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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Left Out: How the Far Right stole the working-class

This article of mine appears in today's First Post.

With global capitalism in crisis and Europe in the midst of its worst economic depression for 70 years, one might think that it would be the parties of the Left who would have reaped the electoral dividend in last week's European elections. But with one or two exceptions, they fared badly across the continent.

Candidates of the centre-Left who enthusiastically embraced globalisation, free markets and privatisation were annihilated - the British Labour Party polled its lowest share of the vote for a century and the German Social Democrats slumped to their worst ever showing. While parties espousing more traditional socialist policies did better, even they did not make as much progress as they ought to have done, given the severity of the economic crisis.

What went wrong?

It's clear that a large percentage of working-class protest votes across Europe have gone to populist parties of the 'far-Right', who combine traditional left-wing anti-capitalist and anti-globalist economic policies, with unequivocal opposition to mass immigration and an uncompromising stance on law and order.

In Britain, the BNP gained votes not from the Conservatives, whose share of the vote was virtually unchanged from five years ago, but from Labour. In the Labour stronghold of Barnsley, for instance, the BNP won as much as 16 per cent.

In Hungary, Jobbik 'The Movement for a Better Hungary', which is denounced as 'neo-fascist' by its opponents, became the country's third largest party. It had attacked finance-driven globalisation and the 'unpatriotic' pro-globalist elite, in a way which clearly resonated with ordinary people. In Austria, far-right parties polled an unprecedented 17.7 per cent of the vote.

If the European Left is to claw back working-class votes from the far-Right, it not only needs to oppose the neo-liberal model of globalisation, but to jettison its politically correct approach to issues like immigration and law and order and adopt policies which are popular with its core constituency - the working class.

Since the 1960s, as European Left parties have gradually become more middle class, they have gradually lost their link with their indigenous working-class voters. Just how out of touch the British middle classes are with working-class opinion can be seen by their utter bewilderment at the rise of the BNP.

For years, working-class concerns about immigration levels have been denounced as 'racist'. Working-class displays of patriotism - such as flying national flags -areregarded with deep suspicion.

"The ersatz English pride expressed by the entirely bogus St George's Day celebrations is deeply creepy. I hate it," wrote leftist commentator Martin Bright in the Spectator. "Wandering through London this week and bumping into people wrapped in red and white flags or dressed as knights has made me feel deeply embarrassed to be English." For middle-class leftists, large scale immigration means cheap Polish plumbers and some great new ethnic restaurants. How on earth, they wonder, could anyone be opposed to it, let alone vote for a party which promises an end to immigration?

The middle-class takeover of the Left has also meant a lack of focus on the basic problems which most concern ordinary people. Instead it's middle class issues and preoccupations - civil liberties, identity politics and human rights, which come to the fore.

Post-1968, the European Left, dominated by the middle-classes, has preferred to put cultural leftism before economic leftism and now it has paid a huge penalty.

This year's Euro elections make it clear that the Left will never make significant electoral headway unless it rethinks its stance on immigration and other important issues. It needs to oppose the free movement of both capital and labour - not on racist grounds, but because neither are in the interests of ordinary working people.

It has to acknowledge the innate social conservatism of most working-class voters and drop its aggressively liberal approach to social issues which anger so many. And it needs to become more openly patriotic - and not be ashamed of occasionally wrapping itself in the national flag, even if it does make smart media commentators like Martin Bright feel "deeply embarrassed".

In the last few weeks in Britain we have been bombarded with articles from the liberal elite and Church leaders lecturing the plebs on the dangers of voting for the BNP. In spite of that - or possibly partly because it - the BNP now has two seats in the European Parliament.

Patronising ordinary people is not going to stop the rise of the far Right: unashamedly populist left-wing parties, putting forward policies that the working class actually support, might.


Anonymous said...

