Social Division & The Decline of the Centre-Left: Can Populism Be Stopped?

By Graham Davidson.

In his 1845 novel Sybil, future British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli described the rich and the poor as “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were … inhabitants of different planets”. Fast forward to Twitter in 2019, and it appears little has changed. Two sides alternately yelling ‘bigot’ and ‘snowflake’ at each other appear to show a deeply divided western society. While social media inevitably attracts the most ideologically committed, who inevitably shout the loudest and give a skewed perception of the extent of division, social division nevertheless does exist.


However, the rich vs. poor divide may be outdated. In the West, the key divide may now be between socially liberal graduates and socially conservative working class. A lack of ‘non-elite’ political representation is also a major factor in this division and may be closely linked to the decline of both social democracy and the left in the West and the rise of populism.

While the parliamentary Labour Party was traditionally comprised of former manual workers, fewer than 10% of their current crop come from such backgrounds, with an overwhelming majority being middle-class graduates. 82% of UK parliamentarians are graduates, with that number set to rise. Unsurprisingly, therefore, a ComRes poll taken earlier this month records 81% of people agreeing with the statement ‘most politicians don’t listen to ordinary people’, while 69 % believe mainstream parties don’t offer an appealing choice. This disenchantment is not confined to Britain, with six out of 10 Americans in 2016 feeling unrepresented by both major parties. More than half of the representatives in the US Congress are millionaires. Furthermore, the rise of ‘graduate class’ politicians has coincided with both a dramatic political realignment in the West and the decline of social democracy.

As recently as 20 years ago, 15 out of 17 EU states were governed by social democratic parties. The current total is a meagre five out of 28. Additionally, working-class voters are turning away from the traditional centre-left. The British Conservative Party enjoyed a record vote share from working-class voters in 2017, while France’s far-right Front National has been described by one leading commentator as ‘the party of the working class’. The era of professional politicians has coincided with non-professionals deserting left-wing parties.

Despite this trend, some liberals would argue that there is nothing to worry about. According to the ‘demography is destiny’ argument, the rise of the left will be fuelled by young left-wing voters who will eventually replace the older, right-wing electorate. Therefore, this wave of populism and right-wing governments should only be considered temporary, right? Although this prediction is comforting, this notion is becoming less and less likely to come true as evidence from Europe suggests that the young are more willing to listen to populists than their left-wing counterparts. Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party is the most popular among students, while Poland’s Law & Justice Party gained the most support in 2015 from first-time voters. In Slovakia, the extreme-right People’s Party-Our Slovakia is popular with the young, while youth unemployment has been a major rallying point for Italian populists and the Front National. Ironically in the same state where the ‘demography is destiny’ argument was first proposed in 1968, it is also where in their 2016 presidential election, the electorate chose an extremely right-wing President – Donald Trump. This further demonstrates how uncertain this prediction has become. Even in countries where the young do favour the left, this does not always translate into a majority left-wing electorate in decades to come. Relying on the passage of time for the return of social democracy is a poor strategy.

So, what can the left do about this? Firstly, it needs to grapple with some uncomfortable issues. If social democracy is to survive, it needs to represent a generally socially conservative working class who haven’t really benefitted from globalization and may have different values to their socially liberal university-educated counterparts. While university education is laudable, technical education and apprenticeships need to be offered in greater numbers. While leaving home to study and later work has become a rite of passage for middle and upper-middle class social liberals, for others, it is anathema to their values. Many people wish to stay close to family and need the opportunity to do so. Relative deprivation is a key driver of populism as is resentment of ‘elites.’ Closing the earnings gap between graduates and the non-university educated may go some way to combatting this.

Secondly, better political representation is needed. If political parties don’t find routes for those without a degree to become future parliamentarians, then political alienation may well continue. Finally – and perhaps most unpalatable of all for many on the left – identity politics will need to take a back seat. A left which stresses unity instead of difference has the best chance of electoral success. Doubling down on identity politics may only at best produce more populism. At worst, it could usher in a reactionary rise in white identity politics. This is a disastrous scenario and must surely be avoided at all costs.

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