstream right support was well below 30% through a good portion of the 1950s and again around 1970. There is no evidence that mainstream centrist parties are taking advantage of this decline in mainstream left and right support. Support for the largest centrist or liberal party has been relatively stable, at 12% to 14%, over time.

Left, Right, and Centre Party Vote Share

There is also little evidence that the decline in the mainstream left support has benefited other left parties. The graph below shows that average vote share of all left parties put together declines at a similar rate to mainstream left parties. In 1980, the average country saw left parties combine to take 40% of the popular vote. By 2016 left parties as a whole were only averaging 30%. There is evidence that some of the decline in left support has gone the green parties. Combining left support with green party support makes the decline less steep. At the same time, the fact that there still is a decline shows that the weaker showings by left parties are simply a product of the rise of green parties.

Left and Green Parties

The decline of the left has been consistent across different countries. The graphs below show the trends in mainstream left support in Anglo countries (Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom), Nordic countries, and in the rest of Europe. Of the three Anglo countries I looked at, two have seen significant left party declines. In Australia, Labour party support has fallen from the 40%-50% range in the 1970s to around 35% in the 2010s. In the UK, Labour support fell below 30% in 1980, rebounded over the 1990s, and then collapsed again in the 2000s. Of the Anglo countries, only Canada has seen growth in mainstream left support. Depending on what happens to the NDP in the next decade, that growth could be short lived.

Mainstream Left Parties in Anglo Countries

Nordic countries, which tend to see higher support for left parties, have not been immune from the decline. Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden have all seen their largest left parties lose support over the past three decades. The two countries that entered the 1980s with the strongest left parties, Norway and Sweden, have also seen the largest declines in mainstream left support. Having a strong left in past, and in the case of Sweden, one that has consistently formed governments, has not protected the mainstream left from the drop in support that taken place over recent decades.

Mainstream Left Parties in Nordic Countries

Finally, the four continental European countries that I looked at mirror the trends in Nordic countries. Austria and Germany, which had the strongest mainstream left parties of the four, have seen the largest declines in mainstream left support. Both parties have seen their largest left parties go from over 40% of the vote in 1980 to under 30% by 2016. The decline in the Netherlands and Switzerland is less pronounced, but mainstream left was weaker in those two countries to begin with. This graph also does not include the most recent Dutch election, in which Labour party vote share fell to just over 5%.

Mainstream Left Parties in Europe

The decline of the mainstream left has important implications for progressive politics in Canada and across the industrialized world. The NDP used to be able to look at other mainstream left parties as a potential model of how they might be successful well. The weaker the mainstream left becomes, the less viable an option this seems to be. The NDP can no longer look to the British Labour party, the German SDP, or the Swedish Social Democrats as examples that they can follow.

Across the industrialized word, the mainstream left parties need to start re-evaluating their positions and their approaches to electoral politics. That the decline in mainstream left support is affecting a variety of parties across different countries suggests that this is not a problem that can be solved by a party trying to renew itself or try to reconnect with voters. Rather, it suggests that are broader changes occurring across countries that are weakening the appeal of mainstream left parties. Progressives need to try to determine what these changes are and how they might respond to them. In doing so, they should look for trends that cross national borders. The weak performances of mainstream left parties are not isolated events. They are challenges that progressives must try to grapple with if they hope to be successful in future elections.

*Election data comes from ParlGov.

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