The Last Word: Economic populism will not save the centre-left

Democratic revival against Donald Trump gives us an idea of the false choice the centre-left is being given in Britain too, writes Robert Philpot

One year after his election, Donald Trump’s approval ratings are – with good reason – the lowest for any United States president at this point in their first term.

But, despite victories in this week’s off-year elections, and polls which show them on course to win back control of Congress in next year’s mid-term elections, the Democrats continue to bicker. As the legendary American humourist Will Rogers once put it: ‘I’m not a member of an organised political party. I’m a Democrat.’

While pointless squabbling over last year’s primaries will eventually pass, a more fundamental schism over electoral strategy divides the party. Crudely, it stems from the lessons the party should draw from Hillary Clinton’s narrow loss of the three states – Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan – which tipped the presidency to Trump. Some argue that the party needs an economically populist message to recapture the votes of the kind of white working-class voters who have particular electoral muscle in the so-called ‘Rust Belt’ and abandoned the Democrats for Trump. Across the country the president won the support of 64 per cent of these voters – who make up one-third of the electorate – against only 32 per cent who backed Clinton.

Others caution that the party should be careful not to abandon the young, diverse, well-educated and metropolitan ‘coalition of the ascendant’ — an emerging Democratic majority anchored in the new economy – which twice carried Barack Obama to the White House.

In truth, this is a false choice. As a new report from the Center for American Progress argues, Democrats need to ‘go beyond the “identity politics” versus “economic populism” debate to create a genuine cross-racial, cross-class coalition’. Indeed, it’s also worth remembering that one-third of Obama’s voters were white voters without a college degree (the shorthand for working-class used by US pollsters and academics).

There is, moreover, a fundamental flaw – and one that has implications for British politics – in the notion that a greater focus on ‘bread and butter’ economic issues will win back white working-class voters. As post-election research indicates, it was cultural anxiety and fear of societal change, not being economically ‘left behind’, which played the biggest part in driving these voters to Trump. Take this one finding, for instance: people who said their finances were only in ‘fair’ or ‘poor’ shape were nearly twice as likely to vote for Clinton compared to those who felt economically more secure. And then compare it with findings such as the 68 per cent of white working-class voters who believe the US is in danger of losing its identity or the more than half who thought discrimination against whites was as significant as that against minorities.

Like so much of the US election, these trends have parallels in last year’s referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. While some similarly deemed Brexit a ‘revolt of the left behind’, the truth was much more complicated and, for the left, difficult and unsettling. As exit polling by Lord Ashcroft indicated: ‘By large majorities, voters who saw multiculturalism, feminism, the Green movement, globalisation and immigration as forces for good voted to remain in the EU; those who saw them as a force for ill voted by even larger majorities to leave.’

Similarly, research by Eric Kaufmann of Birkbeck College found that Brexit voters were ‘motivated by identity not economics’. So, for instance, among white British people, the 2015 British Election Survey found that it was support for the death penalty which most strongly correlated with an intention to vote for Brexit. This was in the context of a campaign in which the death penalty had received few – if any – mentions.

And then, of course, there were the result of this year’s general election. Labour ran a classic ‘us versus them’ economically populist campaign, with concrete pledges to back up the rhetoric. The result? The Tories’ polled best among skilled manual workers, 47 per cent of whom voted to return Theresa May to Downing Street.

The centre-left in Europe and the US has wrestled for a number of years with the dilemma of how to reconcile the ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘communitarian’ parts of its electoral coalition. A dose of economic populism is, though, not the cure its adherents advocate.

May is no Brown

Gordon Brown’s memoirs were published this week, allowing the media perhaps one last poke at the ‘Teebie-Geebies’ – the tension between Tony Blair, his chancellor and their respective camps which dominated the headlines during the Labour government.

As his detractors long suspected, Brown was in many ways ill-suited to the role of prime minister. This had prompted unflattering comparisons with Theresa May. I am not so sure about them. Look at Brown’s sure-footed navigation of the financial crisis and then consider May’s disastrous handling of Brexit. Whatever Brown’s failings, the country was lucky to have had him at the helm as it teetered on the economic precipice a decade ago.

They get on well, really

Last week, the Guardian published a fascinating account by Andy Beckett of the hard left’s years in the political wilderness. It contained this gem about the relationship between two of Jeremy Corbyn’s key lieutenants, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell: ‘He saw her as indiscreet and erratic. She saw him as scheming. At the Mile End Institute in London this March, she said of her shadow cabinet colleague: “John McDonnell has done his best to transform himself into a friendly, bank manager-type figure, which, if you know John McDonnell as well as I do, is … interesting.” She and the audience laughed knowingly.’

–––––––

Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress, and writes the weekly Last Word column. He tweets at @Robert_Philpot

Photo

Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly

, , , ,

No comments yet.

Add your response