Economics and Elitism: How the Left Lost Touch with Working Class Voters

The Labour party’s constitution commits the party to fighting for a country, ‘in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few’. President Barack Obama’s 2008 victory speech claimed his election was ‘built by working men and women’, who together would rebuild America the only way it had ever been rebuilt: ‘block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.’ He was the charismatic Democratic representative of the blue-collar worker, the antithesis of the lower-tax-on-capital-gains-and-corporations John McCain. In 1992, Democrat Bill Clinton was elected to the Presidency with an estimated 58 per cent of the lowest income voters, and a majority in every income group up to $50,000 a year. His opponent President George H. W. Bush was, as Mr McCain would be, the candidate of the wealthy. The question now is: what happened?

Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore © 2016, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore © 2016, some rights reserved.

2016 has been a year of ballot-box revolts by the working class against the left-wing politicians who have represented, or have claimed to represent, their interests for decades. Donald Trump’s victory against Hilary Clinton rested on strong support from lower income and less educated groups and workers in rust belt states disenfranchised by traditional politics. Those with less money were far more likely to vote for Britain’s exit from the European Union than the wealthy, and it may well be that the same groups will propel Marine Le Pen to the Presidency of France in 2017.

Of course, these political movements were unconventional – they were built on anti-establishment populism and disenfranchisement with all politics, not just those of the Left. The people of Britain rejected the arguments of David Cameron, George Osborne and Mark Carney just as much as they did any Labour politician. But the people voting for populist movements are in large part those to whom the Left used to appeal; it is the Left’s loss of these voters’ support that has fuelled anti-establishment feeling and votes against all traditional politicians. A lot of Labour voters supported Brexit; many Obama voters voted for Trump. If people traditionally represented only by Labour feel the party no longer represents them and has no answer to their problems, then they are likely to feel that no politicians represent them and will vote for outside candidates and those who offer un-traditional solutions. Moreover, these revolts are clearly against things the Left has valued: international co-operation, trade, and immigration. The Left has lost the ability to effectively convince working people of the value of what it believes in.

Why do people feel the Left no longer represents them? The answer to this is complex. Firstly, left-wing politicians have shifted emphasis away from the working classes as demographics have changed. In 1997 the Labour party had been out of power for eighteen years – it was necessary for Tony Blair, in re-branding Labour, to focus on the middle class, middle England voters who could be persuaded away from the Tories. A similar, but less obvious shift, occurred with the Democrats. Obama appealed to working class voters – he promised to make their lives better. But in the course of his term his main achievements came on social issues such as gay marriage and healthcare; these were consequently the parts of his legacy most emphasised on the campaign trail of 2016, rather than any economic benefits brought to people’s lives.

This shift matters. People sometimes talk as if political capital is infinite; in a sense it is, in that it cannot be quantified, but there is only a finite amount of time in which to deploy that capital. Time spent campaigning to the middle class or talking about gay marriage is necessarily time that cannot be spent talking about other issues. If economic times are good, working people might vote for you anyway (Tony Blair being an example). But in the aftermath of a global financial crash, a slow, asymmetrical and unequal recovery and the increasing impact of globalisation and immigration on ordinary working people, not deploying one’s time to correctly dealing with and providing solutions to the actual issues facing people can be politically fatal.

The second problem though is that the Left actually simply does not have solutions to the issues facing people. Politicians will accept that some people are unhappy with levels of immigration and how it affects their community and ability to find a good job, but find it difficult to see past the obvious (to them) economic and social benefits it brings to society as a whole. Alternatively, politicians are likely to emphasise the benefits brought by globalisation in terms of cheaper goods, not seeing that having a job in manufacturing is about more than money; indeed, it’s a way of life, a community. Immigration and globalisation have brought great benefits to many people, but it is important to recognise that not everyone has shared equally in those benefits. Workers have lost jobs; communities have changed. Complaining about this is not racist. Donald Trump used racist rhetoric about Mexicans, but his plans and his wall are actually about cutting down on illegal immigration, which is something that people are incredibly concerned about. Illegal immigration is not something the Left should support – for all their talk about how leaders do not build walls, President Obama and Hilary Clinton both voted for a border fence with Mexico. The big distinction between a wall and a fence is lost on me. Despite knowing illegal immigration is a problem, neither Clinton nor Obama were able to (or even tried to) respond to the real concerns people had. Politics is not binary: one can support immigration while working to limit its negative effects. Politicians should not ignore the problem; rather, they should engage with it.

The outlier in this argument is Jeremy Corbyn. Taking the Left at their best in the status quo, they still struggle to reach working people. Jeremy Corbyn is not the Left’s best – if he is, they have no chance. One only has to watch the video of John McDonnell celebrating the 2008 financial crash to see the myriad other problems the current leadership of British labour will face in reaching working people (a lot of people lost their jobs, John). A new Labour leader, who did more than just talk about the time he saw I, Daniel Blake, would need to respond to issues like immigration to have a chance of winning.

It’s time for another shift of emphasis. It’s true that demographics have shifted: more and more people are in the middle class; they are the ones who decide elections. But in courting their votes and ignoring everyone else, the Left has lost its base to populism, from which we all suffer. The Left should divide its time and capital more equally across society and reach out to those who are struggling. Even if they do not win, they are at least talking to those facing the most pressing issues.

Unfortunately, the final problem the Left faces is downright elitism. When Bill Clinton told Hilary’s campaign staff they needed to reach out to the working class voters who had voted for him, he was laughed at. If the Left continues to deliberately ignore a portion of voters and the real issues they face, they will continue to lose, and they will continue to deserve it.

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