We live in a time of great political shift: people are kicking back against the Establishment and looking for change. Which is great. It’s what the political left has wanted for a very long time. The trouble is, it isn’t the left that has brought this change about but rather, the right side of the spectrum. Specifically, the fringe-right on the edge of the Conservative party and UKIP.
Of course, this is not just a British phenomenon but a European one (including the USA which is politically European). In France, Marine Le Pen has made gains with Le Front National, Golden Dawn in Greece, Hungary’s Jobbik and of course, the populist figure of Donald Trump in the United States. The terrifying reality is the right is rising.
Trump and the reaction in Britain to his election triumph is a point of interest. Many on the left have the “Americans are all mad!” attitude, dismissing the result as little more than another example of American collective idiocy. It’s easier to do that, rather than admit that the left has failed to get anything substantive across.
This is something with parallels in Britain, chiefly with Brexit and the rise of UKIP. Much like with Brexit, the people in the USA wanted change. They wanted a shift from the status quo which has seen job losses, wage stagnation, reductions in public spending and a sense of abandonment of the working and middle classes. These fears are as real for Americans as they are for the 17.5m people who voted to leave the European Union. A country crying out for change voted for the candidate offering it and sadly, that candidate was a right-wing populist cynically exploiting legitimate fears.
We on the left must face up to our collective failure. Too long have we have engaged in moralistic “finger-wagging”. You think immigration is an issue? Racist! You think the European Union is corrupt? Xenophobe! It just alienates people and pushes them into the clutches of the right and particularly, the far-right.
We cannot and must not simply dismiss legitimate concerns as bigotry. I mean, we all know many Brexiteers hold bigoted attitudes on immigration but to say everyone with concerns on immigration is a racist or xenophobe is frankly an absurd hyperbole.
If we are really to tackle UKIP and the right of the Tory party, we must engage with voters’ concerns and persuade, rather than dismiss. The new leader of UKIP, Paul Nuttall, has talked of his plan to increase UKIP’s votes by “replacing Labour”. Let us be clear: he does not mean UKIP will replace Labour by being Labour. What he means is they plan to poach the working class vote by using the same populist rhetoric used to persuade the working class in the Brexit campaign. I’m just going to call it as it is now and say they will basically exploit working class fears and lie.
How do we (the left) overcome this? That’s the question we should all be asking, rather than engaging in this simplistic and frankly lazy mentality of labelling any and all UKIP supporters as racists. We must face the reality that the Establishment (including Labour governments) has failed working class families, leaving many seeking an alternative and that alternative (at least the one that resonates) did not come from the left, but from the right. This is not a sign of the right’s success but rather the left’s failure.
The left must get back to grassroots activism, engaging with working class communities most affected by immigration, stagnating wages and listen to them.
The route to persuasion is dialogue and being open, not grandstanding and finger-wagging at anyone we disagree with.
Whether it is Marine Le Pen, Golden Dawn, Jobbik or Trump – their success is our failure. If the right (particularly the far right) gain any real power in Europe, we will only have ourselves to blame.
If the left are ever to present a credible alternative that resonates with ordinary people, it must get its act together quick-smart.