The far-right in the UK has only stolen a small proportion of the working class, temporarily, at a protest vote before we all get too carried away! What is more depressing is that in the main political space everyone appears to have conceded that the world is not there to be made (according to our values, policies, aspirations) but is given in a globalised, market driven package and that there is in a haunting phrase no alternative (except different varieties of tinkering). No wonder people are in quiet despair...

neil craig said...

I'm not sure we have seen centre-left parties that enthusiastically embrace free markets. Certainly in Britain Labour have presided over 50% of the economy being government & 50% being destroyed by government regulations (fortunately they overlap). If the free market is limited to 25%, while being required to produce all the wealth, that is hardly supporting it.

As regards the BNP - whether they are considered "right" or "left" they are certainly far less supportive of Nazism & genocide than Labour so any movement from Labour to them should be welcomed.

louis said...

I think both Right and Left parties should stop fighting and joint to gether to fight globalisation and the free market as well as freeing are selfs from the yoke of the EU, Nato and the IMF. You dont have to like the right but stoping these things are more important at the moment.

jock mctrousers said...

Well said, Neil Clark. But " It has to acknowledge the innate social conservatism of most working-class voters... "? I hope that doesn't mean conceding ground to reactionary attitudes to gays, abortion etc. I think most working-class voters are a lot more broad-minded than the 'lefties' give them credit for. But how did we get to the position where it's taken for granted that 'left' also means feminist? Feminism is quite a different kettle of fish from 'women's issues'; it's a nebulous concept which claims a mandate to enforce conformity to shifting agendas, of doubtful provenance, which have little support amongst women, and which gives cover to a lot of reactionary and divisive behaviour in that it's claimed that being 'feminist' is in itself sufficient to merit inclusion in the 'left' - it isn't. And, of course, it's one of the main planks of 'identity politics', which is just a means of splitting the working class into petitioners competing for the bosses' favour. The BNP are the logical endgame of identity politics.

David Lindsay said...

The patriotic, morally and socially conservative, entirely non-Marxist Left now urgently needs to be organised. There used to be something like that called "the Labour Party". But it no longer exists.

So we need to get our people into Parliament, so that they can eventually coalesce. That was how all four of the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, the Labour Party and (albeit at an exaggerated pace) the SDP were created.

So, where are you standing?

Which brings us to Edmund Standing,, definitely one for the blogrolls on this.

olching said...

But the working class didn't vote for the BNP. The lower middle class did, as it has always done. It's wholly a myth that the working classes vote far right unless the left can offer them some holistic plan.

More lower middle class and middle class people voted for the NSDAP than working class people; same in France with Le Pen; same in the Netherlands with Wilders; same in Britain with the BNP.

Working class people aren't inherently more bigoted. In fact, I'd argue they are less bigoted, because in their respective environments, they are more likely to have negative experiences with immigrant groups and yet still don't vote for the far-right.

I do find it patronising to suggest that the working class is somehow more volatile that will vote far-right the moment the left fails. Historically and contemporaneously it is not the case.

The far-right, we will find, usually attracts small-minded arseholes than people who understand the concept of solidarity.

neil craig said...

Louis you accurately portray why traditional liberalism with freedom to contract is the enemy all those who think politics is about being allowed to tell other people what to do whether they call themselves "left", "right" or "ordained by God".

Jock you are right but this is only one of a number of pressure groups which have taken the label "left" without having anything in common with traditional leftism. The eco-fascists are, of course, the most prominent this decade.

Roland Hulme said...

Good post, Neil. You tackled this thorny topic with surprising honesty and clarity - something that other journalists have pussyfooted around.

DBC Reed said...

The success of the BNP may be a ststistical aberration(their total votes went down I believe) but if there is anybody to blame it is the Conservative Party.Since they stopped playing the law and order card at every opportunity the "nasty" voters could n't look to them to give foreigners, immigrants and anybody a bit different a hard time.Deprived of their traditional concealment of voting Tory ,the nasty minded have drifted rightwards towards the only party that will have them.

