Left faces ongoing struggle to find a point of difference

Published in The Dominion Post (Wellington), 4 August 2017

With the selection of Jacinda Ardern as Labour’s new leader, New Zealand’s election has become more exciting and much harder to predict. But beyond our own domestic politics, it is not clear how it fits into the global state of Centre-Left politics.

Social-democratic and Labour parties worldwide face a strategic dilemma. On one hand, what might make them electorally popular is rarely good policy. On the other hand, opting for economic realism usually does not endear them to their grassroots.

Below this dilemma lies a historical paradox. The political “Left” (for lack of a better term) has been so successful culturally that it no longer offers a unique political proposition. This probably requires a bit of an explanation so here we go.

If we went back a century, the distinctions between social-democratic and conservative views were much stronger than today. In many countries, social democrats were at the forefront of bringing about cultural and social change, often against fierce conservative resistance.

It was the social democrats who helped promote socially liberal views. The feminist movement obviously started on the political Left, as did the acceptance of homosexuals. The idea that all children, regardless of their social background, should have a chance to achieve a higher education had its origins on the Left.

Social democrats and communists were also much more global in outlook than old-fashioned conservatives, who tended to care more for their nation states. No wonder the Left’s anthem became The Internationale, with its line “Let us group together and tomorrow The Internationale Will be the human race.”

It was also the political Left which traditionally was more open to technological progress than the conservative side of politics. Conservative thinking was often shaped by agrarian and rural backgrounds.

Social democracy, on the other hand, developed in physical proximity to industrialisation and new technologies. Though aiming to curb their negative effects on workers, the Left still grasped how important such technologies were for society’s development. It used to be the Right which was traditionally much more culturally averse to change.

Fast-forward to the present, and we should acknowledge that the Left has won. It has propelled Western society to a much more liberal state.

It is a society in which people are free to believe in God, something else or nothing. In our society, you can be heterosexual, homosexual or anything in between. It is accepted across the political spectrum that all children deserve a good education regardless of their social background.

The notion of inherited “class”, which once defined societies, has been replaced by a liberal egalitarianism. Internationalism and a striving for technological change and progress are also much more widespread than they used to be.

There has rarely been a more comprehensive victory than that of the political Left. On social and cultural issues, the Left’s values have migrated to the centre of politics.

But that is the tragedy for Social Democrat and Labour parties. There are no culturally left views which would be unique to them. On most cultural issues, they would be virtually indistinguishable from centrist, Right-wing, conservative or liberal parties. The differences that remain are in nuances.

For Centre-Left parties, this is a problem. To differentiate themselves sufficiently, they can only resort to economic policy. However, after decades of experimenting with economic policy under mixed economy systems, it is fairly obvious what works and what does not.

Large-scale subsidies, for example, are firmly in the dustbin of economic history – and rightly so. High tariff walls have met the same fate. There is a broad consensus that tax systems work best when they have broad bases and low rates.

Again, in many cases these pro-market reforms were introduced by politicians from the Left. Just think of David Lange and Bob Hawke in our part of the world, or Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms and Gerhard Schroeder’s labour market reforms.

However, the Left’s grassroots have not made their peace with such market-oriented and yet often highly successful reforms. Their hearts are warmed much more by flaming rhetoric of redistribution. Just witness the rising popularity of British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Jacinda Ardern’s position is unenviable. She presides over a legacy that has shaped the global political climate like no other. And yet, she would be tempted to establish her unique selling proposition by moving away from widely accepted, sensible and generally pro-market policies.

What she might want to consider instead is something different. To occupy her place in the radical centre and do what the Left has traditionally been so good at: Shape the debate.

And she should not worry whether such good policy thinking is left or right. The times when such distinctions mattered are long gone.


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