The Crisis on the Western Left

Labour's Leader (Jeremy Corbyn), preferred by the membership in two successive internal elections, appears to be part of the problem when it comes to making Labour electable following a very bad result in the Copeland by-election.

But, as always, matters are a little more complicated than this. Where to start? Probably with an attempt to see what is happening to Labour in an international context. There is not a Western democracy where the Left is not in crisis. It is not the fault of a single man or woman in any particular case. It concerns a deeper crisis of confidence in reformism.

The French Socialists have rejected the centrism of the unpopular Hollande and have elected a Left Presidential candidate in Benoit Hamon. Yet he still cannot come to an electoral deal with the Hard Left outsider Jean-Luc Melenchon because of their differences over Europe. Reformist Left moderate Caresche is endorsing the centrist Macron. In Italy, the Leftist Regional President of Puglia, Michele Emiliano, has announced he will challenge the moderate Matteo Renzi for leadership of the governing Partito Democratico with news just in of an entirely separate split creating a new Left Party.

Germany may seem the exception with Martin Schulz ready to mount a serious challenge to Merkel at the head of the German Social Democrat Party but, as the WSWS (often quite reliable in analyses if you can get past the Fourth International ideology) points out, we should not take pro-Schulz media hype entirely at face value. The Left alternative Die Linke seems to be failing but not because of the SPD but because the populist right-wing AfD is taking its vote - giving us a clue as to why the Left is torn between a strategy of centrism or competing with the Right as Left-populists.

There are splits between Centrist Reformists and Hard Left in smaller European countries and it is an open secret that the US Democrat elite is working extremely hard to try and avoid a similar split between Sanders' supporters and those who share the Clintons' agenda. So, something is going on here that is mirroring the other great trans-national trend in Western democratic politics, the rise of national populism and its remarkable ability to mobilise working class votes for what amounts to a 'national capitalist' (to use the old jargon) agenda.

The British tend to be quite blinkered in their own exceptionalism but it was Brexit that helped to create the crisis, putting liberal centrism on the back foot as a system that appeared to have failed as provider of economic security for the 'left behind'. The crisis on the Left now arises because every mainstream Left Party is implicated in this perception of failure. One school of Left thought says that social liberalism must cohere to fight nationalism. The other school says the whole point of the Left is to fight for the underprivileged and that liberal failures have been failures in a duty of care.

The two sides cannot unite to face a common threat because their analyses of events are too far apart. Their moral priorities are different - liberalism on the one side and socialist redistribution, at a time when this is becoming a live issue again, on the other. In France, it is not unlikely that Leftists who believe in the latter may switch their final round votes to Le Pen rather than permit business as usual which also helps to explain why national populist rhetoric sometimes drifts into national socialist rhetoric. Corbyn is thus not the problem but merely the expression of a deeper problem.