The Left’s Crisis of Confidence

By Ned Hirst

At the No More War event at Parliament Square in August. A Creative Commons stock photo.

The British Labour Party is currently in the throes of anxiety about whether it can win a general election under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. If Bernie Sanders continues to poll as well as he has been, the Democrats could soon be in a similar position. However, the concern about the political consequences of jumping to the extreme of the political spectrum doesn’t seem to bother their political rivals. Did the Conservatives worry about Thatcher being too right wing? Did the Republicans worry about Reagan?

This one-sided populist anxiety has had extremely deleterious consequences for the quality of political debate across the Western liberal world. The conventional political wisdom that elections are “won at the centre” seems to imply that the political centre is static and preordained. In actuality it is being renegotiated constantly. The notion of what is considered an extreme view is always up for debate, and on many particular issues, gay marriage for example, the community consensus has become remarkably more progressive even over the last few years. The standard of the refugee debate in Australia is conversely testament to what can happen when left-wing parties capitulate. The good news is that this capitulation is reversible, and I can’t have been the only one shocked and gratified that on the question of specifically Syrian refugees the national conversation switched in a week from what we should to do refugees to what we can do for them. (Notwithstanding the cognitive dissonance inherent in simultaneously supporting air strikes in Syria and continuing to torture other, non-Syrian refugees offshore.)

There will be no reversal however until major political parties on the left are empowered to express their ideology and fight for it. For Australian Labor, the challenge is obvious. In the first opinion poll since Turnbull’s ascension to the leadership, Labor’s primary vote has slumped to 35.9%. In the UK’s first past the post voting system this would be a disastrous result but preferential voting means Labor can rely on The Greens’ 11% primary vote coming to them. However, to continue to rely on that is dangerous. The Greens already hold the federal seat of Melbourne and Labor are increasingly under pressure to hold inner city seats in Sydney and Melbourne – losing the new inner-west seat of Newtown in this year’s state election despite fielding a quality candidate in Penny Sharpe.

The fact that preferential voting has keep threats to Labor’s left at bay has left them to travel further and further right in search of the elusive election-winning centre, but it’s tactic that will only work for so long. Under Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership the Liberals will be a formidable force in the 2016 election and merely not being Abbott will not cut it for Shorten any longer. It’s time for Labor, and Labour and the Democrats to tap into a genuine grassroots movement for strong leadership on the left. If left-wing leaders only want to be slightly less nasty conservative parties then they should join conservative parties instead, thereby bettering both.