Telegraph : the left is losing all over Europe—and the main reason is immigration

(Note: a commenter questions Young’s thesis.)

Something of a jaw-dropping article in The Telegraph, by Toby Young, saying things that would never be said in an American newspaper.

It’s not just the Labour Party—the Left is in meltdown all over Europe

Tempting though it is to blame Ed Miliband for Labour’s poor performance in the local and regional elections, I doubt Labour would have fared much better under another leader. As David Goodhart pointed out in The Independent, Labour’s success has traditionally been dependent on an alliance between the traditional working-class and middle-class liberals and that coalition has now collapsed:

Labour has lost around 4 million working-class voters since 1997, and at the last general election, for the first time, Labour’s middle-class vote (in the ABC1 sense) was higher than its working-class (C2DE) vote. To win an election, Labour needs to win back lots of those blue-collar voters; the trouble is that Labour’s middle-class voters, especially the liberal graduates among them, have increasingly divergent values and interests.

The draining away of working-class support isn’t a problem confined to the Labour Party. Left-wing parties all over Europe are facing similar difficulties. Labour was punished by the British electorate last year, polling its lowest share of the vote since 1983, but not as severely as the Social Democrats were by the Swedes, polling their lowest share of the vote since universal suffrage was introduced in 1921. This was the first time in the Social Democrats’ history that it lost two elections in a row. Only 22 per cent of those Swedes in work voted Social Democrat in 2010, a number that fell to 13 per cent in the Stockholm region.

The same picture emerges wherever you look. In the European election in June, 2009, the Left took a hammering. In Germany, the Social Democrats polled just 20 per cent of the vote, their worst result since the Second World War. In France, the Socialist Party only mustered 16.5 per cent, its lowest share of the vote in a European election since 1994. In Italy, the Democrats polled 26.1 per cent, seven percentage points less than they received at the last Italian election. As David Miliband pointed out in a recent lecture: “Left parties are losing elections more comprehensively than ever before. They are fragmenting at just the time the Right is uniting. I don’t believe this is some kind of accident.”

So what are the causes of this meltdown? It’s particularly baffling given that the whole of Europe was adversely affected by the recent problems afflicting the international banking system. One of the reasons socialists believe history is on their side is because they think capitalism is inherently unstable, lurching from one crisis to another. Yet the financial crisis of 2007-08 has sent voters scurrying towards the Right, not the Left. What’s going on?

The obvious answer is immigration. The educated liberal elites who control most Left-wing parties are pro-immigration. Not only do they believe in its economic benefits, they believe in the virtue of diversity as an end itself. The traditional European working classes, by contrast, are suspicious of immigrants and worry about them taking their jobs or—worse—taking money out of a welfare pot they haven’t contributed to. These tensions were containable when the majority of immigrants were from the developed world, but have been brought into sharp relief with the increase in immigration from the Middle East, Africa and Latin America—asylum seekers as opposed to economic migrants. In Sweden, for instance, the proportion of immigrants from less developed countries increased from 13 per cent to 36 per cent between 1980 and 2000. Of the one million immigrants who’ve entered Sweden since 1990, three quarters of them aren’t in full-time employment. These are the welfare free-riders that the Right-wing Sweden Democrats drew attention to in their 2010 election campaign, polling 5.7 per cent of the vote.

On the face of it, mass immigration has been the undoing of leftwing political parties across Europe since it erodes the shared values that are an essential prerequisite of a well-funded welfare state. Why should indigenous, working populations support the high levels of taxation necessary to sustain generous welfare payments if the beneficiaries are people unlike themselves? If they can’t look at a benefit recipient and think, “There, but for the grace of God, go I”, why should they continue to pay such high taxes? This problem was spelt out by David Willetts a few years ago:

The basis on which you can extract large sums of money in tax and pay it out in benefits is that most people think the recipients are people like themselves, facing difficulties that they themselves could face. If values become more diverse, if lifestyles become more differentiated, then it becomes more difficult to sustain the legitimacy of a universal risk-pooling welfare state. People ask: ‘Why should I pay for them when they are doing things that I wouldn’t do?’ This is America versus Sweden. You can have a Swedish welfare state provided that you are a homogeneous society with intensely shared values. In the United States you have a very diverse, individualistic society where people feel fewer obligations to fellow citizens. Progressives want diversity, but they thereby undermine part of the moral consensus on which a large welfare state rests.

In Britain, as in other European states, traditional working class voters no longer trust the Left-wing party to put their interests above those of recent immigrants. In a recent but as yet unpublished YouGov poll, respondents were asked whether Britain now feels like a foreign country. Working-class centre-left voters agreed by 64 per cent to 26 per cent.

