Across Europe and much of the world, it is not the centre but the left that cannot hold. The Labour Party’s disastrous showing in last week’s British general election is but the latest example of a trend. Germany’s Social Democrats have not won a general election since 2002. Spain’s Socialist Party suffered its worst ever result in last year’s European elections. In January, Greece’s once mighty Pasok claimed a meagre 4.7 per cent of the vote and barely made it into parliament.
Even where social democratic parties are in power, they might wish they were not. His ratings have recovered after a dignified response to the Charlie Hebdo killings, but France’s socialist leader, Francois Hollande, managed the distinction of achieving the lowest ever approval ratings of a sitting French president in late 2013.
Ah, it might be said: but what about Podemos, the radical insurgents who grew out of the Indignados movement in Spain and whose rise – despite a recent hiccup – has been so spectacular that a TV station asked if they could win elections to be held later this month? After all, Podemos’s ideological comrades in arms, Syriza, managed to do just that in Greece this January.
These, however, are essentially protest movements. Their members are disparate, with a substantial proportion coming from the Communist or hard left. They are coalitions of the angry and disaffected and, once in power, cannot deliver on the radical programmes that won them votes, as Greece’s prime minister Alexis Tsipras is finding.
It is the mainstream left that has lost its way and now appears bereft not only of confidence but of any clue as to how to find its way out of the wilderness.
Already the predictable siren voices are being heard in Britain, with the New Labour trio of Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and David Miliband criticising Mr Miliband’s brother Ed for having abandoned the middle ground.
“The way to the summit lies through the centre,” Mr Blair wrote in The Guardian.
I would argue, however, the opposite. It is precisely those who pushed not only for turning to the right, but for the wholesale appropriation of right-wing policies, who have been the architects of the left’s misfortune. Bill Clinton-style “triangulation” – taking the middle road between the positions of the two major parties in a duopolistic political system – may have made some sense in America. There the label of “liberal” is considered an insult by so much of the population that to be associated with anything remotely “left-wing” is electorally catastrophic.
In Europe however, triangulation or the politics of the “third way” represented a capitulation to the right. It was a belief that the left couldn’t win by putting forward its own arguments.
While this strategy did enjoy success and almost certainly greater success than if such a shift to the centre had not taken place, it hollowed out the left, removing its sense of self and its moral clarity. Why else, for instance, has the mainstream left in Europe bowed before the orthodoxy of austerity even though, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has argued convincingly, Keynesian borrowing and spending is exactly the solution to recession at a time when interest rates are so low?
Britain’s Conservatives have claimed that their much trumpeted belt-tightening worked. In fact, they gave up on austerity after the first two years – and that was when the recovery started. They kept on using the same language though because it sounded tough and allowed them to continue to paint Labour as irresponsible on the economy. If, as Krugman wrote last week, “nobody with influence is challenging transparently false claims and bad ideas”, that was partly because the left had lost confidence in what it once believed.
And that has been the poisonous legacy of triangulation. Once you give up on your core beliefs in pursuit of votes, it becomes difficult to hold to them again should you wish to return to them. This is why social democrats have caved on immigration, not projecting the internationalism they ought to believe in. On any number of issues they’ve acted as though the right sets the agenda and have been afraid to articulate their true passions. But why should that be any surprise when the very act of triangulation is an explicit acceptance of right of centre dominance?
There has been much talk of the need for parties of the left to appeal to aspirational voters. I agree. They should appeal once again to those who aspire to a better life for everyone; to those who aspire for public service to be once again in higher esteem than the pursuit of private profit; and to those who aspire to a common morality underpinning the actions of governments and institutions.
This is not a plea for the return of old-fashioned socialists, but let me end with the words of a former prime minister who could be described as one: “The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing.” That was said by Britain’s Harold Wilson. How curious that, in the western world today, the one person who could be relied on to speak with uncompromised – and often left-leaning – clarity of purpose about the institution he leads is the Catholic Pope Francis.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia