Does the left hate democracy? Such a question may seem facetious, yet recent events suggest that left-wingers have serious trouble accepting defeat. Take last year’s general election in Britain as an example, where protesters took to the streets and clashed with police following the surprising re-election of David Cameron’s Conservative government, or indeed the similar responses to this summer’s EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump as US President earlier this month. Of course everyone has a right to peaceful protest, but the truth is that many of these demonstrations have not fallen under that description. One can imagine the outrage that would be provoked by a swarm of angry and violent right-wingers taking to the streets to protest a legitimate election result, so why is it seen as acceptable when the left employ such dubious tactics?
The three cases that I have mentioned represent the three serious defeats that Western liberals have endured over the past eighteen months, and in each case the result totally contradicted the expectations of the media, the polls and the pundit class. These political upsets are not random coincidences, but instead, symbolise the power of a very real phenomenon that cannot be ignored anymore; the ‘shy’ voter. On three separate occasions, this unpredictable group has risen up to play a crucial role in defeating the liberal consensus, but for those on the left it is an entirely self-made problem.
For decades, the left has won every single cultural battle against strong opposition from the forces of social conservatism. In almost all of these cases, the left has been right and the right has been wrong, from gender equality to the fight against racism to the push for LGBT rights, and as such the contribution of activists and campaigners has led to a much-needed step away from inequality, prejudice and bigotry. Nevertheless, despite the positive nature of these changes, a climate of fear has also been allowed to develop whereby those with genuine concerns about the pace of social progress have been cast aside and told that their opinions are beyond the realms of acceptable discussion. Instead of seeking to change hearts and minds through dialogue and debate, too many who call themselves progressives have simply turned their backs on those individuals and communities that have struggled to adjust to the new climate of social liberalism.
This trend is particularly noticeable in British and American universities, where student unions dominated by such ‘regressive left’ thinking have built up a cosseted cotton-wool world of boycotts, safe spaces and no-platforming where the correct response to people with differing opinions is to refuse to engage with them. This hostile attitude is not just reserved for the usual suspects on the fringes of the far-right, but has even extended to individuals such as Peter Tatchell and Germaine Greer, former heroes of a previous generation of left-wing activists who now find themselves ostracised by today’s overly sensitive students. It’s no wonder that millennials, supposedly an enlightened generation living in the most advanced period of human history, are frequently derided as ‘snowflakes.’
Whether it is at the hands of the overtly authoritarian student left or those more subtle metropolitan liberals who dominate the media and the political establishment, the stifling of opinions and a refusal to discuss important social issues can never make those concerns disappear. Whilst voters may soon learn to keep their concerns about mass immigration or family breakdown to themselves, there is one remaining oasis of free thinking where people are still able to express themselves without the fear of being excluded or branded a bigot. In the privacy of the ballot box, people are free to vote for the nasty Mr Cameron or the even nastier Mr Farage, reject the open borders and foreign laws of a European superstate, and even choose a loudmouth reality TV star for the most powerful position in the Western world.
These shy voters are the direct result of a left-wing movement that has stopped listening to the concerns of the people, favouring the interests of international institutions, big business and financial markets over those who are struggling to make ends meet or who fear the erosion of the communities that they have lived in for their entire lives. Neoliberal capitalism and the global economy have brought huge benefits to vast swathes of the world, and it would be wrong for anyone on the left or the right to deny the fact that free market economics is the best tool we have for creating prosperity and alleviating poverty. Nevertheless, if we believe in global capitalism we should also be prepared to acknowledge that it doesn’t always benefit everybody, and in our defence of the market we should seek to help those who are adversely affected by the free movement of people and capital. Mainstream politicians on all sides have completely failed in this task, and the result has been the success of populist movements and figures such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and the even more unsavoury assortment of nationalist demagogues that are currently on the rise across Europe.
The liberal left owes it to the people it is meant to represent to offer an alternative to crude populism, but in much of the Western world it is suffering a serious identity crisis. In Britain, the Labour Party is enduring a very public conflict between moderates and left-wingers, but the truth is that neither the metropolitan liberalism of New Labour nor the hardline socialism of Jeremy Corbyn are properly equipped to bring back those working-class voters who have abandoned the party for UKIP, the SNP or even the Conservatives. Likewise, the US Democrats have been ejected from the White House as a result of their stunning arrogance and complacency in nominating Hillary Clinton without any real opposition from the mainstream of the party. The fact that Bernie Sanders, an unfashionable and curmudgeonly socialist in his mid-seventies, was able to gain so much traction during the primaries is evidence of how desperate so many Democratic voters were for an alternative to the elitist status quo that has ignored the sufferings of ‘flyover country.’
The left can no longer expect to win elections by campaigning as the ‘least worst’ option, but must instead produce a positive message that gives people a reason to vote for them beyond shallow identity politics. In doing so, centre-left politicians must reconnect with the people who have traditionally formed their base and seek to understand rather than dismiss the concerns that have driven them into the arms of the populist right. In short, the left needs to shed its moralising and judgemental tendencies and start listening once again to those who feel left behind economically, socially or culturally. Never again should a so-called progressive describe voters as bigots, racists or deplorables; doing so is not just insensitive and unkind, but it is also a surefire way to continue to fuel the rise of the shy voter phenomenon. The left may have won the cultural battles of the past fifty years, but it is now in serious danger of being locked out of power across the Western world for a generation.