Left-Wing Populists Not Very Good at Winning Elections

Despite a few successes, lurching to the left is still a poor strategy for social democrats.

Is there really a future for left-wing populism in the West? The Spectator‘s Fraser Nelson worries there might be. He is too worried.

Nelson, the editor of a conservative magazine, argues that Britain’s Labour Party has buried the pragmatism of 1990s “New Labour”.

In its place comes the politics of division: a Britain of tenants vs landlords, rich vs poor, even Premier League vs small football clubs.

Leader Ed Miliband’s agenda is more about what he will do to business than what he would do with government, Nelson argues.

He’ll break up banks, interfere with pay and make it easier for workers to sue their bosses. Miliband stands before us, catapult in hand, promising to slay these corporate Goliaths.

It wasn’t too long ago that such a lurch to the left would rightly have been seen as “a quixotic revival of 1970s socialism” and a form of political suicide. Now, even critics must admit “the creed is not only just populist but popular,” according to Nelson, “and winning elections elsewhere.”

Not quite.

First, even Miliband seems to recognize that an anti-business, pro-spending policy is not going to win majority support. He is aiming instead to capture just a third of the electorate which, under Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system, would be enough to win the election.

Even so, he insisted earlier this week that Labour’s plans were fiscally responsible and that, in government, the party wouldn’t enact a single policy that isn’t “paid for without a single penny of extra borrowing.”

The claim is dubious but the fact that Labour is desperate not to be seen as spendthrift belies Nelson’s argument that the party is comfortable being far to the left.

Second, it’s worth noting that almost none of the left-wing populists in other countries he mentions actually won majority support.

New York’s Democratic mayor, Bill de Blasio, did win the 2013 election with 73 percent support. But less than a quarter of the city’s electorate turned out to vote! Less than half of New Yorkers thinks he’s doing a good job.

Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, a hero of the populist left, won’t challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2016, probably because she knows she would lose.

Alexis Tsipras’ far-left Syriza party now governs in Greece but like Labour in Britain it benefited from an electoral system that gives the winning party a huge bonus in parliament. It actually only got 36 percent of the votes and fell short of a parliamentary majority, forcing it into an odd coalition with right-wing nationalists.

François Hollande did win a 51.6 percent majority in the 2012 French presidential election on a promise to raise taxes on the rich and expand public spending. But it only took the French a few years to remember why they usually vote conservative. Hollande’s Socialists Party has failed to turn the economy around and lost very election since.

Nelson is right that part of the left in Europe and North America has radicalized. The 1990s consensus, that was shaped by Ronald Reagan’s and Margaret Thatcher’s pro-market reforms in the 1980s, is no more.

Peter Beinart has argued this is a generation issue. Whereas left-wing leaders in the 1990s, like Tony Blair in Britain and Bill Clinton in the United States, had to find a “third way” between the failed socialism of the 1970s and the free-market, small-state philosophy of the right, today’s social democrats must appeal to a constituency that is more likely to blame unfettered capitalism for the recent financial crisis — as well as government for failing to regulate the banks. The voters who flock to the likes of De Blasio, Miliband and Tsipras are often too young to remember what the policies they advocate wrought four decades ago.

But most voters remember and they are not about to make the same mistake. If Britain ends up with a left-wing government after the May election, it will not be because the country has rehabilitated socialism. It will be because Scotland voted en masse for a secessionist party that happens to be left-wing and only interested in propping up a Labour government.