The crisis of social democracy – the left must adapt in order to survive

To put it plainly: The ever-changing political climate has been deleterious for advocates of social democracy.

With Brexit, Trump, Le Pen and right wing populist movements rising across the world, the left are struggling to maintain their ground. Seemingly, in the eyes of the electorate across many nations, social democracy is failing to offer modern solutions to modern problems. In order to counter this, the left must adapt – or the consequences could potentially be fatal at the ballot box. The left need to offer a bold, coherent alternative to counter right wing populism. This requires radical ideas – ideas that mean a fundamental change from the norm.

One thing we have learned over the past few years is that the political landscape has profoundly changed. It is no longer as simple to say that elections are ‘social democracy vs the centre-right’:

– Austria, 2016 – Far-right Presidential candidate for the Freedom Party of Austria wins 49.7% of the vote. UPDATE: Vote was annulled and re-run, Hofer lost – but still won over 46% of the popular vote.

– United States, 2016 – Donald Trump wins the Presidential election. One poll stated that 81% believed that Donald Trump was the ‘change’ candidate.

– And there could be more to come in 2017 – Marine Le Pen could potentially be the next President of France, Geert Wilders could be the next Dutch PM.

It’s not just the populist right making gains:

– Greece, 2015– SYRIZA sweep to power. Social Democratic PASOK lose 20 seats.

– Spain, 2016 – Podemos receives more votes than PSOE.

– Iceland, 2016 – The Pirate Party take 10 seats at the Althing.

The traditional ‘left vs right’ has changed – and social democratic parties have been caught in the crossfire.

Why has this happened? One important factor to consider is that many people feel left behind – they feel like politicians have not heard them. It is the duty of the left to stand up for everybody, especially those who feel like politics is not working for them.

The way the left communicate their message is extremely important – but the thing is, the right are good at doing it. In the United States, the message ‘Make America Great Again’ resonated with those who feel like the political class no longer serves them – a significantly more powerful message than the Democrat’s ‘Stronger Together’. In the Brexit vote, we saw three powerful words from Vote Leave: ‘Take back control’ – those who have been left behind have felt powerless, and they felt that Brexit would give them control. This is where the left are failing and the right are succeeding – this can very easily be seen at home. As I mentioned in an article I wrote for Open Labour back in February 2016: ‘The Conservatives’ short, simple and coherent messages e.g. ‘long term economic plan’ resonate with the public – we (Labour – from 2010-2015) tried this, but kept on changing our message from ‘cost of living crisis’ to ‘squeezed middle’ to ‘one nation Labour’ – we must have a consistent message for the next five years – e.g. ‘invest to grow’, ‘for millions, not just millionaires’, ‘prosperity not austerity’– or something along those lines – a simple message that connects with the voters which can be repeated over and over again.’

One failure of comms is focusing on issues which the public do not prioritise – far too many times has Trident been the headline over the last year. At times, it felt like the comms strategy was to ‘avoid the media’ (I’m sure the comms team do not intend to do this – but Labour members are still seeing Trident/Divisions dominating headlines) – there are significant improvements that need to be made in comms, and it needs to be done quickly. Instead of seemingly ignoring the media, we must work with them – otherwise it allows public perception to be defined by our opponents. On top of this, Jeremy Corbyn should appear on the TV as much as possible – yes, the shadow cabinet do need to appear as well – however with every passing year in the UK it seems that our style of politics has become more Presidential – the electorate are placing their faith in the person to be their next Prime Minister – he needs to appear more to ensure that he defines his own image, rather than letting the Conservatives define him.

It’s not just comms which are important – but, of course, policies.

The Labour Party created the NHS, the welfare state, the minimum wage, Sure Start, to name a few. It is these radical ideas that not only changed the country for the better, but ended up being legacies that have been respected by the public – radical thinking is bold, and if done correctly: popular. It is radical thinking that Labour need to tap into again.

Some ideas that could help Labour:

Basic Income – restructuring welfare: a universal system which could eliminate poverty, top up wages and help sole traders. (I will write a piece about why Labour should adopt this in the near future and the goals that ‘Labour For Basic Income’ hope to achieve)

National Education Service – Corbyn mentioned this in his leadership campaigns – when it comes to education: universal free childcare, class sizes under 30, scrapping tuition fees, restoring maintenance grants, restoring the Education Maintenance Allowance, investment in Further Education (and of course, the way in which we fund it all)

Brexit and ‘the £350 million a week’ – If we are to remain outside the EEA (which seems increasingly likely), it will mean we will no longer have to contribute to the EU budget. What message would it send if Labour were to adopt the position to adopt the position to put £350 million a week into our NHS? It would show Labour are listening whilst the Tories are ‘out of touch’ – it would give the left the opportunity to define the conversation and hammer the Tory record on the NHS.

Policies we have committed to: £10 living wage, public ownership of the railways, community owned energy firms, 1 million homes built in 5 years (helped by allowing local authorities to borrow to build), advocating co-operatives up and down the nation – to name a few. These are ideas which can help us win, and I’m confident Labour can help set the agenda if comms improve.

(It should be noted that I backed Corbyn twice because his vision is one which is a coherent alternative to right wing populism – I am aware of the uphill struggle the next few years will be, the polling etc – but I feel Corbyn’s vision is one which can help Labour at the general election – as Clive Lewis said: ‘‘Corbyn is the best candidate because in his own way he understands some of the economic and moral challenges we face and is the product of a deep desire for something new.’)

One issue which is fundamentally important if the left across the Western World are to regain trust of those who feel left behind: Immigration. It is consistently seen as the most important issue for voters before and during elections, particularly in the UK. It dominates on the doorstep – and it is the duty of the left to understand the concerns people have about immigration. But this is the important bit: We must discuss immigration – because if we do not then the right wing populists set the agenda. It. Plays. Into. Their. Hands. But we must *never ever ever* pander to racist and xenophobic language.  The net economic benefits of migration are not being felt by many communities – which is why reintroducing the migrant impact fund will ensure communities with high levels of immigration will feel the direct benefits. There has also been failure to invest in English language services – many have concerns about integration, therefore it should be the responsibility of the left to listen and invest in areas where people are concerned. Migrants significantly contribute and benefit our nation – which is why it is extremely important that the left must change the narrative; we are one nation; all people in this nation contribute; no matter what your gender, race, religion – let’s work together to keep Britain strong.

On the topic of narrative change – we need to embrace our patriotism – the left have implemented policies which have help everybody in our country regardless of their background or financial circumstances – as mentioned earlier: NHS, welfare state, minimum wage, Sure Start etc – it is the left that is patriotic entity, we need to embrace it and take it back from the right wing populists.

Now, I’m not saying that this is simplistic. I’m not saying ‘expect a landslide win if we adopt Basic Income – do nothing else’ – obviously. It is a mixture of factors – we need the right vision and strong comms to deliver our message to the electorate in order to succeed – you cannot have one without the other.

To sum up everything above: If the left can’t define itself – then it’s opponents will, and right wing populists currently are. The left must; adapt; embrace the changing political climate; and offer a clear, coherent alternative to right wing populism – it is the only way we can win.



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