Gregor said...

'Instead it's middle class issues and preoccupations - civil liberties, identity politics and human rights, which come to the fore.'

Civil Liberties? According to Privacy International, Britain has the worst surveilance society in Europe:[347]=x-347-559597

You make a lot of good points, but I think you tend to take the neo-liberals professed beliefs as their achievements (and you could have put greater emphasis on how nasty the BNP is). The irony is that a small state is often an intrusive one. We may have privatised the railways, but that hasn't stopped what Peter Hitchens brilliantly terms 'the nosey parker state'.

It seems to me that the neo-liberals keep playing the Hayekian card that privatization creates freedom. The exact opposite seems to be the case.

Given that Boris Johnson created even more CCTV surveillance in London, we can really see how deep his Periclean love of freedom really is (and how much of an 'opposition' the tories are). I think civil liberties are an issue that the true left should take up.

Incidentally, I saw Nick Griffen on TV once and he complained about Britain turning into a '1984' type world. It's sad when a man who admires Hitler is the one to lecture us about freedom.

Anonymous said...

Why do you always leave out the left's opposition to the death penalty when you write about its embrace of liberalism? It will surely have support among lost voters.

Anonymous said...

Hi Neil, have you seen the economics writer Chris Dillow's blog response?
e success of the BNP has led some to suggest that the left should favour tougher limits on immigration. Neil Clark says the left needs

to jettison its politically correct approach to issues like immigration…It needs to oppose the free movement of both capital and labour.

And Paul Kingsnorth says "immigration levels need to be broadly supported by the public."
I disagree. The left shouldn’t support immigration controls, for six reasons:
1. They are economically wrong. On average, immigration doesn’t hurt the native economy, and might even help it. Granted, there’s some evidence that immigration has a small adverse effect upon low-wage workers. But the solution to this is to have a more redistributive tax system, not to limit immigration.
If the left opposes things that are a net aggregate benefit for the economy but which hurt a minority of workers, it would have to oppose a lot of technical progress - and that would be silly.
2. Limiting immigration wouldn’t necessarily help low-wage workers. Imagine foreign workers were prevented from migrating to the UK and instead worked in their home countries. This supply of labour would bid down wages there, which would reduce the cost of the country’s exports. British workers would then lose their jobs, or face wage cuts, as a result of greater foreign competition. Standard economics - factor price equalization - says foreign workers reduce wages here, whether they migrate or not.
3. It’s fiscally expensive to control immigration. The Border Agency spends £1.4bn a year failing to do so, and would require a massive rise in its budget to limit immigration effectively. But this is money which could be better spent elsewhere. £1bn, example, would finance a 10% rise in Jobseekers’ Allowance. Shouldn’t the left prefer this?
4. It’s bad electoral politics. If the left were to say - wrongly - that high immigration is a problem, it would merely find itself outflanked by the right, who’d say “They talk tough on immigration but do nothing. We offer real solutions.“
5. It serves a reactionary function. To see immigration as a problem merely divides the working class. It also deflects attention away from the real reasons - which are many - why the white working class suffers insecurity and (relative) poverty.
Let’s concede that there are some individual white workers who do suffer from competition from immigrants. What does it tell us that someone can spend 11 years in the state education system of one of the world’s richest countries, and yet lose out in the labour market to someone who can barely speak English? Shouldn’t we be addressing the causes of poor job prospects for “indigenous”workers, not the symptom?
6. Immigration controls are profoundly anti-leftist in principle. For me, being on the left means wanting to improve the lives of the worst off. And this applies globally. Worsening the freedom and job opportunities of poor workers, whatever their nationality, cannot be a Leftist aim.

neil craig said...

"To see immigration as a problem merely divides the working class"

I think that is the basic problem. The working class & indeed almost everbody else except the really rich & the political class are pretty united in seeing it as a problem.

As Kosovo proved there are non-class problems in having unlimited immigration.