But this isn’t the whole of the story. After all, the Left fared equally badly in the recent Finnish elections, yet only 2.5 per cent of the population of Finland are foreign-born, most from Russia, Estonia and Sweden. Earlier this year, the True Finns—Finland’s equivalent of UKIP—polled 19 per cent of the vote, a five-fold increase since 2007. The Social Democrats, by contrast, saw their share of the vote fall from 21.44 per cent in 2007 to 19.1 per cent. The vote-winning policy for the True Finns was their opposition to the Portuguese bail-out and their success could well be a blueprint for insurgent, Right-wing parties across Europe as the crisis in the Eurozone deepens. If working class voters can no longer empathise with those in need in their own countries, as Willetts suggests, it’s likely that they won’t empathise with those in foreign countries, either.

What seems to be happening across Europe is the fracturing of both the state and the super-state as sources of tribal identity. The European Union has only ever commanded the loyalty of the liberal middle classes and as their political alliance with traditional working-class voters collapses it seems increasingly unlikely that the EU will survive the current economic crisis, at least not in its present form. More surprising has been the decline of the state as a unit capable of commanding people’s loyalty. In Scotland, the beneficiary of Labour’s desertion by working-class voters has been the Scottish Nationalist Party and that, too, seems a pattern likely to be repeated elsewhere. Ethnicity in Europe is beginning to trump more abstract sources of collective identity, as it did in the former Soviet Union after the collapse of the Communist control system in 1989. If UKIP changed its name to the England Independence Party it might see a surge in its support comparable to that of the True Finns.

It would be premature to completely write off the Left as a political force in Europe. The most obvious direction for Labour to go in if it wants to win back its traditional working class supporters is to propose tighter immigration controls than those currently being imposed by the Coalition—and my reading of why Maurice Glasman’s “Blue Labour” is gaining traction within the Party is that it would provide the ideological fig leaf to do precisely that. But working class voters might have a hard time trusting Ed Miliband if he suddenly embraces draconian immigration controls.

What the Left needs is an intellectual colossus, someone capable of articulating a vision that re-unites the liberal intelligentsia with the traditional working class and persuades them to put the interests of the collective—whether the nation state or something larger and more abstract—before those of their family and their tribe. Ultimately, the reason for the left’s political failure is the intellectual vacuum at the heart of the Left-wing project, the absence of an intellectually robust alternative to free-market capitalism. In the meantime, Right-wing and nationalist parties will keep on making gains at the Left’s expense.

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Sage McLaughlin writes:

That article by Toby Young is interesting and he marshals some important points, but I think his facts fall short of supporting his thesis that the Left in Europe is on hard times simply because of immigration. As an illustration of how incomplete the picture he paints really is, consider his somewhat lazy assertion that the electorate should have been expected to fly into the arms of the left in response to the financial crisis. His conclusion is that but for immigration, they would have, presumably because the average European is otherwise perfectly satisfied with the results of liberal governance and trusting of their ability to manage their financial affairs.

What he leaves out is that the financial crisis was coincident with a major crisis in the solvency of the Eurozone, in part due to the absurd imposition by leftist politicians of a single currency on the whole of Europe. He leaves out that the countries whose governments have been the most irresponsibly left-wing in their approach to local economic incentives have been in a state of near-default and even, in the case of Greece, widespread violence. He leaves out that in Germany, workers are being asked to devote an ungodly proportion of their time and sweat to supporting make-work public administrators in Portugal. The Spanish have veered away from the Socialist government they elected in the early-mid 2000s because they still have time to avoid the kind of fate currently being enjoyed by the Irish, whose supposedly sovereign legislators are having policy dictated to them bvy leftist bureaucrats on the Continent—a direct consequence of Ireland’s fantastic levels of debt brought on by decades of leftist misrule.

And of course, immigration does come into the picture too. His most important argument may be that the welfare state is only truly workable in reasonably small, homogenous communities of shared values and common ancestry. This seems exactly right, and it’s one reason I’ve always said I would sacrifice five loaves of economic liberalism, to which I am strongly sympathetic, for half a loaf of real social conservatism. Even Milton Friedman argued that while the free flow of people across international boundaries was a categorically good thing, it was unworkable wherever there was a generous welfare state. I’d argue it from the other direction, that the welfare state is not sustainable wherever there is mass immigration from deeply alien peoples.

Putting that to one side, though, immigration by itself is not driving electoral trends in Europe, because Europeans have not become dramatically more serious about Third World immigration per se. In the absence of serious fiscal emergencies all over the continent, the left could continue successfully to deflect all criticism of immigration as racist. The fiscal situation has simply enabled the right to argue for more immigration controls from “safer” ground.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 12, 2011 03:10 PM | Send

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