To say 2016 was a bad year for progress is an understatement. A right-wing populist surge continues to sweep the Western world, bloody conflict rages on in the Middle-East, and with it comes an outpouring of refugees in unprecedented numbers. The left and the principles of liberalism as a whole have taken a beating, and given the state of social-democratic and socialist parties across Europe, 2017 doesn’t look like it will be much better. This article will argue that whilst the Left largely deserves to be in the dire state that it is, there is hope for progressive parties in 2017 and beyond.
2016 certainly has been a bad year for people who consider themselves to be left of centre: in America Donald Trump won a shock victory, Britain voted narrowly to leave the EU, and across Europe, liberals are in rout. It’s not just a case of losing elections either, liberals are in turmoil in opposition as well: Jeremy Corbyn looks set to lead Labour into electoral oblivion, and in the US the Democrats are a minority in both houses of Congress and hold just 18 of the country’s 50 governorships.
But the Left’s wounds are largely self-inflicted.
Instead of trying to win arguments about immigration or economics the Left avoids them, instead of listening to its working class base it ignores or patronises it, instead of standing up to the far-right it tries to either appease or smear it and those sympathetic to it as racist. The Left has become smug and self-satisfied, it would rather pat itself on the back then debate with those it disagrees with. On Charlie Brooker’s excellent 2016 wipe he pointed this out on numerous occasions, at one point ironically reading a spoof magazine called ‘ECHO CHAMBER’ with the headline ‘You know you’re right’.
Most of all, though, the Left has lost its purpose. Ask yourself, what was the point of Hillary Clinton or Ed Miliband’s campaigns? Why did they want to lead their respective countries? What did they actually run on? Nothing, their pitches were as empty as their slogans, trying to win votes as the lesser of two evils. That they honestly expected this to work is staggering. If the Left is to mount a comeback, it needs to have a clear message and purpose; a quick look at history and previous successes show this. In 1945 Clement Atlee vowed to “Build a New Jerusalem”, and was rewarded with a 12.0% national swing from the Conservatives to Labour. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson promised a “Great Society” and won the largest ever percentage of the popular vote. These were bold visions, with radical policies to go with them that had appeal to the electorate. “Hardworking Britain better off” and “Stronger Together”, coupled with half-baked reforms don’t even come close.
To learn how to be successful in the 21st century the Left should look to one of the few countries it is in power: Canada. Last year Justin Trudeau converted his youth, charisma and a clear message for change into a massive victory for his Liberal Party. He won because his pitch was strong and appealing, and he wasn’t afraid to champion more controversial policies, like deficit spending and the legalisation of marijuana. Left wingers in other countries would do well to emulate Mr Trudeau and learn from his success.
There’s no doubt that 2016 has been a step backwards in the long march of progress. And while the immediate future may look bleak, history does offer some hope. It was out of the misery of the Great Depression that we got FDR and the New Deal, it was out of the horror of WW2 that we got Clement Atlee and the NHS. When Donald Trump, Theresa May and others inevitably lead us into darkness, the Left must be ready and waiting to lead us back into the light.