Angela Merkel’s handsome victory in the German elections is yet another chapter in the ongoing saga of how the Left across the Western world seem to be either incapable of winning elections, or, on gaining power, not seeing their public support collapse.
In recent years, and all within a period of crisis for international capitalism, conservatives have ousted or defeated social democrats in Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Britain, Canada, and Poland. In Ireland the dominant conservative Fianna Fail party suffered a terrible defeat in 2011, but only to be replaced by an equally conservative Fine Gael. In France the Hollande administration is amongst one of the most unpopular governments to have ever sat in the Elysee Palace, with former President Sarkozy regularly outpolling the incumbent. Only in the US have the Democrats managed to hold on, by being what would be to the Left in most other Western countries a centrist and even conservative party.
Why is it? Why can the Left not grasp the opportunity? One possible answer is that the Left is now actually the conservative anti-change side in modern politics. Many on the Left seem to dedicate more effort to protecting the vested interests of specific sections of society, even as those sections have actually shrunk. For example, both the British Labour Party and the Spanish PSOE seem more concerned with protecting the benefits of existing public sector workers than with helping larger numbers of younger workers into permanent employment.
In addition, the Left seem to struggle with communicating that a modern welfare society needs the balanced approach of rights AND responsibilities, and that welfare in the winter needs everyone to contribute in the spring. The modern Left is very easy at spending money and opposing cuts when in opposition, yet positively Gingrichian in refusing to sell equally the responsibility of all citizens to fiscally contribute to the funding of the welfare state when in power.
Likewise, the failure of the Left to grasp that the ground has shifted on cultural issues has led to its alienation within traditionally loyal voter groups. In Britain, France and the Netherlands, for example, Labour parties are losing voters on the immigration issue to populist parties on the right, with those Left parties paralysed from even addressing the issue for fear of breaking age old internal taboos about race and in particular multiculturalism. The casualness with which people on the Left are willing to brand anyone who disagrees with them (including their own potential voters) as racist or sexist indicates a desire by many on the Left to conform to an ideological purity checklist over actually winning a majority of voters to their argument.
Even now, in Ireland, the hard-line Left parties are struggling to breech the margin of error in opinion polls, despite Ireland having bailed out banks with billions of euro of taxpayers money. Despite genuine anger, the public still refuse to align behind traditional left wing arguments. Why is that? One possible cause is the refusal of the hard Left to recognise that the public does not accept the argument as being for or against capitalism. The public do not hate capitalism, or wish to abolish it. Instead, they want manners put on it, normally with a big state stick. Yet this doesn’t fit in with the One More Push for Socialist Utopia pushed by the hard Left and not believed by anybody else. Capitalism, in whatever shape, is the only game being played now, and has, much to the anger of the Left, popular support.
Curiously, one has to look to South America to see left wing parties winning power, but often only when absolutely shocking disparities between the rich and everybody else are permitted to fester. The reality is that these huge gaps just don’t exist in the western world, thanks to the wealth redistribution of the welfare system.
Is it possible that they could emerge? You’d be foolish to rule it out. But does it mean that the lower half of society has to be pushed to absolute breaking point before it votes left?