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Why Is The Centre-Left The Only Force Capable Of Reducing Inequality?

05/04/2017 12:32
VladMitrichev via Getty Images

So far in this blog I have focused mainly on the flaws of the far-left. The far-left often calls proponents of the centre-left "red Tories" in the UK or "DINOs" (Democrats in name only) in the US. In this piece, I will look, through the prism of Brexit, at why this charge is plainly wrong, by studying why the right will always fail to successfully address the economic concerns of the working class and reduce inequality, and how the centre-left has been, and will be, the only force capable of doing so.

One reason the right will never successfully reduce inequality is that many politicians of the right have no intention of doing so. Thomas Frank in the seminal What's the Matter with Kansas documented how the Republican party in the US first used a populist social and foreign policy agenda as "bait and switch" for an economic programme that benefits wealthy corporations and individuals. In the Brexit negotiations, the Tory threat to the EU of creating a low-tax, low-regulation economy is, for many Tories like Daniel Hannan and Ian Duncan Smith, not a fallback position but the desired outcome. For thirty years, the right has gotten most of what it wanted in terms of lower taxes, regulations, and workers rights, and this has failed to boost growth as promised. Much like Marxists who claim the Soviet Union failed because it was not communist enough, the far-right ideologues are committed to doubling down on these failed policies.

Where populism on the right is genuinely held, this simply creates inherent conflicts for the "new-right". An obvious but not widely commented upon aspect of the Brexit and Trump campaigns was the abandonment of the traditional conservative position of personal responsibility. Voters in areas of rural or industrial decline were no longer told to "get on their bikes", but that their situation was not their fault, and instead "others" (immigrants, the EU, NAFTA) were to blame, and yet simultaneously the right continue to pursue the extreme free market agenda based on aggressive individualism that led to this state of affairs. The contradictions of populism and conservatism are already causing schisms in the Republican party in the US and they will do so in the Conservative party in the UK as the hard choices of Brexit are made.

Indeed, the modern right seems to have abandoned traditional conservatism in favour of ideology and faith-based policy. The Conservative party has given up on unionism in favour of hard Brexit. Experts are derided and evidence denied. As Nick Cohen notes in The Spectator "modern Tories resemble no one so much as the right-wing parody of left wingers: utopian, contemptuous of detail and convinced the world owes them a living." Economists pointing out the inevitable fall in living standards caused by the devaluation of sterling are dubbed "Remoaners". The poster-child for fact-free wishful thinking must be the clown-like figure of Boris Johnson claiming the UK can "have its cake and eat it". Unfortunately, reality has a funny habit of catching up with you, as we are starting witness with the firm EU negotiating stance and the slow drip of financial services jobs leaving the country.

Ultimately, populism and the right fail the working classes for three main reasons. Firstly, many on the right do not genuinely believe in reducing inequality. Secondly, those that do believe the solution is to do more of what hasn't worked for the last thirty years. Lastly, populism always fails because it cannot deliver on its promises, as Donald Trump is so ably demonstrating.

The greatest successes in raising the living standards of the working classes came from centre-left policies in the decades after WWII. Even if the administrations had a centre-right label, such as the Eisenhower and Macmillan governments, they had accepted the post-war consensus of redistributive taxation, government involvement in some areas of the economy, and the welfare state. Those pushing a far-left and hard right agenda should also note that Keynes and Beveridge, two of the main architects of the post-war consensus, were centrist British Liberals trying to save capitalist democracies from their inherent flaws.

So why is the centre-left currently so unpopular in most developed countries? I believe it is because it has accepted the corporatist capitalist agenda of the right whilst focusing a lot of energy on identity politics, both of which are a turn-off with the working class. What is needed instead is a shift to stakeholder capitalism, a focus on class and economic inequality and an acknowledgement that patriotism and national identity should not be the preserve of the right. The centre-left architects of the successful post-war settlement would recognise this framework immediately.

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