RIP Left-wing politics in the western world

Left behind: Are social democratic parties such as Britain’s Labour Party doomed?

In mainstream politics all across advanced economies, the parties of the left are dying. At midday today voting closes for Britain’s Labour leadership. New start? Or a nail in the coffin?

‘This genie is not going back in the bottle,’ says Jeremy Corbyn. Today voting closes in Corbyn’s second contest for Britain’s Labour Party leadership — and he looks certain to win again.

Over the last year, Corbyn has galvanised a vast band of activists, representing the party’s most left-wing instincts. But his leadership has bitterly divided his party. In June, 172 of the party’s 230 MPs passed a vote of no confidence in him, fearing electoral defeat. ‘The purity of perpetual protest offers only the road to annihilation,’ says Dan Jarvis.

Labour was always regarded as a progressive party in the socialist tradition. It prioritised wealth redistribution and a strong state, with government provision of direct services and intervention in the economy; much of its support came from the working class, with backing from trade unions.

In advanced economies in recent decades, rapid globalisation has placed pressure on such parties. In the mid-1990s, to win power Tony Blair‘s Labour (UK), Bill Clinton’s Democrats (USA) and Gerhard Schroder’s SPD (Germany) embraced liberal, centrist positions accepting an important role for free markets.

But since the 2003 Iraq war and the 2008 financial crisis, traditional socialists and young urban liberals have fuelled the rise of harder line left-wingers such as Corbyn, Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos. ‘No longer do we want a party run by spivs and spinners in the corporate interest,’ says Sam Tarry, Corbyn’s campaign manager.

Meanwhile the centre left, according to Paddy Ashdown, is ‘fractured, broken, splintered’. Socialist Francois Hollande, the French president, is polling at a historic low; in the UK, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have suffered dire results.

Some are concerned at what has risen instead. In his 2007 book What’s Left? British journalist Nick Cohen argued that an increasingly powerful section of left-wing thought had adopted illiberal, anti-western positions which destroyed progressive principles.

So is the left doomed?

Rose thou art sick?

Yes, say some. Traditional socialism is now obsolete: union membership has fallen and class divisions have been blurred. There are gaping divisions in left-wing circles; many Corbyn supporters have more in common with the far right than the centre left. Left-wingers are now little more than a ragtag group of protesters with few unifying principles.

Nonsense, say others. The left has never been solely defined by class interests or union membership; it has always been defined by principles such as fairness, equality and the common good. Jeremy Corbyn’s activists are adapting those principles to a changing world — in which they will be more important than ever.

You Decide

  1. Would you vote for Jeremy Corbyn — or a similar politician in your own country?
  2. Is left-wing politics doomed to irrelevance?


  1. Write five interview questions you would like to ask Jeremy Corbyn. Then swap with a partner and try to explain how he might answer the questions in front of you.
  2. Find out about one of the politicians named in this article, and prepare a one-minute talk to your class explaining whether you support that person’s politics.

Some People Say...

“Today’s fringe movement is tomorrow’s group of visionaries.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I do not support Labour. Does this matter?
The Labour Party has been a very important force in British politics since its foundation in 1900. Labour governments introduced measures like the minimum wage and created the NHS — which you may care about. The state of Labour, currently the main opposition in Parliament, has an impact on the Conservative government, which wants to win the next election (probably in 2020), and will affect long-term trends in politics when you grow up.
I am not British. Is this a global phenomenon?
Many of the trends identified here go beyond Labour in the UK. The frustrations which fuelled the rise of Corbyn — particularly as a result of the financial crash of 2008 — have been replicated across the developed world, and have given rise to similar reactions.

Word Watch

Polls give Corbyn a 62% to 38% lead over his challenger, Owen Smith.
75,000 people have attended his rallies this summer. Labour now has 515,000 members — more than Britain’s other parties put together.
Issues of contention have included military action in Syria, anti-Semitism, Corbyn’s supporters and leadership style, and the EU referendum.
In an Ipsos-Mori poll in August, even Labour voters preferred Theresa May, the Conservative leader, to Corbyn: 45% were satisfied with her, compared to 39% with Corbyn.
The only Labour leader to win an election since 1974. His name is routinely booed at Corbyn rallies.
In one poll in July, just 12% of French people told TNS Sofres that Hollande was doing a good job.
Labour was badly beaten in the 2015 election; the Liberal Democrats won just eight seats. Both parties also backed the defeated Remain campaign in the EU referendum.
Corbyn, who has given groups such as the IRA, Hamas and Hezbollah a sympathetic hearing, arguably fits within this tradition — which some call the ‘regressive left’.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.